The journalist Nina Martyris has written for many publications including The Guardian, The New Republic, Salon, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Times of India, Slate, and The Millions.
She is also a regular contributor to NPR, where she writes about food politics, and this week she graciously agreed to be our book club guest!
Two of Nina’s articles serve (pun intended) to shed light on food politics in United States social history.
In the first article, Frederick Douglass On How Slave Owners Used Food As A Weapon Of Control (NPR’s “The Salt,” 2/10/17) Martyris tells us;
“Hunger was the young Fred’s faithful boyhood companion. “I have often been so pinched with hunger, that I have fought with the dog – ‘Old Nep’ – for the smallest crumbs that fell from the kitchen table, and have been glad when I won a single crumb in the combat,” he wrote in My Bondage and My Freedom. “Many times have I followed, with eager step, the waiting-girl when she went out to shake the table cloth, to get the crumbs and small bones flung out for the cats.”
Her article explores Douglas’s slave narrative within the context of food used by masters as a form of violence and oppression against slaves.
The second piece studied is How Suffragists Used Cookbooks as a Recipe for Subversion (NPR’s “The Salt” 11/5/15).
This piece and one very touching one about women visiting Susan B Anthony’s grave, were NPR’s two most-tweeted pieces on the evening of Nov 8 of the most recent presidential election.
“In the movie Suffragette,” says Martyris, “ Englishwomen march on the streets, smash shop windows and stage sit-ins to demand the vote. Less well-known is that across the pond, a less cinematic resistance was being staged via that most humble vehicle: the cookbook.”
Both famous authors and everyday women distributing pamphlets on the street contributed recipes which sprinkled a healthy dose of revolution in-between the pickles and gravy.
Cookbooks as revolution? Absolutely, and we’ll have seconds.
On Thursday at 12:30 EST Nina joined us for a “live” Facebook chat
Here’s the great conversation we shared. Enjoy!¹
Nina Martyris: Hi Celeste! Are we on?
Celeste Helene Schantz: Welcome, Nina Martyris! Yes, we’re on! Thank you so much for joining The Wonderlings today. It’s much appreciated! As you can see, we have some questions lined up . . .
Nina Martyris: Thank you for your question and for inviting me to do this chat. Very flattered!
Celeste Helene Schantz: Nina, what drew you to write about food culture and politics?
Nina Martyris: Well, the answer is a mix of the political and personal. I’ve always been interested in literature, culture and politics, especially the ways in which they crisscross in our daily lives. Food, however, was something I was barely interested in until I got married and more or less had to start cooking (else I’d starve!).
One day, I was looking up an Italian recipe which had oregano in it. The chef providing the recipe added a little history. He said oregano only became popular in the US after WWII. Before that it was used largely by Italian immigrants. It was American soldiers who fought on the Italian front who tasted this fragrant herb and brought a taste for it back home. Then it began to boom. Consumption went up 6000 per cent in the 1950s. I was fascinated by this story — and the window it opened on how food travels and how history affects our palates.
On a whim, I pitched a “how oregano became popular in the US” story to NPR on the anniversary of V-E Day. The editor loved the idea, and that became the first of a series of food-history-politics stories.
Celeste Helene Schantz: Had you written for NPR before?
Nina Martyris: No, that was my first pitch. The editor was testing me, but she gave me a chance, which I’ll always be grateful for. I think she was intrigued by the idea of soldiers and oregano.
Celeste Helene Schantz: David Delaney asks: “Nina, Do you believe most wars are ultimately fought over food? “the Taste of War” notes that WW2 was fought for that reason. Has the author found an instinctual need (that becomes obsessive) for the security more food seems to provide people? And do you see any parallel in food use (control as in American slavery) and any current situations on our planet?”
Nina Martyris: Hello David! I’m so glad you posted in advance. It gave me a chance to do some preparation. I’m going to answer it in three parts.
Nina Martyris: Your question goes to the very heart of historical conflict. On a light note, the first conflict between man and God was fought because of an apple. But more seriously, yes, food has always been a major reason for conquest.
