Demera is an Ethiopian restaurant on the corner of Lawrence and Broadway, in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. If you ride the bus north and get off at this corner, the distinct aroma of berbere, a signature spice mixture in traditional Ethiopian cooking, greets you instantly. It’s tempered by the fresh breeze off the lake to the east, the onset of spring in Chicago. It’s just nice. I’m not sure how else to put it. You can’t always anticipate nice; it just happens, and if you’re affected by subtlety as acutely as I am, it’s ephemeral. Nice happens, though, when you get off the Broadway bus at Lawrence.
It’s not unlike many of the experiences I have with food. I love the smells four or five blocks north of Lawrence, where Vietnamese restaurants compete for customers at lunchtime, of restaurants on Clark Street with wood-burning ovens, of my apartment when my wife’s been cooking Italian food. Smells trigger something for me, and it’s usually followed by desire and consumption. I smell food; I desire to have the food in my mouth; and then I either consume the food, or I don’t consume the food.
I keep coming back to the word “American” in describing my approach to food, but I catch myself because what I think I mean is old American, or American as I’ve experienced what I’ve come to recognize as American as someone who grew up in a specific region of the country and who has had limited movement about the world over his first 44 years of existence. I am certainly not an old world American: an original native of this country, or even someone considered an American when the term was first written (It was used to describe immigrants of British decent in the 17th century.)
Maybe this is the center of my difficulty: I don’t know where I fit in or where I belong or whether or not how I conduct myself is maximizing my potential as a human being. The major difference between me and new Americans, though, is that I don’t have to worry about green cards and visas and refugee status. I’m privileged in this way and chances are, so are you.
On one particular day, I had the privilege of smelling food, purchasing it, then consuming it at Demera with 11 other people. The first course was brought to the table, and we were each given plates for our food. We reached out and grabbed our share of this food and placed it before us for our consumption. There were green and red and brown sauces in small bowls into which we could dip our food before eating it. I spooned some of this sauce onto my plate.
The main course came as this wheel of vibrant colors and flavors, and then more bowls of hot meats dredged in sauces were placed before us. I recognized one of these bowls as something I chose from the menu: tender chicken legs slathered in a thick red sauce. I identified this as my bowl of food so, naturally, I reached for this bowl and claimed it. There were also several thick folded pieces of injera, which is a spongy sourdough flat bread. I knew one or two of these must belong to me, so I took one.
I was doing it all wrong, though. An Ethiopian woman came to our table and talked about how to share a meal. You take what you think is your share and you give it to the rest of the table. You eat with your fingers, tear the injera in pieces and grab a little of everyone else’s share, each bite an entirely new flavor profile and textural experience based on what you choose to take. What I got wrong initially was the sharing. I wasn’t sharing. I took what I thought was mine and was ready to eat it privately. At Demera, we were reaching for the same places, bumping hands, advising each other with compassion, kindness. “Try this,” we said to one another, “I think you’ll like it.”
My wife likes to tell my sons stories about the steaming dinner rolls her mother used to make for dinner–how as a little girl, my wife would count the rolls and divide by four, the number of people sitting at the table for dinner, so she’d know how many of those rolls were hers.
This is the American way: to want our piece of the pie, to want our share. But thinking about my global frame of reference, which is admittedly limited, I see it has a characteristic of many communities, not just American ones. The differences come when you contrast sharing a $300 meal in an award-winning Ethiopian restaurant in Chicago with starving African villagers sharing a bowl of cooked rice.
These are important personal experiences and lessons I am learning without the aid of someone barking in my face about how privileged I am. I learn by moving towards experiences foreign to me and accepting the guidance of beautiful, patient people. I have not always felt comfortable with this.
If you’re an American, and you have enough food to eat, and you live in a house with temperature control, and you don’t have to mortgage every penny of your future for medical care, and you aren’t separated from your family by oceans, and you aren’t constantly in fear of being deported, then you’re privileged no matter what color your skin is.
When a woman who worries about where she’s going to brunch every weekend tells me how much “white guilt” I have, I need her to shut her mouth immediately.
When a person of color, who’s enjoyed the privilege of private education his entire life, tells me how much easier I’ve had it, I need him to save his bullshit for someone else.
When you levy your trendy, hyper-politicized, overcompensating outrage on people because they have white skin and a penis, you cease to share in the global experience. You become discriminatory out of some wild misplaced fear, which turns to anger. This is precisely the moment I stop taking you seriously.
I’m am a white, heterosexual male who is open to the beautiful experiences of life and to constantly learning and assessing how he interacts with a changing global culture. The world as it evolves, without even giving a molecule of thought to my existence as a human being, is my teacher and my classroom.