The flip side of shame is pride.
April 15, 2015 7:44 AM   Subscribe

All I did was write personal essays inspired by old community cookbooks I found in secondhand stores. Strictly speaking, my food writing wasn’t technically about food. John T. said that didn’t matter. He wanted me to explore “trash food,” because, as he put it, “you write about class.”
posted by zeptoweasel (35 comments total) 76 users marked this as a favorite
The term “white trash” is an epithet of bigotry that equates human worth with garbage.

No, it's more than that. It's an epithet of bigotry against non-white people. For the bigot, all black people are niggers, all Mexican people are spicks, and "Jew" is actually so negative that it can be applied to any person of any background who's stingy; "Jew" is inherently negative. Only white people are inherently good and only "white" is an inherently positive racial quality. "White trash" are those unfortunate white people who are so poor that they might as well be niggers.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 7:52 AM on April 15, 2015 [25 favorites]

(eponysterical first commenter.)

I am not Southern, but I think everyone knows the sizing-up dance he describes when people of different race/class meet for the first time. I think this is a really good piece.

(He never wrote the article for John T., right?)
posted by wenestvedt at 8:09 AM on April 15, 2015

Wow. Just... wow.
Economic status dictates class and diet. We arrange food in a hierarchy based on who originally ate it until we reach mullet, gar, possum, and squirrel—the diet of the poor. The food is called trash, and then the people are.

When the white elite take an interest in the food poor people eat, the price goes up. The result is a cost that prohibits poor families from eating the very food they've been condemned for eating. It happened with salmon and tuna years ago. When I was a kid and money was tight, my mother mixed a can of tuna with pasta and vegetables. Our family of six ate it for two days. Gone are the days of subsisting on cheap fish patties at the end of the month. The status of the food rose but not the people. They just had less to eat.
The author clarifies and puts words to so many feelings and experiences I've had as "white trash" hailing from the north, right down to testing the waters with strangers and bridging racialized social divides with class solidarity, specifically food solidarity. His exchanges with John T. remind me that I always feel like I need to keep upper- and middle-class people at arm's length for my own emotional well-being because I am intimately, painfully aware of what most of their families really think of people like me. How many friends I lost as a kid once their parents found out how poor we were, like being uneducated, unshod, and deeply fond of "trash food" is some kind of contagion. How insecure I am about my class tells as an adult, from not knowing table manners to not knowing how to dress like a middle-class person to not knowing where to shop for anything except the secondhand store. How when it comes right down to it, I have to admit that part of the reason I went vegan all those years ago was because I wanted to hold onto the power I feel whenever I realize that I am -- however temporarily -- financially secure enough to be able to turn down entire categories of food and still find myself happy and well-nourished at the end of the day.

Very powerful stuff, and an incredibly moving essay I would never have seen without this post, so thank you very much for turning it into an FPP. I'll be thinking about it for a long while.
posted by divined by radio at 8:21 AM on April 15, 2015 [57 favorites]

(He never wrote the article for John T., right?)

I think this is the piece he wrote for John T. Edge - Here's Chris Offutt reading it at Southern Foodways Alliance's Fall 2014 symposium.
posted by zamboni at 8:41 AM on April 15, 2015 [5 favorites]

Holy cow, this is some powerful writing. I grew up low to -middle middle class (there was food on the table but my sister and I never wore brand names no matter how much we begged because we wanted to be like everyone else) and I can safely say that my dad's background was pretty much like this: North Floridian poor trash that scrimped and saved every penny they could forever it feels. Heck, my grandpa would tell me stories of the first time he had ever worn shoes because his momma couldn't afford them for all his siblings.

There is so much class and socio-economic worth tied up in food alone that it makes me sad and angry.
posted by Kitteh at 8:46 AM on April 15, 2015 [8 favorites]

Gone are the days of subsisting on cheap fish patties at the end of the month

Man, my grandmother could take canned salmon and turn it into great fish patties. I have tried to replicate it, and never quite gotten it right.
posted by dortmunder at 8:46 AM on April 15, 2015

""Jew" is inherently negative."