For instance, as I’m typing out this response, I have by my side a delicious cup of tea, two of whose ingredients (tea leaves and sugar) have a history covered in what Jonathan Swift liked to call “blood and treasure.” Britain was so addicted to tea that it fought two opium wars with China to protect the source of this afternoon elixir. And every cup of tea was sweetened by sugar grown by slaves on British-owned Caribbean plantations. Shelley, Southey and other radicals didn’t take sugar in their tea as a form of protest (one more of my NPR pieces!). In India, where I’m from, one of the most landmark mass protests against British rule was Gandhi’s Salt march against the punitive salt tax (which was much like the Boston tea tax). So yes, food features prominently as a source of conquest and war.
Nina Martyris: To move more specifically to your question about WWII. Thank you for pointing me to Taste of War by Lizzie Collingham, whose book Curry I dip into frequently. Collingham does pursue her thesis doggedly, but there’s no question that Hitler invaded Russia in 1941 for one overwhelming reason: bread. He had his eye on the rich soil of Ukraine, the bread basket of the region. Before Hitler, during the thirties, millions in Ukraine starved thanks to Stalin exporting its wheat to crush peasant rebellion. The Ukrainians even have a word for it: Holodomor (Man-Made Famine). Hunger and war are bedfellows.
Nina Martyris: And, finally, about examples of food wars from today. The Ivory Coast in West Africa is a heartbreaking example — of a non-violent food war (though hunger is a form of violence). This country is the world’s largest producer of cocoa producing 40% of all cocoa in the world. Big companies like Mars, Hershey and Nestle use Ivorian cocoa for their chocolate.
Everyone loves chocolate, yes. Why then is poverty on the rise in this otherwise well-off country?
The answer is complex but to put it briefly, cocoa is a source of wealth but also a crop that is used as a weapon of control by MNCs and the country’s politicians. Politicians have been known to block exports of cocoa and seize control of cocoa income to fund the buying of arms. MNCs, who want bumper crops, often push for unsustainable farming practices which has long-term effects that poor farmers have to face. We enjoy chocolate so much today, but there’s no doubt that it, too, comes covered in “blood and treasure.”
Anna Schantz: Nina Martyris and now we see consumer boycotts of some foods for political or environmental reasons: eschewing products using palm oil, in order to protect the dwindling orangutan population comes to mind. And veganism.
Shabnam Mirchandani: Nina Martyris , I so appreciate the fact that your writing is not driven by retributive passion or soapbox morality, instead you have a panoramic historical vision. Hats off to you!
Shabnam Mirchandani: Nina, what was the readership like when Douglass’s work was first published? When a writer (as custodian of facts) has to be heard in a resistant or hostile environment, the challenges must be immense. To relate this question to your personal experience: do educators, commentators, scholars, artists, and writers have to take on the role of a hermeneutical mafia of sorts when there is a major dislocation in the codes observed in public discourse, and multi-faceted, in-depth exploration of issues is no longer prioritized? In this present time, which I like to call a period of etymological burlesque, how does a journalist who is a curator of history as it is unfolding, remain true to his/her calling?
Nina Martyris: Shabnam! I’m here today because of you. But more important, you were one of the first people who encouraged me and made be believe that I could become a journalist. You were such a fabulous, imaginative teacher – one of a kind. I can still remember your wonderful lecture on Van Gogh.
Nina Martyris: To answer the first part of your question, it’s comforting to know that Douglass’ autobiography was very well received. It got good reviews and became an immediate bestseller. Within three years, it was reprinted nine times, and translated into French and Dutch. It is still the most widely read slave narrative in American history. Scarcely surprising given Douglass’ eloquence and the powerful theme he tackled — his life as a prism into the misanthropy of slavery.
Celeste Helene Schantz: Thank you, Shabnam! Nina Martyris, she is a treasure 🙂
Shabnam Mirchandani: Nina Martyris thank you, you were the best and brightest, and I could not be prouder of what you have accompished.
Shabnam Mirchandani Celeste Helene Schantz it is kind of emotional to experience this virtual reunion, so thank YOU!
Nina Martyris: Moving on to our contemporary age of “etymological burlesque” — love the phrase — yes, as a journalist one is acutely conscious of how, in this age of fake news, facts are twisted, language is corrupted, and history misrepresented.
