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Essay: Immigrants and Food

U.S. Department of Agriculture

If you've been paying attention to current events, it's pretty hard not to notice all the conversations surrounding immigrants and what it means to be an American. In a country founded by immigrants and outsiders, differing opinions on immigration have become a dividing force in an increasingly divided nation. Lake Effect contributor Kyle Cherek has also found himself thinking about immigrants – especially when it comes to food production.

If there is dignity in all work, why is there not dignity for all workers?
That message, artfully arranged on a poster from my childhood, has been a leitmotif for me over the past week, as the republican candidate for the US presidency revisited his bipolar relationship with Mexicans.

I don’t know where the poster was hung. It may have been in the pressroom of the Waukesha Freeman, the newspaper for which I delivered papers from ages 10-15. (A newspaper proudly founded by abolitionists in 1844.) I had a route that began with the address next door to where the paper was written and printed. I would cut through the press room for the fun of it, and the pressmen--jocular, ribald and sweat-stained, with the hard grit and ink dust on their hands and faces -- instilled in me a sense of dignified work.

It might have hung in the office of the priest of my parish and grade school, St. Joseph's. It was an office I visited rarely, but, amidst its cluttered papers and second-hand furniture, it instilled in me a deep sense of service for those in need. My most memorable visit there was for a church-sponsored clothing drive. The parish was providing for and welcoming the burgeoning Mexican immigrant community that had sprung up in the neighborhood around the church. The church where my mother married my father, just ten years after coming to America as an immigrant herself. That same building now welcomed a new sort of American to its fold.

I may have seen the poster in the office of one of my middle or high school teachers. Having switched to a public school in the early 80s, I encountered a sort of educator I would now call reasonably idealistic. Many were children of the 60s, and through that esprit believed fervently in having a solid public education. They took to their work of teaching as a life choice, often eschewing better paying routes. Their expectation of us was the daily work of well rounded and participatory citizenry. “What else,” one of my favorite teachers asked, “was an education for?”

There are times in which I feel I let all these people and their lessons down. In my current role as food historian and storyteller, I tend to see most things from a food-based perspective. Before you dismiss this perspective, consider this: food is the way we bond, celebrate, signify, nourish. Name one significant life event, joyful or despairing, that isn’t observed in some way by food or drink...

And we are dining out more than ever. For the first time in recorded history, Americans spent more in 2015 on dining out ($54.9 billion) than they did on groceries ($52.5 billion). Getting food to us--growing it, preparing it-- is incredibly hard and, when done consciously, is deeply worthwhile work. And much of it, the unspoken, glamorless, often ignored labor, is done by immigrants. Many of whom Donald Trump labeled at the beginning of the summer as “murderers and rapists.”

I know trump spoke in bellicose, fear-inducing platitudes. I know many celebrity chefs called him out publicly or pulled their restaurants from the properties with his name on them. But why was there not a chorus of dissenting voices, as well, from the food industry folks at the corner café, white tablecloth restaurant, and local farm field?

Here’s why there should have been...

Let’s take fresh lettuces, greens and every other fruit and vegetable grown. Get real. Who, as majority, do you think picks them?

Every clean plate in every restaurant you have eaten in, in the last twenty years? Washed, again, by the very same majority.

California wine? Were legal and illegal Mexicans and Central Americans not picking the grapes, there would be none. N-o-n-e. The New York Times did a story some years back in which a hearty young man from the Midwest went out to join the immigrant sharecroppers to see how difficult vinework was. He lasted one day. One.

The rich, terroir-laden milk you pour unthinkingly into your coffee each morning? Of 39.6 million calves born to the dairy industry last year, the majority are brought into this world under the care of a Mexican or Central American immigrant.

And Christmas trees, piled high and cheaply at Home Depots, Walmarts and Supercenters across America on the day after Thanksgiving? You know what I am about to say, but they are not edible, so I digress.

When Trump vilified Mexicans, in his now infamous statement back in June, where were the voices of so many of my fellow foodies, chefs, farmers, restaurateurs? Where was mine? To be candid, I let it slide, hoping it would fade into the political background. But it didn’t. He didn’t. At their meeting before the press last week, Mexico’s president Enrique Peña Nieto told Donald Trump that “Mexicans deserve everybody's respect, wherever they are.” It's a statement with which I whole heartily agree.

So if food nourishes us and is even glamorized at times to the point of high art, then why is there not dignity for every individual cog in the wheel that brings it forth to our plates? Is the sharecropper’s work less dignified than the winemaker? Is the dishwasher less precious to one’s dining experience than the chef? Skills and pay scales aside, should these crucial tasks stop, the whole system grinds to halt. So my question this election season, as seen through the lens of food, is this: if there is dignity in all work, why is there not dignity for all workers?

Kyle Johnson Cherek is a culinary historian and food essayist. He was the former host of Wisconsin Foodie on PBS, and for over a decade he has chronicled regional food stories, exploring where our food comes from, and how it shapes who we are. His signature wit and keen observations have made him a sought-after keynote speaker, media contributor, and culinary storyteller. Kyle has been awarded the Wisconsin Broadcast Association Award twice for his compelling essays on food culture.