Not really unless I'm missing your point.
posted by I-baLL at 8:46 AM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Not really unless I'm missing your point.

In many parts of the country, it's a general-use verb for uncomplimentary (to downright shitty) behavior in a particular context, used very much the same way as "gyp."
posted by griphus at 8:54 AM on April 15, 2015 [13 favorites]

I really liked this article (because class is kind of like race only for people who are all the same color). It took me a minute to realize that this was the same guy who wrote that nice essay about his dad's pornography writing gig.

Also, wow, I know the feels regarding how others judge one's Appalachian accent. *sigh* Prescriptive grammar is out of favor in the world of academic linguistics but you'd better have a handle on it if you want to pass as anything other than white trash. On the internet, it's a lot less like work for me to appear educated -- if I'm typing, people can't hear the drawl I've never learned to hide.
posted by which_chick at 8:55 AM on April 15, 2015 [11 favorites]

"In many parts of the country, it's a general-use verb for uncomplimentary (to downright shitty) behavior in a particular context, used very much the same way as "gyp.""

Yes, but ethnomethodologist said that the word is "inherently negative" which it's not.
posted by I-baLL at 9:06 AM on April 15, 2015

Mod note: Maybe let's not have an extended sidebar argument about "Jew" in here.
posted by cortex (staff) at 9:09 AM on April 15, 2015 [5 favorites]

Prescriptive grammar is out of favor in the world of academic linguistics but you'd better have a handle on it if you want to pass as anything other than white trash. On the internet, it's a lot less like work for me to appear educated -- if I'm typing, people can't hear the drawl I've never learned to hide.

YES. Yes, yes, one hundred thousand times yes. Doesn't it feel weirdly deceptive sometimes, like you're wearing a costume but no one around you knows it's a costume? God, but it makes me so insecure and terrified, like I'm walking a tightrope and if I ever fall off, Everyone Will Know.

I owe 100% of my success in life to a) my ability to appear somewhat educated, at least when I'm writing, and b) the 'career development' classes I took in high school that discouraged and dissuaded me from talking like my people talk... although I will effortlessly lapse into a world of double negatives and "well, I never been/don't got/ain't seen" if I'm tipsy or not paying enough attention.

Being able to sound like upper- and middle-class people do, being able to converse in their (ahem) vernacular -- so they always think I'm one of them, right up until they catch me off guard by asking where I went to college and my immediate reaction is to stare at them like they're insane -- has afforded me opportunity and privilege beyond price. The ability to communicate like this is the most valuable thing I have ever owned.
posted by divined by radio at 9:09 AM on April 15, 2015 [27 favorites]

If I read his post correctly, he said it was inherently negative "for a bigot", not to your random decent human being on the street.
posted by Stacey at 9:09 AM on April 15, 2015 [11 favorites]

(Sorry, Cortex, your note came in while I was posting.)

Anyway, I really appreciated this article. Thank you for posting it.
posted by Stacey at 9:10 AM on April 15, 2015

divined by radio: I spent the first six months of college cleaning out the worst of the linguistic markers and learning to sound "educated" so that people would listen when I opened my mouth in class. Like, this was an actual thing that I worked on, consciously and with purpose. Sometimes they did listen, before I got the register switching leveled up, but that was worse because I could see their confusion when I turned out to be not-stupid and yet still sounded like that.

Changing one's speech is a right royal pain in the ass and requires constant vigilance, but fortunately shame is an extremely effective motivator. (I am being a little sarcastic, but only a little. If having an unruly wild vernacular had been less shameful, I might not have pruned it to a more acceptable topiary.)
posted by which_chick at 9:32 AM on April 15, 2015 [6 favorites]

I have noticed that a lot of the things we accuse despised minorities of are acts of pure projection. We live in one of the greediest cultures in the world, and yet Jews are still despised for their supposed greed. We live in a culture increasingly defines by activist, hateful fundamentalism, and yet we discuss the supposed problems of Muslim "Sharia law." Americans are binge drinkers, and yet love to joke about how drunken the Irish are. We live in a culture supersaturated with images of heroic white lawless killers, and yet black people have an issue with "thug culture."