Indeed, the spur that got me researching the Frederick Douglass story was Fox news commentator Bill O’Reilly’s glib comment that slaves were well-fed. This from an educated person who writes on history. So I turned to Douglass’ book and began to read about what it was like to grow up as a slave. Of course it was an awful story, but Douglass is such a fine writer and thinker that his writing went beyond the misery to reveal the cynicism underpinning the system, and how food was used as a weapon of control. This piece touched a chord. I think it’s my most-read piece on NPR second only to the suffragist article.
Nina Martyris: Finally, talking about etymology, I did another short piece for the Economist on the word “mogul” at the time when Trump was calling for a Muslim ban. My point was that Trump enjoyed being called a real-estate mogul by the press, probably unaware that the title comes from the most powerful Islamic dynasty in history. My point being that we are all interconnected and influenced by other cultures even without knowing it. So bans are an absurd policy.
Shabnam Mirchandani: Nina Martyris very astute observations, and you have harvested much from these teachable moments. It takes a lot of stamina and courage to wade through the sheer volume of dubious material being fed to us. As Stephen King recently pronounced: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs” ( “bigly” comes to mind…)
Anna Schantz: I’ve recently been involved in a number of enlightening discussions concerning cultural appropriation, particularly regarding music and dress, and particularly in reference to Indigenous peoples in Canada (Happy Indigenous Peoples Day, as well as Junet eenth, btw!). I’d like to ask Nina if she considers cooking and food culture an area calling for more sensitivity in appreciation, or whether it is perhaps exempt from rampant dominant culture commodification.
Also, how would she suggest we all, white and people of colour, might approach the celebration of food and our varied histories with it, for the promotion of greater mutual understanding and peace? Thank you!
Nina Martyris: Hi Anna! Thank you for your wishes and for this question. Yes, it’s a tricky one — and it goes to the heart of freedom of expression. Who gets to tell whose stories? I’ve thought about it and I feel quite strongly that anyone should be able to write about anything. The job of a writer is to imagine and empathize and identify with people beyond those from his or her background. So if an Indian writer wants to set a novel in the American Mid-West she should go right away. Likewise, if a White American wants to write about China or India or any culture, he should go right ahead. I’m with Lionel Shriver on this one.
When it comes to food, the same rule should apply, in my view. Anyone should be able to cook anything. If a Vietnamese chef wants to make shrimp and grits, great. If a Southern chef wants to make pho, great.
The second half of your question — how we might approach the celebration of food and our varied histories with it, for the promotion of greater mutual understanding and peace — is in wonderful counterpoint to David’s question above. Food has been a historical source of conflict but it can also be a marvelous and delicious bridge between cultures. Breaking bread with a new group of people makes it slightly harder to hate them.
Nina Martyris: Anna, I’d also be interested in your views on cultural appropriation.
Anna Schantz: Nina Martyris the recently resigned editor of a Canadian publication felt the same way. I think his refusal of any kind censorship and admittedly too flippant attitude regarding appropriation caused an uproar, partly because it was taken the wrong way. I understand your prioritizing freedom of speech, particularly journalistic freedom.
Nina Martyris: I think my view is unpopular among liberal circles, but I feel strongly that stories belong to everyone.
Anna Schantz: I believe that it is not a level playing field, however, and that people of privilege owe a debt of respect and greater care when using traditions from marginalized peoples. In a perfect world it would not need to be legislated.
Nina Martyris: Yes, I agree one should always be sensitive, but the freedom of speech absolutists who bridle even at that kind of demand. I’m not an absolutist, but lean towards that kind of freedom.
Jeri Harbers Thomson: In the suffragette article you say that a Henry James, Sr. was in favor of a woman’s right to vote, but that he didn’t feel many would avail themselves of that privilege. In our last presidential election, it was suggested (wish I had a cite here, but that he didn’t feel many would avail themselves of that privilege. In our last presidential election, it was suggested (wish I had a cite here, but memory fails!) that one reason. Clinton lost the election is because many women were swayed against voting for her by their husbands, because many men did not want a female president…especially a female Commander-in-Chief. Do you feel there is merit in this suggestion?
Nina Martyris: Hi Jeri! Thanks for this question about the suffragist piece.
