Mitch Combs and Kristen Herring’s article published in Popular Culture Studies Journal
Ph.D. students Mitch Combs and Kristen Herring have published the article “(W)reckoning dual pandemics through food and hip-hop topoi: An analysis of Ghetto Gastro‘s Afrocentric PCI rhetoric” in Popular Culture Studies Journal.
Contemporary chefs are pushing the boundaries of their work beyond the kitchen, taking on roles as Public Chef Intellectuals (PCIs). PCIs are public figures who rhetorically use their culinary knowledge, experience, and skills (Eckstein and Young). PCIs are distinct from “celebrity chefs” who profit from marketing their foodie persona like a product (Eckstein and Young, 205).
In contrast, PCIs educate, build awareness, and create change in food cultures and systems, transferring culinary “knowledge from the technical sphere to the public sphere” (Eckstein and Young 207). Chefs Padma Lakshmi and Dave Chang are key examples of PCIs in popular food culture. Lakshmi’s Taste the Nation and Chang’s Ugly Delicious are food television shows educating mass audiences about underrepresented food cultures. PCI rhetoric is also expressed through a chef’s interactions with food as “topoi,” the symbols and materials of specific places acted upon to make rhetorical arguments (Dickinson 3). PCIs use food as topoi in physical and digital places to craft arguments about issues related to food and culture.
Currently, PCIs are responding to COVID-19’s amplification of racism, xenophobia, and food insecurity in low-income urban communities. Popular media magnified these intersections during the pandemic. For example, the racist and unjust murder of George Floyd which took place outside of Cup Foods, led to news reports that highlighted the immigrant-owned convenience store in a low-income community experiencing food insecurity (Jackson; Sider). Stories of street food vendors – a labor force made up of many undocumented immigrants who feed low-income communities – described racist and xenophobic barriers in receiving federal aid and issues of over-policing (Abellard). Rates of food insecurity skyrocketed nationwide in low-income urban communities due to the pandemic. This garnered the attention of PCIs like Chef José Andrés, whose World Central Kitchen, which monitors food shortages globally and distributes meals via pop-up kitchens to low-income communities (Gregory) and Chef Marcus Samuelsson’s restaurant “Red Rooster,” which feeds vulnerable populations in low-income areas of Harlem (Samuelsson).
One significant group responding to these issues is the Bronx-based culinary collective, Ghetto Gastro (GG). Formed in 2012, GG is a group of professional chefs, entrepreneurs, fashion influencers, and artists breaking barriers in food culture (Parham). They have hosted dinners for Martha Stewart, appeared as guest stars on the Rachael Ray Show, and worked with Marvel to develop a “Taste of Wakanda” menu for the premier of Black-Panther (Parham).
Co-created by Bronx locals Jon Gray, Lester Walker, Pierre Serrao, and Malcom Livingston II, GG is a self-determined “Black Power Kitchen” invested in racial equity and inclusion (Parham).In this paper, we argue GG expresses an Afrocentric PCI rhetoric that uses food and hip-hop topoi to (w)reckon intersecting issues of racism, xenophobia, and food insecurity magnified by COVID-19. GG’s Afrocentric PCI rhetoric combines elements of food and hip-hop rhetoric to critically flip the script on dominant, white Eurocentric representations and interests. In doing so, GG’s Afrocentric PCI rhetoric decenters whiteness in popular food culture and attends to issues of food insecurity in low-income communities heightened by COVID-19. We analyze GG’s activist responses during the pandemic including their pop-up events and marketing of limited-edition products. Previous scholarship contends PCIs use topoi to change public perceptions about food sustainability (Eckstein and Young 274) and disrupt “whitewashed appropriations of culinary traditions” (Young and Eckstein 56). Our study contributes to this scholarship revealing how GG disrupts whiteness in the culinary world using the (w)reckoning of Afrocentric PCI rhetoric to educate, represent, and create material change for Black and African identities in popular culture and in low-income communities. Before describing our theoretical framework, we contextualize issues of racism, xenophobia, and food insecurity within the Bronx that GG rhetoric addresses.