America produces massive, indefensible amounts of garbage, and mass produces some really grotesque food for middlebrow consumption. And yet poor white people are trash because they eat possum. I'd rather eat possum than The Cheesecake Factory's insane, 2400 calorie Farfalle With Chicken and Roasted Garlic.

I live in a lower-middle class neighborhood in an increasingly tony section of Omaha. It's covered with trash. A lot of Omahans are still litterers, and so there are soda bottles and empty beer cans everywhere. The trees fill up with plastic bags that are caught in updrafts and then get snagged on the branches. There's a tendency in Omaha to buy a house that's just a little too expensive for you, and so many of these houses show clear signs of disrepair. And yet we call rural southerners trash.

There's trash everywhere. We bury ourselves in garbage. New York has so much garbage they must export it.

It's not that rural southerners are trash. It's that we attribute to them the thing we are most ashamed of in ourselves. It's a Jungian shadow puppet show, but, unfortunately, the puppet show is punch and Judy, and we always get to be Punch.
posted by maxsparber at 9:40 AM on April 15, 2015 [23 favorites]

My parents are from the Northern Mid-Atlantic states but don't have strong accents from there, probably because their parents were so close to the immigrant root, my dad spent his youth in the military, and they moved around in the region where the General American accent is said to have developed.

I grew up in the South. I was from a lower class than most of the people where I lived.
I didn't have a Southern accent.

My experience is one you do not hear often. I had to affect even a slight Southern drawl to fit in better and to not be teased and bullied as much. Later in life, when visiting my family in NYC, I got mocked (playfully) for talking with a drawl. (It probably didn't help that I was wearing a camo cap and a corduroy jacket, yeah, fashion plate material here) I thought I had dropped all the Southern elements of my speech. I still catch shit down here for being a Yankee. Nope. Now I just catch shit wherever I am! Yay!

(Well, I say that, but I really only catch shit from the segment of society that cares about such things, which, in the circles I frequent, is an ever smaller segment of society. People move. Their accents move with them. People get used to it.)
posted by Seamus at 9:48 AM on April 15, 2015 [4 favorites]

I'm an ethnic kid from NYC. I normally have a public television newscaster's bland and unplaceable accent, but I have to be careful who I drink around, because Brooklyn comes out in my speech when I've had a few. Not to mention the occasional dropped article that gives away my Eastern European background. I still don't know polite manners as well as I am "supposed" to based on my education and profession. And the infuriating thing is that I can't help but try to emulate the culture of those who held the whip. Even in rebelling against them I'm still stuck in the play that they wrote.

I envy my mom this one. She's from the Old Country, and she never give a shit about emulating her class enemies because, as the oppressed class, she knows she's better than they are.
posted by 1adam12 at 10:03 AM on April 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

As a young man, I used to laugh awkwardly at remarks about sex with my sister ...

Seems like he's close enough to his sister to joke about that sort of thing. Good for him.
posted by Renoroc at 10:17 AM on April 15, 2015

The story about the clerk at the plumbing store reminds me of my grandfather, the descendent of Caucasian Pennsylvania hill folk. He served in the U.S. Army when it was still racially segregated (a fact that still blows my mind when I remember it). One time, he was sick when his unit moved, and he was left behind with a "Colored" unit. He said it was the happiest time he had in the Army - partly because their cooks made the kind of food he'd grown up on (including possum!) and partly because he didn't feel the class consciousness he felt in his own unit. (To be fair, it's entirely possible they resented his presence, but knew they could get in trouble for being less than welcoming to a White soldier.)
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:19 AM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

There's trash everywhere. We bury ourselves in garbage. New York has so much garbage they must export it.