Nina Martyris Though I wrote it in 2015 (the peg was the Meryl Streep movie), NPR re-posted it on social media on the evening of the election last year. It became one of if not the most tweeted pieces. This piece and one on women visiting Susan B Anthony’s grave in Rochester. It was so touching to see literally thousands and thousands of (mainly) women tweeting and commenting on it. It was a real moment. It’s something I’ll always remember.
Of course the next morning we knew that things had turned out differently!
Nina Martyris: To answer your question. I worked that Henry James Sr. anecdote into my article because I was so taken aback by the sheer condescension of his views. I’m glad his student fought him over it.
About the election, I’m quite sure there are women everywhere who vote the way their husbands do. Indeed when women in America were fighting for their Great Cause, many men were bewildered by their demand, saying that women were already represented by their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons, so what did they want the vote for?
Even Frederick Douglass who was a staunch support of the suffragist movement, broke with it a little when it came to giving the black man the right to vote before women were given it. He said white women already had their husbands voting for their interests, whereas Blacks had no suffrage to represent them, and that if the black man voted, then, in an indirect way, the black woman would be represented too.
So perhaps some women did vote according to their husbands’ diktats but I would like to believe that they were not the majority. I’ve met many women (especially young women) who said they didn’t want to vote for Clinton. Many of them couldn’t abide Trump either, but they seemed to be thinking independently. One can only hope they were and that Henry James Sr. was wrong.
Anna Schantz: Nina Martyris so moving!
Rick Williams: Question for Nina Martyris: I read these two articles plus her article on Gandhi being “the most punctual man in India” as well as “Auden’s 1939 Elegy for Yeats.” These articles appear to have required a lot of research and then reduced to a super ef ficient short article. I’m curious about Nina’s research and writing habits. Would Nina share some of her research and writings habits?
(side point: Is she like Gandhi checking her watch all the time or more like Auden when he writes “Stop all the clocks.”)
Nina Martyris: Oh Rick! That question is like balm for my tired eyes. You’re so right. For each article, I have to read (or dip into) at least three or four books, apart from googling away like a worker bee to get all that information for those stories. Apart of course from cross-checking facts all the time. I always have reams of leftover research.
The clock is draconian — though unlike Gandhi (and Auden — he was fanatically punctual), I’m less conscientious and am always racing till the very last minute to meet a deadline. As a freelancer, I have to come up with unusual ideas — that’s the challenge. So I try to approach old stories from a fresh angle — for instance, everyone knew of Auden’s Yeats elegy, but the conversation and spinoffs it generated was something I worked out and connected.
Celeste Helene Schantz: Speaking of the clock, we’ve a few moments to go. Any last questions for Nina?
Celeste Helene Schantz: Nina, can we expect a book from you at some point?
Shabnam Mirchandani: Plan to write a book any time soon?
Nina Martyris: Have to think of a theme — non-fiction if at all.
Nina Martyris: After we finish this chat, I have to go back to researching a piece on — well, I can’t disclose it right now, but please read it if you can. It has to do with the Nazis. Nazis and food!
Shabnam Mirchandani: “Mein Food!” . . .
Celeste Helene Schantz: Nina Martyris, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. The time has gone much too quickly! Friends, feel free to carry on this fascinating conversation, and look for the recap in our Sunday Gazette. Nina, we’ll be looking for more of your wonderful rich prose and excellent articles! Thanks for joining us today.
Anna Schantz: Thank you, Nina!
Shabnam Mirchandani: THANK YOU Nina dearest!
Rick Williams: Unbelievably fantastic!
Nina Martyris: Thanks, Wonderlings! You’ll were great. Such good questions. Made me think, read and argue with myself. Bye for now.
Thanks to the wonderful members of The Wonderlings group who took time and consideration to participate in our discussion with Nina.
As usual, you rock!
For further reading:
Here is an excellent blog, Afro-Culinaria, a food blog authored by Michael W. Twitty, (Twitter: @Koshersoul /Instagram:@thecookinggene/Michael W. Twitty on Facebook), a food writer, independent scholar, culinary historian , and historical interpreter personally charged with preparing, preserving and promoting African American foodways and its parent traditions in Africa and her Diaspora and its legacy in the food culture of the American South.
Read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas for free, online!
¹Very minor edits made in transcribing our interview from Facebook for the purpose of clarity.