On January 13, 2015, Eater contributor Lucas Peterson, wrote an article about an elotero, or Mexican street corn vendor based in Lincoln Heights, a predominately Latino neighborhood in Los Angeles. It came as no surprise to me, as Eater has been doing great coverage of street food lately--I read the article and found it to be a good read. I got the charm of the vendor and some good background on a story I've not pursued here in Los Angeles. Reason--I'm a street corn snob, and until someone breaks out with a cacahuazintle, or heirloom corn varieties, or at least some real Mexican field corn, I'm not biting. So, I was pleased to hear this story and it made me even think I might be missing out on something, but never did it enter my mind the ethnicity of the writer because it doesn't matter.
Eater followed up with a photo and quick blurb about the buzz they'd created for this vendor--Eater has a huge readership and apparently they're hungry for street food. As a blogger and writer of street food in LA and beyond for quite some time, and now as a writer and contributor for Los Angeles Magazine and fixer for television shows; I think it's great, but apparently some other Latinos felt differently.
I got wind of a Facebook post shared by many Latinos criticizing Eater's outing of the street corn vendor. Eater L.A. editor Matt Kang commented, as did other L.A. writers like LAist's Krista Simmons--her last comment pretty much ended the uncomfortable discussion.
The thread started out with a dialogue about ethics, but after it was shared with others in the Latino community, accusations of Columbusing, the practice of white people claiming another cultures discovery for themselves, were made about Eater's street corn post. Apparently, Lucas (who is part Asian) had no business writing about elotes and Eater was too white to understand these vendors and the challenges in the community. Estupidez!
I had ignored this manufactured controversy other than some posts on twitter in support of Peterson and Eater, but the fact that Eater felt the need to defend themselves from a racially motivated attack when there was no Columbusing made me reconsider. Gustavo Arellano (who's calling this elotegate) wrote about this in OC Weekly's Stick a Fork in It--Arellano and I are two Latino food writers who've been writing about unlicensed vendors since back in the day, and we've always supported non-Latinos who've documented illegal street food in all media.
Jonathan Gold wrote about Breed Street when he was at the LA Weekly, the massive street vendor fair I brought to L.A.'s attention back in 2007--it was my 2nd blog post and the beginning of all of this for me. Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern have made a career of covering unlicensed vendors, and street food in general. Not only do I support them in this noble pursuit, but I've been a consultant for both shows and have appeared with Zimmern three times as a fixer and on-screen guide, once on the same show with Gustavo Arellano. I brought Huell Howser to the Mercadito and recently CNN on an underground street tour of Los Angeles delving into one of the most clandestine eateries in East LA. Are Bourdain, Zimmern and Gold Columbusing? Any Latino that thinks this way have the huevos to accuse them in such a racist manner? All three of these people are huge supporters and promoters of Mexican cuisine, Latino cuisines in general, and street food.
Arellano, along with his good friend and cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz, is one of the two biggest reasons in the country white people rarely get away with Columbusing Mexican and Latino culture, so much so that they both ended up working for Fox's Bordertown because the show feared doing it without them. For my part, I'm the guy who turned chef Rick Bayless's Red-O into a no-media fly zone after he came to town and said he was bringing southern and central Mexican cuisine to our Oaxaqueños, Michoacanos, Poblanos, Yucatecos, Guerrerenses, Zacatencanos, Jalicienses, Mexiquenses and Chilangos serving Mexican food in LA. He did not bring it, at all, and after my blog post along with the huge contribution from Arellano and Jonathan Gold (unintended) I'm proud to say Bayless keeps his opinions to himself when he comes to town and no major publications cover him here; mostly because we're too busy covering real Mexican cuisine. Gustavo and I know about Columbusing.
Journalists write stories, and food writers cover the food and drink of their territory, period. This was the response echoed by NYC based critic, Robert Sietsema, "If the food is there, we cover it, no apology necessary. The only requirement is that we be respectful, and not too harsh in our judgments." This is the job, and if you disagree with this you're not a writer. LAist's Krista Simmons who also commented said over a phone conversation. "The job is to cover stories as a writer and it shouldn't matter what my ethnicity is--what, I can't write about Mexican, Thai or Burmese because I'm not a member of those groups?"
Eater defended itself, even justifying their ethnicity and the permission given to them by the vendor, but this was all a waste--Eater did nothing wrong and ethnicity doesn't matter. Lucas, who I don't know, wrote a good story, and he has the right to write about it--no apologies necessary. Furthermore, Eater wrote about a stand---they didn't claim to discover anything or bring it to the masses, it was just a routine story about an elotero, and it's an absurd notion that the article could lead to closing the vendor down.
What about the vendor? Well, while I'm uninterested in letting you know my motives for doing things as it's not important, I've had several interviews with a former health inspector, who's a current consultant and professor still very connected to the Street Food unit of the health department. The biggest piece of the pie in respect to visits by the health department to street stands are calls from residents, businesses, and inter-agency referrals. A sliver of the pie is indirect, or word of mouth--that's where we could potentially come in. But, word-of-mouth existed before blogs, Yelp, Jonathan Gold, Andrew Zimmern, Gustavo Arellano, myself or Eater. The po-po isn't reading us (the why I know shall remain confidential for obvious reasons), and if they did, they'd have a hell of a time finding the handful of unlicensed street food vendor posts buried in the mountain of scrolling headlines produced each day on sites like Eater.
Case in point. When Breed Street was shut down, it was the residents who were making all the calls according to Boyle Heights resident Mynor Godoy (Godoy is a regular attendee to Boyle Heights city council meetings)--this was confirmed years ago when I spoke to Boyle Heights residents during the Breed Street crack down--they viewed the weekend event as a blight on their community.
The Breed Street vendors like Nina Garcia and Carmen of Antojito's Carmen themselves were aware of the lack of community support for what they did as many of the stand owners were Boyle Heights residents themselves. Big surprise that some of these same residents are now upset about gentrification--the closing of Breed Street is one of the pivotal events in paving the way for today's crisis in Boyle Heights. And for all the Eater haters in Boyle Heights, the elotero is in Lincoln Heights, not in your neighborhood.
Arellano and I encourage everyone to cover Latin cuisines and street food, especially the often more delicious unlicensed variety--the racist attitudes that made Eater and Lucas Petersen feel the need to defend themselves are unwarranted. Save the Columbusing for when it's a legitimate reason.
Remember, the street vendor has opened in a conspicuous location with signs, balloons, rainbow umbrellas and maybe even a grand opening banner with his catering number on it; the line for food is conspicuous--you are standing in that line, and even if you aren't writing about it, you brought your friends (some may not be Latino). You can't stand there in line whether you are a Latino, non-Latino or a writer (Latino or non-Latino) and say you are being responsible because you're not posting about it. You are contributing to this spectacle that's seen by all passersby and you've no moral ground to stand on. That goes for Latinos in Boyle Heights, or "territorial food writers", as Midtown Lunch LA blogger, Zach Brooks stated in the Eater comments section of one of the posts in defense of Peterson. The only way to change the law is for more people to write about, enjoy and share the L.A. traditions of street vending.
Gustavo and I are known for our writing about Latin cuisines, not because of our ethnicity but because we do our homework and are well-traveled when it comes to our subjects; our being Mexican or pocho means nothing and Lucas' background shouldn't concern anyone either. I'm happy to work for a wonderful editor, Lesley Barger Suter, who supports me in writing about unlicensed vendors, because if I didn't have that freedom I wouldn't be at Los Angeles Magazine. Eater has jumped into the ring and that's great, because if you aren't including unlicenced street vendors in your coverage of this town, you aren't really covering food in L.A.