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The 2019 food writing jealousy list

Words I wish I had written in the past year

Food is an inextricable part of our lives, so it’s no surprise that what we eat is often intertwined with other parts of our society. From where we eat it and how it is produced, to who produces it, who really benefits from it and how all of that is perceived by other people – food is a political and socioeconomic bell weather that can not and should not be ignored. This political dimension to food and restaurants has always been a part of these end-of-year food writing retrospectives, but it has been unexpectedly dominant in this year’s selection of enviable articles. Some will take umbrage with this, indignant at what they perceive as a foreign intrusion into a supposedly apolitical sphere. Ignorance isn’t bliss though; it’s also plain wrong.

‘A Vital London Food Hub Is on Borrowed Time’ by Jonathan Nunn, Eater UK

Eater’s Jonathan Nunn has received plaudits for his extensive survey of the capital’s best value restaurants. Although an admirable body of work, it has arguably overshadowed the far more human piece that he has written this year. The Latin American communities in Elephant and Castle are struggling to save their commercial and community spaces, including restaurants, against property developers that are far wealthier and thus more powerful than they are. Nunn doesn’t just provide a guide to this unique and previously overlooked collection of restaurants, one that arguably has few other comparable peers in the capital. He also looks into what they mean to the people that run and use them, as well as the developers who want them gone and what little they’re offering in return.

Much has rightly and understandably been written about the middle classes struggling to find somewhere affordable to live in the capital. The struggle of so many working class and ethnic minority communities against de facto social cleansing is the underreported other side to the story of how London’s property market is changing the very fabric of the city. It deserves just as much attention.

a battleground for one of the most important modern struggles between old and new London; between those with money and power and those without

‘Cash-Strapped Councils and Gentrification: The Problem with POP Brixton’ by Ruby Lott-Lavigna, Vice UK

Change in London’s buildings and infrastructure – its physical material being – is unavoidable and inevitable. But it’s up to us how we manage that change – and the examples to date have not been encouraging. The emergence of Pop Brixton, where a series of shipping containers are used to host street food traders and restaurants, was initially meant to be an asset for the community already living in that part of south London. Instead, it has become an attraction to itinerant breathless restaurant botherers such as myself.

Vice’s investigation into Pop Brixton’s origins appears to lay the blame on a mix of backstabbing by commercial partners and municipal incompetence/dithering. Such a toxic mix doesn’t augur well for future community market developments in London, of which there are bound to be many. It’s worth reading Architectural Review’s article on many of the same issues alongside Vice’s, even though its writing is on the flabbier side.

There’s a really fine line between regeneration and gentrification. And I guess [the council] wanted someone else to straddle it for them.

‘California’s Lost (and Found) Punjabi-Mexican Cuisine’ by Sonia Chopa, Eater US

Bigots, and other somewhat less odious curtain twitchers, tend to think of migration as a recent phenomenon. It has not only existed since the dawn of human evolution itself, it has led to many unexpected hybrid communities over the years – and I don’t just mean the epoch-making boffing between our Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal forebears. The Punjabi-Mexican community of early/mid 20th century California led to a flowering of restaurants serving both South Asian and Mexican dishes. Although this didn’t lead to as many eclectic fusion dishes as you might have hoped, the existence of such a community, as documented by Eater US, is nonetheless fascinating.

the roti quesadilla was more than just something new and different — it represented the organic community of Punjabis and Mexicans

‘Not the Michelin guide: Hong Kong restaurants branded ‘yellow’ if they support protests, ‘blue’ if they don’t’ by Fiona Sun, South China Morning Post

The Hong Kong protests began as an outcry against a proposed extradition law, but have since evolved into a popular revolt opposed to how the city is ruled. The protests have had a startling effect on the city’s acclaimed restaurant scene. Restaurateurs have to decide what hospitality means in a heavily polarised society, with some customers choosing restaurants based on which side they support. Some even have to decide between making a living and their desire for political expression. The hoary old adage that food brings people together has never been less true as the South China Morning Post reveals.

“If you say something, you just don’t know who will be offended and when you will be attacked.”

‘Indigenous Maize: Who Owns the Rights to Mexico’s ‘Wonder’ Plant?’ by Martha Pskowski, Yale Environment 360

A species of corn that can grow in nutrient-poor soil without fertiliser, by extracting nitrogen from the air, sounds like a godsend for farmers – especially in parts of the world caught in a vicious cycle of climate change and ever more degraded soils. A subsidiary of Mars is attempting to extract the genetic trait that makes this miraculous feat possible from an indigenous variety of corn in Mexico’s Oaxaca state. It’s difficult to tell whether Mars will be able to do so and then commercialise its potential. Whether the indigenous Mixe people, who have farmed the maize and been custodians of it for countless generations, will get their fair share in return – as well as the continued ability to sow and reap their crops unhindered – is almost as difficult to ascertain. Commercial exploitation of indigenous agricultural knowledge has concerned diplomats and academics for years. It’s now an issue that could play a vital role in determining how we grow our food and whether it’ll be to everyone’s benefit, rather than just the suits in agribusiness.

Should Totontepec’s maize turn out to be a miracle, self-fertilizing crop whose genetic traits can be replicated worldwide, will the community’s Mixe people receive a significant long-term share of profits, which could potentially number in the millions of dollars?

‘ ‘Hialeah’s best-kept secret’: How a local KFC has secretly sold flan for 45 years’ by Carlos Frías, Miami Herald

The eponymous chook at Kentucky Fried Chicken is one of the vilest things I’ve ever put in my mouth, but I’d tolerate such manky poultry if it meant I’d get to try the legendary flan available only at the branch of KFC in Hialeah, Florida. This Cuban/Mexican-style dessert isn’t just a relic from an era when franchised fast food restaurants tolerated more experimentation; it’s also a living, breathing reflection of the franchise holders and the community which they serve. Plus, any dessert which packs 650 calories into a single slice (according to the Miami Herald) has to be worth trying at least once.

This KFC makes about 45 flans a week, many more during the holidays, when diners pre-order their desserts and bring in their own containers to take them home whole.

– TPG

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