Feeding the Revolution

Two Case Studies on the Use of Food as a Weapon of Resistance in Contemporary (Post)colonial North America

Suzanne Cope


Many citizens of the United States of America think of their country’s origins as stemming from a revolution against British colonization while basing their American identity on various interpretations of “freedom”. Ironically much less examined is the United States’ economic, cultural, and/or political colonization of other nations and groups.

“Feeding the Revolution” discusses two contemporary case studies of the use of food as a weapon against American colonization efforts, one of a chef and television host in Cuba from the mid-20th century to the 1990s, and another of a collective of Native American chefs and food activists working within US borders today. While different in time, media, and purpose, we can see some overlap of their methodology and can learn about the use of food as a political tool across contexts.

Nitza Villapol was an American-born chef, television host, and bestselling cookbook author in Cuba, starting in the late 1940s. She rose to national prominence over the next decade teaching Cubans to make popular dishes such as lobster thermidor and pasta salad that were heavily influenced by American culture and primarily from ingredients imported from the US. Even dishes considered classic Cuban fare – such as the Cuban sandwich and ropa vieja – required ingredients that could not be natively sourced from the island, but required American (or other) imports which had become ubiquitous as US companies heavily influenced Cuba’s economy to serve their own insatiable desire for cheap sugar.
When Fidel Castro took control in 1959 (and after the resulting American embargo) Villapol declared her allegiance to him, and her on-air instruction – and even subsequent editions of her iconic cookbooks – began to erase influence of American ingredients on Cuban food while honoring diverse native foodways and cultures, all in support of a none-too-subtle political agenda via the re-definition of Cuban foodways. Not only was this serving to reinforce a political ideology via media, but also to obfuscate the reasons behind the resulting food shortages that changed availability and diversity of available food.

The I-Collective – a group of Native American and indigenous chefs, food activists, and knowledge keepers – are using social media to educate a populace about the whitewashed history of their country and their own oppression under the dominant Eurocentric American culture and leadership, while also using food as its own medium to aggressively identify colonial structures within the food system, and counteract them one meal at a time. While the tone and media tools are different, as well as the cultural and political landscape in which they operate, they are also using mass media to connect to their audience, and the concept of culturally resonant meals to reinforce their political agenda.

These two case studies – while spanning time, geographic location, and political context, among other differences – do share some similarity of approaches to the use of food as a political weapon against American colonization. Both use the power of media to connect to a broader audience, and both use the audience’s connection to food as both a daily necessity and as cultural capital for an entry point to reinforce a political agenda that is about so much more than what is on the plate.