Gastronomic Bigotry

Do you think an ethnic restaurant caused your food poisoning? You might be a little bit racist.

food poisoning.
The last meal you ate is often not the one that has sickened you.

Photo by Todd Warnock/Thinkstock

Not long ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that New York City health officials had used Yelp to identify restaurants that were spreading food-borne illnesses from their kitchens. Three dishes—a house salad, a shrimp and lobster cannelloni, and “macaroni and cheese spring rolls”—had contained pathogens that made more than 16 people sick in each case. In order to find these nefarious meals, “city researchers combed through 294,000 Yelp reviews for restaurants in the city over a period of nine months in 2012 and 2013, searching for words like ‘sick,’ ‘vomit’ and ‘diarrhea,’ ” according to the New York Times.

It’s probably a good thing that the health officials let a computer do their dirty work for them. After all, Yelpers like blaming restaurants for food poisoning about as much as they like rhapsodizing about how much they hate onions, which is to say a lot. But their software apparently didn’t pick up on a pattern that has bothered me for some time: When Yelpers puke, they tend to blame restaurants that serve “ethnic food”—that is, preparations particular to culinary traditions originating outside of Europe.

I decided to test this observation, albeit in a less scientifically objective way than New York City officials did. I searched for “poisoning” within Los Angeles, my current city of residence, and tallied the first 100 instances in which a poster explicitly accused a specific restaurant of causing a bout of illness. Forty-four of the accused restaurants were Asian. Twenty-two were Mexican, Salvadorian, or Peruvian (accounting for everything in the Western Hemisphere south of Texas). Two served African or Middle Eastern food. Eleven were fast food restaurants or chains. The remaining 21 accusations were leveled at any and every other kind of restaurant: gastropubs, expensive contemporary American spots, delis, hipster food trucks, steakhouses, retro diners, trattorias, venerable bistros, and so on. That sampling of data, however unexacting, suggests that Yelpers accuse a disproportionate number of Asian and Latino restaurants. More broadly, based on my informal study, around 68 percent of the time, they’re pointing their fingers at restaurants serving ethnic food.

I doubt that all of these Yelpers are accusing the right perpetrator. Doctors can’t pinpoint the source of a victim’s puking and diarrhea through a battery of tests. Many vengeful Yelpers probably just blame the last meals they ate out on the town. But the truth is that the last meal you ate is often not the one that has sickened you. Campylobacter, salmonella’s sneaky cousin, attacks two to five days after a half-cooked turkey burger goes down the hatch. Salmonella’s equally distressing symptoms often arrive a full day after you pick at a contaminated spinach salad. E. coli hangs out in your gut for up to eight days before stirring things up.

Looking up inspection grades to verify that the “B” restaurant you visited caused your agonizing internal effervescence is pointless. According to North Carolina State University assistant professor and food safety expert Ben Chapman, there is “little correlation” between inspection scores and food poisoning outbreaks. Restaurant inspections vary from state to state, but a 2004 Emerging Infectious Diseases study found that restaurants with verified food poisoning outbreaks didn’t have lower inspection scores than those without, and a 2001 American Journal of Public Health study revealed that inspection scores didn’t help predict future outbreaks. This may be because there are all kinds of inspection violations that have nothing to do with the improper storage or handling of food: A “B” restaurant might be visibly grungier than an “A” (or at least less aligned with health inspectors’ rigid standards), but it’s not necessarily more likely to cause illness. And health inspections may be unfairly biased against non-Western restaurants, docking points for traditional cooking and presentation practices that experts say are safe (like the roast ducks hanging in windows in Chinese restaurants). Inspectors don’t always know enough to make an accurate assessment, and language barriers and mounds of paperwork often flummox restaurant owners.

The skewed results of my informal Yelp survey make me wonder if people are especially suspicious of the inexpensive, immigrant-owned restaurants they’ve most recently visited because they have learned somewhere along the way that those sorts of restaurants are more likely to sicken them. Might even some of the foodie adventurers who ably parse the differences between Sinaloan and Chihuahan menudo, fill their Instagrams with bulgogi close-ups, and chronicle their eating exploits on Yelp be guilty of gastronomic bigotry?

“Food is fundamental to who we are,” says Gustavo Arellano, author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. “Humans have always demonized the cuisine of ‘the other’ because it’s the easiest way to say someone is less human.” Throughout American history, food has often divided the newly arrived and the assimilated. Arellano points out that many ethnic slurs come from what people eat—names like beaner, greaser, frog, and limey. Like the people who cook it, immigrant food is bashed before it is accepted. In the 1800s, for instance, Americans targeted the eating habits and cooking ingredients of the Chinese immigrants they regarded with fear and suspicion. In his book Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States, Andrew Coe describes how numerous journalists, including a young Mark Twain, offered sensationalistic accounts of visits to Chinese-American work camps, kitchens, and grocery stores, often fretting idiotically about lizard pies, rat ketchup, and, in the case of Twain, sausages stuffed with mouse carcasses. In New York, a popular children’s ditty of the late 1800s concerned a “Chinaman” who ate dead rats “like gingersnaps.”

These days, such overtly racist, fearmongering stereotypes are frowned upon. In fact, today’s foodies put the unfamiliar dishes of non-Western cuisines on a pedestal. Spurred on by blog fanfare, inspired by the televised exploits of Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain, they seek authentic flavors from distant lands—nakji bokkeum, nam tok, shengjian bao. Eating has become a modern safari, a sporting thrill. Authenticity is the hunted commodity, and the smitten hordes—often white, educated, and relatively affluent—are fearless in their pursuits. They want the restaurant signs and menus to advertise dishes only in the unfamiliar squiggles of foreign alphabets. They flock to the restaurants least tailored to the tastes of white Americans, sometimes arguing that lower health inspection scores denote authenticity.

These diners don’t reveal that they share their predecessors’ xenophobia until they get sick. That’s when the once-coveted authenticity stops being a source of pride and pleasure and instead ignites centuries-old paranoia. With matter-of-fact finality, they blame the pad thai, the roadside tacos, and the shawarma, not the steak frites, the coq au vin, or the greasy spoon ham sandwich. And even without a clear link between inspection scores and illness or a careful consideration of the amount of time that can pass between a tainted meal and the onslaught of symptoms, they use social media to project their culturally conditioned fears right back into the public sphere. Today’s ethnic restaurant patrons dare not fret aloud about mouse sausage or spew racist slurs, but their accusations of food poisoning are no less brazen, casual, and absurd. Gastronomic bigotry is exemplary of modern racism: It can be as hard to detect as a pathogen in a house salad.