The SFA Take: Foodways and Immigration

Photos by Houston Cofield

At a December staff retreat in 2014, team SFA settled on programming themes for upcoming years. For 2017, we would focus on the people and stories of El Sur Latino—the Latino South—stories that increasingly represent a Southern experience.

This wasn’t a political decision, as we are not a political organization. We document Southern realities through the lens of food, and we embrace the complex and sometimes controversial nature of those realities.

Nor do we consider our 2017 theme particularly prescient of the current political climate; we consider it a natural progression of what we’ve always done. From SFA’s inception, we have privileged stories from overlooked and underreported spaces in the American South in order to disrupt the monolithic narrative that still plagues our region. As we look back on twenty years worth of work, we note just how many of those stories come from immigrant communities. We have documented Chinese grocers in the Mississippi Delta, Vietnamese, German and Italian bakers in New Orleans, and Greek restaurateurs in Birmingham, Alabama.

Today we see Latino communities in peril as the nation adopts policies that further criminalize and intimidate immigrants. Restaurant industry folks fret over their futures and those of their coworkers. One chef, who requested anonymity, explained,

I don’t know what to expect next, so I’ve tried to plan for the worst while trying not to frighten or upset my staff and their families. I’ve had to sit with people and make them talk about unpleasant prospects. My main concern is for the children. I have thirteen boys and girls, from sixteen to six weeks, who were born here and whose parents work for me…. Six of them face the prospect of returning to a village where relatives have been murdered.

Those of us who rarely encounter immigrants in our daily lives may feel disconnected from what constitutes a legitimate crisis, both for individuals like those this chef describes and for the entire food industry. Yet the labor force that harvests our produce, processes our chicken, and stocks our grocery shelves depends on these individuals. The hands that prep, cook, serve, and wash dishes in restaurants are often the hands of immigrants.

Much like the cerulean sweater in The Devil Wears Prada, our food—whether in restaurant dining rooms or on our own kitchen tables—connects each of us to immigrants in myriad ways, as well as to businesses and governments (local, national, and global) whose policies and practices paved the way for new Southerners to integrate themselves into our food systems.

SFA stands with the impact new Southerners have had on Southern food for generations. And so do you. The very things you love about Southern food, you owe not just to your grandmother, but to tamale vendors and devil crab makers and shrimpers and line cooks. Join us as we continue to document their stories in 2017 and beyond.

Read more:

Recent stories that examine the complexities of immigration policy and foodways in the South:

Victoria Bouloubasis, The Restaurant Industry Depends on Immigrants: What Happens If We Lose Them?

—, Wildin Acosta’s Detention Sparked a Community Into Action, But He’s Still Not Free

Amanda Holpuch, A City Without Undocumented Immigrants (3 parts)

Andre Gallant, Delicious Birds, Dangerous Times

Sarah Fowler, Immigration Raids Conducted at Mississippi Restaurants

Carolina Torres, How Two Philadelphia Chefs Are Pushing for Immigration Reform — Starting in the Kitchen