So where's the home run ball from the Shot Heard 'Round The World, huh?
posted by asterix at 10:20 AM on April 15, 2015

When I was a kid, I spent a year speaking with the fakest British accent imaginable. I'd moved, and my native accent was painfully lower class to my new schoolmates, who made no bones about how hilarious and trashy they found it. I figured it was better to be fake than to be poor. I pretty much managed to lose the native accent entirely, and I now have a suitably bland accent that's relatively "class neutral", in as much as something adopted explicitly to be not poor can be, but is also never quite right, and suspiciously mutable, depending on who I've spoken to that day.

Food is a harder thing to excise than accent, though. When I was a kid, there was a McDonald's down the street, and for a couple years, every Wednesday you could buy burgers for a dime. My parents would go and buy a whole sack of them--I think there was a $3 or $5 limit--and we'd bring them home and eat them for supper, and then freeze the rest, and my dad would take them to work every day for lunch, straight from the freezer. Two things I learnt from this: one is that reheated McDonald's burgers are vile. Two is that their french fries, hot and salty and crispy and only occasionally purchased, always as a treat, in my childhood, will forever make me feel like the world's a good, safe place.

This was a great article, and it kinda messed me up a little. I might get McDonald's for supper and see if that helps--and I'll give a dollar to anyone who'll mail me a moon pie.
posted by MeghanC at 10:46 AM on April 15, 2015 [9 favorites]

I still remember my mother telling me over and over again to enunciate, Sciatrix, enunciate as a kid and how angry she got the few times I said "ain't" as a small child. Which is not to say that I ever had any experiences quite like this growing up, only that reading about the experiences you get from things like this helped me understand, as an adult, why she was so insistent about the pronuncation of words and the accent I developed as a child. That, and noting my much-more-Southern friends with strong lower-class marked accents get ridiculous shit for the way they sounded during college--in a goddamned state college in Georgia, no less.

The thing about Southern accents is that they have specific class markers associated with them, and not all Southern accents are marked "lower-class" per se. Tidewater southerner, for example, not so much. So you wind up with this weird double bind where people absolutely attach class markers to particular accents but don't distinguish between them in speech, so that they'll go from fetishizing a "Southern drawl" to making fun of "redneck talk" in the blink of an eye. And transplanted people will absolutely take bits and bobs of southern accents and deliberately show off oooh, look how assimilated to Georgia I am! among their upper/middle class compatriots in exactly the same way that the author describes with the "trash food" parties.
posted by sciatrix at 10:56 AM on April 15, 2015 [10 favorites]

They have their own website.
posted by brujita at 10:57 AM on April 15, 2015

Facing John T., I found myself in a professional and social pickle, not unusual for a country boy who’s clawed his way out of the hills of eastern Kentucky, one of the steepest social climbs in America. I’ve never mastered the high-born art of concealing my emotions. My feelings are always readily apparent.

Oh my lord this. Just posted about class and its relationship to xenophobia in an Ask. TL;DR I come from a working-class & farming background, grew up in Oregon boondocks, and the hardest thing to encounter in my bootstrapped life in France is the assumption that I must be upper-class. Because I know how dangerous it is to be outed as a hippy hick by people, if their assumption isn't immediately corrected. Otherwise they will, in actual matter of fact, take revenge on you for trying to "pass" as one of them. Even if it was all in their own assumptions. It can go very far. Like the author, I've been refused dates too, but worse than that, people even refused to introduce me to anyone single they knew. "You don't have a family" (this is code for low-class) "and you're a foreigner. And have you SEEN how you EAT?!" Yes, when not dining on filet de canette dans son jus au miel agrémenté d'épices, I also like fries with ketchup. Often. So sue me.

The readily-apparent emotions, omigod. In France it's not just the high-born who do it, it's an essential skill for getting by. I can't even begin to describe how much I've paid for being expressive. Enough that I've ended up learning how to wear a mask nowadays, and only show emotions with other people who "get" it. They're rare, though. One thing I refuse to sacrifice is my laughter. "Women don't laugh like THAT," I get told. "Women are just supposed to nod and 'hee-hee'," I'm told. Well. I laugh. Heartily.

