December 31, 2017

As American as Apple Pie, Bourbon, and Slave Labor

In 1799, George Washington’s distillery produced nearly 11,000 gallons, making it one of the largest whiskey distilleries in America at the time. / Photo from Universal History Archive/Contributor/Getty Images

Nostalgia, at its best, is a tidy fantasy that erases many of us.

By Angela Garbes / 12.21.2017

Our collective embrace of pie is, in truth, a recipe I can’t quite follow. My America has never been as American as apple pie. The nostalgia it inspires in others lasts, in me, about as long as warm butter squeezed between your fingers stays solid. It dissipates quickly—flour sprinkled on a wooden board that soon evaporates into a cloud of kitchen air.

You don’t even need to say the word or write a full sentence to make people swoon with sentimentality and longing. Just say: flaky, buttery, golden, grandma, well-browned.

My America is about doing well while brown: less pie, more pork braised in soy and vinegar and, for dessert, canned creamed corn mixed in a glass with milk, crushed ice, and sugar. My America is as American as Little Caesar’s Pizza served with a side of white rice. This America—polyglot, doused in fish sauce and kalamansi juice—probably wouldn’t draw crowds for a night like tonight.

The fruit that fills our pies—maybe they come from Driscoll’s or their local supplier in the Skagit Valley, Sakuma Brothers Farms. For the last four years, the Latino workers of Sakuma Brothers have called for a boycott of their employer, alleging inhumane working conditions, sexual harassment, and sub-minimum wages. In Eastern Washington, where heirloom apples (the best for baking) are grown, workers hover high on ladders—picking three to four apples at time—for 12 hours a day. They get paid only for each 1,000-pound box they fill—$16 per box. The best fill 15 boxes a day.

This is your America, too.

Maybe our America is as American as bourbon: the country’s so-called “Native Spirit.” Now, even the biggest distilleries market their whiskey and bourbon as artisan small-batch stuff, poured by people with well-maintained beards in denim-and-leather aprons. The image relies on the stories of the bourbon trails of Kentucky and Tennessee—all of them populated by frontiersman, salt-of-the-earth types who carried their Scottish and Irish drinking traditions on their backs.

But, it turns out, the eponymous Jack Daniel learned to make whiskey—using what is his company’s patented charcoal filtration system—from an enslaved man named Nathan “Nearest” Green. Green was a master distiller. And yet he had a master.

Before the bourbon industry flourished in the 1800s, no official records documented its real history: That this great American craft culture was crafted—grains harvested, milled, fermented—by people whose labor was demanded for free.

The whiskey we imbibe is sweet, smoky, delicious, caramellike, and fictive. It’s a lowball glass filled with American mythology, served neat.

I propose that we change the benchmark phrase of American food—as American as apple pie—and say that it’s as American as chop suey.

Chop suey, a dish of stir-fried meat and vegetables, was introduced in the late 1800s, after Chinese laborers arrived to build our western railroads. Chop suey became so desirable that, by the turn of the 20th century, cities like San Francisco and New York were filled with chop suey houses, gastronomic temples where foodies went to show how sophisticated and cosmopolitan they were.

Who, exactly, created chop suey has been lost to history, though what we now know is that it is a thoroughly American invention. It took more than 30 years for any Americans to realize that, in China, no one had ever heard of their beloved dish. Translated from Cantonese, the name means “odds and ends.” That dish that so many Americans were head over heels for? Leftovers, basically.

While Americans fell in love with “Chinese food,” they weren’t so keen on actual Chinese people. As chop suey’s popularity flourished, so did anti-Chinese sentiment. The Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting all immigration of people from China, was enforced from 1882 to 1902. It was the only time in American history when a group of people was excluded—banned—specifically because of their national origin or ethnicity.

The only time, of course, until now.

So have another shot of whiskey, eat more pie, and get cozy under this blanket of words, community, and warmth. But please remember that nostalgia, at its best, is a tidy fantasy that erases many of us. At its worst, it’s the hazy, fading dream of an imagined past, the invocation of a mythical, pure America—a call to return to a greatness that never was.

I have never been more afraid of nostalgia than I am right now.

Originally published by Yes! Magazine under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.