Shellfish cooking class with political commentary and a white gaze

Yesterday night, I attended a shellfish cooking class that Chris gifted me for Christmas in Little Italy. It’s funny for me to even say that it’s in “Little Italy” because it’s just about two blocks away from the main Chinatown area I always shop in. I came in a little early and was the only person who was carrying massive canvas bags that were clearly stuffed to the brim with groceries. The teacher looked excited to see that I went shopping.

“Oh, yes! It’s so great to get your shopping done down here! Did you check out Eataly and Despana?” she asked.

I told her that I actually was shopping in Chinatown, and she didn’t have much of a response to that. It was like she had zero awareness that the majority of this surrounding area is NOT actually Italian, but mostly Chinese.

That was the first hint of the “white gaze” that I got even before the class started. I’ve been in a class at this same cooking school with this instructor, and while she certainly is not my favorite teacher, I never knew her to be so political during her classes. She made a number of random jabs at former members of Trump’s cabinet while he was president, and while I got all of them and chuckled a few times, no one else really had much of a reaction. When she made a joke about how incompetent Betsy DeVos was and how it was clear no one was in public school in this class during her reign and I laughed, she looked at me, then around at the other students, and said, “Well, at least one person here has been paying attention to politics!” I didn’t really mind these comments, but I’d imagine other people who might not agree with her would be bothered and caught off guard by these words, especially since this was supposed to be a cooking class.

The annoying parts came when she was talking about the production and farming of some of these types of shellfish, and she made some very big assertions that for seafood like shrimp, we should be buying “only” American shrimp caught in the Gulf because “it’s the best,” and she also made comments about how all farmed shrimp is questionable and produced with the equivalent of slave labor. It seemed like such a pro-American, anti-everywhere else in the world comment, plus she occasionally knocked seafood farms in Asia. First of all, I don’t think that Gulf-caught shrimp would be the undisputed “best” shrimp option one can eat or buy; that sounds not only ignorant, but also just racist against other places that produce it. Secondly, if you really want to have a conversation about slave labor, does she honestly think that the people working in seafood farms and catching “the best” Gulf shrimp are all paid fair wages that would afford them comfortable lives…?

We also talked about the eating of things like mussels and clams. She said that it’s customary, when serving bivalves, to always give diners an empty bowl to put their shells in after they finish. She mentioned how if we were in a country like Vietnam, you could just throw your shells on the floor, and some worker would rush to sweep them all up for you. A number of people (my class was 70% white, with one Asian (me), one Latino guy, and one Black guy) were shocked when the teacher shared this.

“Why?” some of them asked, truly astonished.

“Well, it gives someone a job, so why not?” she said, with a bit of an eye roll. It sounded a bit judgmental, and also disparaging to the Vietnamese businesses in that country for doing this. She also did not give off the tone that she approved of this being a job.

In general, I dislike commentary like this because it is almost always said with a “white gaze” in mind, the notion that the Western or American way is better or “the best,” and it doesn’t factor in cultural nuances at all. Plenty of judgment could equally be made about what we consider suitable jobs here in this country, or how people in different service roles are paid: Why do we have “bus boys” when wait staff could easily clear and clean your table? Why the hell should “front of house staff” have higher wages than “back of house staff” or kitchen staff when the kitchen staff are actually the people preparing diners’ food — you know, the reason people are eating out?!

I highly doubt she would consider the idea that seafood farm practices in countries like New Zealand, Australia, or Finland would yield higher quality seafood than in U.S. surrounding waters, or pay higher wages. I also doubt this instructor has probably ever even visited Oceania to make the statement that Gulf-caught shrimp are the best, just as another point of comparison.

At some point of my life when I was younger, I’m sure I was one of those same smart asses who thought I knew a lot, or at least, way more than I actually did. I have since gradually relented, and now, I’m more eager to say that every day, I realize more and more how little I know as I learn more things (sounds ironic, but it isn’t). But I do try to be intentional about sharing what I know and caveating it, and I rarely will make a statement like, “gulf shrimp is the best in the world” unless I’m just being hyperbolic — the best, according to… her?

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