The divide over dinner: Smithsonian festival highlights the politics of food

WASHINGTON This year, the country has heard a lot about lost emails and “bad hombres,” but drama surrounding the 2016 presidential election has buried a topic that’s been at the forefront of politics since the dawn of time: food.

“At the broadest level of politics, every regime since 10,000 years ago has had to provide a safe, and at least sufficient, food supply for its population; otherwise, they go under,” said Warren Belasco, professor emeritus of American Studies at University of Maryland Baltimore County.

“But there’s so much else going on in the debates right now that we haven’t quite thrown in the kitchen sink as well.”

That will change Oct. 27-29 when the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History highlights the politics of what’s for dinner at the museum’s second annual Food History Weekend. This year’s theme is “Politics On Your Plate.”

“We’re looking at the relationship between food, people and power,” said Susan Evans McClure, director of food history programs at the National Museum of American History.

Those themes will come to light through a series of free events, including a day full of roundtable discussions and a food history festival that will have live cooking demonstrations, cookbook signings, “deep dish discussions” and kid-friendly activities.

Politics may not be the first thing that comes to mind at the mention of food, but what we eat and how it gets to the plate penetrates nearly every sector of government, from health care to labor laws and even nutrition policies in international development.

“It’s something we need every day and there’s a huge industry that’s been created to provide it for us,” Belasco said.

And that industry, including those who make and sell food, spends millions of dollars lobbying the federal government each year.

“It’s one of the largest segments of political gamesmanship in town, but it’s not often noticed; it’s kind of behind closed doors,” Belasco added.

During his time on the panel, Belasco will discuss various periods in history where food was at the center of intense political concern, like when major food companies bought into the 1960s counterculture and turned traditionally healthy foods, such as granola and tea, into big business.

“It created what I call the ‘counter cuisine,’ and we’re living with the consequences of that to this day,” he said.

In addition to the weekend’s free activities, the museum will also host a gala honoring the James Beard Award-winning chef Rick Bayless for his innovations in Mexican cuisine, as well as an after-hours event that taps into America’s history of beer and brewing.

Book signings include Molly Birnbaum and Dan Souza, authors of “Cook’s Science,” along with Dorie Greenspan, author of “Dorie’s Cookies.”

“We have discovered that food is a very accessible way for our large audience to think about various issues and themes in American history,” said Paula Johnson, curator in the Division of Work and Industry at the National Museum of American History.

“We really think it’s a great opportunity for us to … bring people around from across the country who have different perspectives and viewpoints on food, history and politics.”

The Food History Roundtables and the Food History Festival are free and open to the public, however some events require advanced registration. Visit the event’s website for information on dates, times and locations.

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