I also do a really good imitation of high-class Parisian accent (in French) and mannerisms that makes otherwise reserved Frenchpeople roll in laughter, which is a sweet sort of getting back at this sort of class nonsense.

Here is a 1927 photo of my great-great-grandmother and two of my great-uncles (the baby, and the kid front right). Laughing. Heartily.
posted by fraula at 11:02 AM on April 15, 2015 [15 favorites]

I'll preface this by saying I grew up in the Delta, on a chicken farm, and very much loved my upbringing (even as a gay kid in rural Arkansas). Though I don't live there anymore (because of the gay thing, mostly), I love my home.

That said, I'm surprised by the interpretation of "trash food" meaning "food for human trash / white trash / etc." as opposed to "industrial food that is literally garbage." I grew up on processed dross, too, but I attributed that more to the prevailing sentiments of the time (real food is icky and spotty but industrial food is SHINY and SYMMETRICAL and IMPROVED BY MANKIND!) than to any socioeconomic bias. I mean, even the rich families in my life prided themselves on the big tubs of cheese puffs and massive boxes of generic popsicles and Hostess cakes from Sam's. Grapette and Dr. Pepper were treasured by everyone in the summer, not just the poor folks. If you were born between WWII and, what, 1995, you probably had the same experience in most parts of the south at least: you grew up on or near farms but still preferred eating shit in a cellophane-wrapped box from a retailer to collecting bushels of beans from just down the road where it grew and then spending a few days washing, trimming, canning and freezing the bulk of it for later. It was a sensation of modernity opposed to tradition, and the former seemed so very attractive.

Granted, I'm in public health now (and have become that person with a tiny urban garden who buys into a CSA and will not allow a pop-tart in my house under any circumstances) so that certainly shades my perspective, but... huh. Frames of reference have changed under my feet!
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 11:03 AM on April 15, 2015 [8 favorites]

I love this article. Thank you.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:31 AM on April 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

I was humbled by reading this. I'm used to conversations about intersectionality and yet it's remarkably rare for me to be so directly confronted, in "conversation" with white folk from the developed world, by my own privilege. This isn't about me, so I'll leave it at that. Thank you so much for posting this.
posted by bardophile at 11:35 AM on April 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

I do not think I expected quite this degree of grief, reading the essay, reading the responses.

Like some of you, I've found myself entirely uncoupled from my childhood foods. I'm vegetarian, I'm health-conscious, I have Opinions About Food. I draw this line and say none shall pass. And everything on that bad side of the line is a connection to growing up, not trash--lord no, don't say that word to my mama, she will sermonize for an hour on the difference between poor and trash, with illustrative examples drawn from the neighborhoods of my youth, now those people were trash, nothing's ever going to become of them--but shameful, embarrassing, painful. One generation removed from the advent of indoor plumbing, and for some reason that's funny, we can all laugh about my dad and the Sears catalog and the outhouse, but that's because there's all that distance involved, it's like watching a black and white movie, it happened to other people.

It's weird, you can hide from your roots and hope nobody sees, but eventually they show. I've noticed this so much more around my kids. Can't even manage a proper "y'all" without it slurring into "yaw." But food, food I can control. We're at the grocery store, look kids, pickled pig's feet. Ew! Did y'all know Grampa used to eat those? Look kids, a can of brains! Did y'all know.... All down the pig anatomy, if it could be canned, fried, stored in brine. Did y'all know? Bags of pork skins on the rack, are they objectively worse for me than these organic chia-accented corn chips? I don't know, I don't dare get close enough to the bag to read the label. Somebody can touch that bag but it can't be me.

The essay mentions the day-old bread store, and I loved the day-old bread store. No shame in that store. My mama explained that the bread was just as good, so it's okay, see? And every once in a while, when there was money for it, I could also get a pecan twirl or a honey bun. Not every time. But just enough to make me wish I could have lived in that store forever.

