From slinging food to anthropology

Sometimes I wonder how I ended up where I am–a graduate student nearing the end of my formal education in anthropology–and where I am going next.  In my other life, I was a photographer (I spent most of my 20s walking around with Leicas and view cameras, taking pictures of all sorts of random things).  But my occupation–how I made money–was undeniably in the restaurant industry.  I started working in restaurants when I was 15.  I got a job in a pizza place answering phones.  I made about 15 bucks every two weeks and thought it was amazing to have that amount of cash.  I worked with a bunch of older surfers who were my heroes.  What a life.

Later I worked for a chain of restaurants that sold pies and “home-cooked” American food.  Let’s call it “The Olde Pie Shoppe” to keep things nice and anonymous and avoid any lawsuits.  That was a four-year experience in the wonderful world of corporate food production.  I will never forget the weekly pre-work meetings where the managers tried to encourage us all to think of creative, interesting ways to make our straight-from-the-freezer foods sound appealing and desirable (like chicken fried steaks).  After that, I started working as a bartender.  It was a good move for two reasons: 1) I never really liked the whole singing-birthday-songs-at-tables thing, and 2) bartending meant a lot more money.

I’m pretty sure my interest in anthropology began when I was working in food service.  A lot of strange things happen in restaurants.  And I’m not just talking about the fact that restaurants are almost always uber-dramatic little social worlds full of love, hate, jealousy, betrayal, and just about everything you could hope for on a really, really bad soap opera.  Even when I was working as a waiter or a bartender, I was always really fascinated by the restaurant as a social entity–why people came to them, what purpose they served, and so on.  I was always looking around, wondering why people do the things they do.  And what I was doing in the middle of it all.  Looking back, it’s probably a good thing I ended up in anthropology.

There are some really specific moments and events that really stand out in my memory.  The Olde Pie Shoppe was all about Americana.  Our clientele was mostly white.  They came to get what might be called “American food,” which means stuff like chicken pot pie, meatloaf, hamburgers.  The irony, of course, was that the vast majority of the food was made by people who came from south of the US border.  Most of the cooks, prep cooks, bussers, and dishwashers were from places like Mexico, Guatemala, etc.  So the whole Americana thing was a facade.  It was a product, an idea–designed, sold, marketed, and performed day in and day out.  The staff played a key role.  The servers and hosts/hostesses were the public face of the restaurant, and we all had a pretty similar look.  Again, mostly white.  We performed the whole Americana thing, and helped cover up the inner-workings of the restaurant itself–which made money by paying people low wages to make pretty mediocre quality food under the guise of home-cooked American food.  We all knew it was BS, and the customers could care less, but the whole show went on thanks to the pressure from the folks at corporate.  They were the ones who really cared about the uniforms, what we said to customers, how we looked–the image of the whole machine.  It was all a big product, held together by constant reminders and barely acceptable paychecks.

I was pretty young back then.  I did not immediately recognize the ironies or contradictions of what I was seeing, what I was part of.  But things changed, bit by bit.  I remember one moment.  I think I was about 18 or 19 years old.  It was near the end of my shift.  Maybe about 11 at night.  I walked toward the back of the restaurant, where the shift manager’s office was.  A lot of the “back of the house” staff was still working, even though we already closed and they were done with their work for the night.  The shift manager informed me they would be working through the night.  They didn’t have a choice, since many of them were undocumented immigrants.  He knew it.  They knew it.  One of the dishwashers told me about the not-so-veiled threats about “papers” that often went along with those extra late night shifts.

That was the moment when I realized just how big the gap could be between social performance and reality.  It was also when I realized how well injustice could be papered over by a mediocre, convenient, routine social facade.  Granted, the social performance of The Olde Pie Shoppe wasn’t very good.  But it was enough to serve a purpose.  The Americana thing worked well enough to draw people in who sought certain socially or culturally desired foods.  Comfort food, whatever you want to call it.  The front of the house staff, who all looked sufficiently “normal” (ie mirrored the customer base itself), kept the myth going.  The back of the house, which was actually the real productive machine, ruptured the narrative.  But nobody ever saw or came into contact with the back of the house, thanks to the wonders of walls, architecture and lots of social rules (well, except for the bussers, who did interrupt the story–and believe me there were plenty of comments about them).  The main purpose of the theme of The Olde Pie Shoppe, and the division between the staff, was to separate the customers from the people whose hands actually touched their food.  It was, in other terms, all a big lie.

But it was a comfortable lie, a convenient lie, and one that worked again and again.  It was enough to make it all work.  Enough to keep people from asking too many questions or looking too deeply.  They came in, ordered their salads and burgers from “nice” looking servers, paid their bills, and went on their way (see some of Setha Low’s work on “niceness” for more about this sort of thing).  Nobody asked anything about the guy who traveled all the way from Guatemala City to flip burgers in southern California because they never saw him.  Customers came for their mediocre American food, got something that looked reasonably like the picture on the menu, and that was that.  Cha-ching goes the cash register.

When I got a job at The Olde Pie Shoppe, I just wanted to make some money.  And I did just that.  Everyone was there to make money.  But restaurants are more than just money-making machines.  They are social places where people come into contact, where they interact, and where social differences, divisions, and contradictions become apparent.  Like pretty much any social space.  If you pay attention.  For me, working in restaurants was a lesson in how our stories and practices cover up wider histories, politics, and social divisions.  They were places were I learned some unexpected lessons.

I never imagined that working at such a place would make me think more about things around me.  But that’s exactly what happened.  The contradictions I saw made me rethink what “normal” really meant, and why certain things were acceptable, dismissed, or simply ignored.  They also led to a lot more questions.  Why, I wondered, did people think it was OK to create and participate in these kinds of social situations?  Why didn’t more people challenge what was going on?  What should be done about it all?  Those questions pushed me to look deeper into the histories and politics of my own community, where I was from.  I started looking more closely at the labor politics of the region, which were, of course, closely tied in with immigration politics (I grew up relatively close to the US-Mexico border in San Diego County).  Those contradictions–and what I saw as injustices–were part of what eventually pushed me toward anthropology.

Now, nearing the end of a long road in academia, it’s just about time to get back.  Back to where I was, to where I came from, to the reasons why I started studying anthropology in the first place.  The point was not just to get some degree, but to get a deeper understanding of the world around me.  Beyond that, the point was to do something.  To write, to tell stories, to look further into the social workings of places I knew, communities I was part of.  Sometimes I look back at my experiences, like working at a seemingly innocuous, somewhat crappy restaurant, and I wonder “Ok, so what now?’  What am I going to do with all of this knowledge?  What, in the end, is the point of all this?  What am I going to make of this anthropology thing?

These are the questions that are on my mind a lot these days.

*Edited for clarity on 12/31/13.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

One thought on “From slinging food to anthropology

  1. Thanks for this post, Ryan. If you don’t know the recent Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz book “Labor and Legality,” which is about a group of Mexican men who work in a restaurant in Chicago, you might give it a look. It’s at an introductory level, and in fact I have had great luck teaching the book here in southern California, but one of the things the text provokes is a wider question about the relation of shifting labor regimes and undocumented status… Anyway, big questions can indeed emerge from the everyday setting of a restaurant!

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