The black and white grocery store, that was where I started to know what we were, where we were, when it came to food. It didn't last long. Cheaper than Piggly-Wiggly. Generic items with black and white labels, something out of a science fiction story. Bring your own bags. These days I bring my own bags because I'm the savior of an entire ecosystem. Back then, even the store was too poor for bags. Still one step ahead, still not trash. You could see dogs running underneath the floorboards of my grandfather's house, but not my dad's house. No sir.

Man, there has never been a thread that has made me this sad. My dad (here on the internet he is my dad, but I never got the hang of pronouncing that 'a' and an 'i' would've been too much work so he was always 'deddy') died last year, day before Thanksgiving, and you know that day is all bound up with food. The year before, he came for Thanksgiving but wouldn't sit at the table, he sat at a chair six feet away from the table, wouldn't approach all this food he didn't understand. Extruded glutens and soy protein isolates, and I call my food more natural than his. He wouldn't even sit at the table. Sucked on his oxygen and asked why wa'n't there a ham in the oven, we gonna have some tufo?

I draw this line and say none shall pass, but it's a line made out of shame. I just can't quite make out which side of the line I'm more ashamed of. And shit just keeps passing through.
posted by mittens at 11:47 AM on April 15, 2015 [40 favorites]

Two nights ago I had dinner with a client who half-jokingly, half-angrily mocked the Rainbow Acres/Whole Foods crowd for driving up the price of what they called "collards" so they could pretend that they weren't eating plain ol' collard greens. Of course, we were both eating "purée de pommes de terre" "family style" at a price that could feed my wife and I for two days.

So I love this essay even though it might keep me up nights.
posted by infinitewindow at 12:52 PM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

The essay mentions the day-old bread store, and I loved the day-old bread store. No shame in that store. My mama explained that the bread was just as good, so it's okay, see? And every once in a while, when there was money for it, I could also get a pecan twirl or a honey bun. Not every time. But just enough to make me wish I could have lived in that store forever.

Until I read this just now, I totally forgot about shopping there as a kid. And that leads me to wonder whether anyone else grew up drinking reconstituted powdered milk? Was that just my parents or a common thing? I think it was cheaper than the fresh, liquid kind, but even grandma didn't drink powdered milk.
posted by Area Man at 1:35 PM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Just jumping in to say how I appreciate people's comments here. Stuff I've read on MetaFilter has been key in helping me recognize (and start to dislodge) some class- and regional-based prejudices I've been carrying around.
posted by benito.strauss at 1:36 PM on April 15, 2015 [7 favorites]

If I had a nickel for every time I told someone where I am from and then heard "But you don't have an accent!" or "But you're so articulate" then I could absolutely close that socioeconomic gap. Oh, is that what I'm already doing?

All in all though this was a phenomenal essay.
posted by 27kjmm at 2:32 PM on April 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

"white trash" and "white slavery" both elevate whiteness in the process of describing a particularly unfortunate white person. My mom joked about selling me into white slavery when I was around 10 and I remember being confused about the "white" prefix.

My parents were low middle class and considered themselves poor while putting themselves through college. Everything was from scratch and often home grown until they started making more money out of college. And yeah they did use powdered milk for a ton of stuff but were kind enough not to foist it on the kids.

I also know what rabbit screams sound like and where to hit them with rebar for a humane death before bloodletting. Shudder
posted by aydeejones at 4:18 PM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Similar to losing the food, we are all losing our accents.
I was really hoping to hear Kentucky in Chris Offutt's voice in the link that zamboni posted, but even though Chris recognizes that the cover up of the lower class roots is due to shame, I'm sure his childhood twang is lost forever.

I sometimes get a pang of regret that I abandoned my small town accent and I know that specific accent will likely die in 50 or so years because it's partially born of European immigrants learning English and passing along that accent. But the standardization of the American accent will kill it soon. I can't save the accent by bringing it back, I'd be laughed at all day where I live now in the city, just 50 miles from where my accent was born.
posted by littlewater at 8:47 PM on April 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

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