Class Guest: Yigal Schleifer of Culinary Backstreets

Taco Literacy welcomed Yigal Schleifer of Culinary Backstreets to class. Yigal spoke about Culinary Backstreets and how he came into food writing, starting his career as a journalist in NYC, then sort of stumbling into food writing when he lived in Turkey.

According to Yigal, the New York Times travel series “36 hours in . . .” drove him to dispel some of the myths that the media used to represent travel, focusing on “tourist traps” without honoring some of the local traditions. It was this particular piece “36 Hours in Instanbul” where he felt compelled to create something that spoke about foodways can be a way to understand people and neighborhoods. For the taco literacy crew, we could make some connections to how we’ve been thinking about contextualizing food into ways that are human and humane, and that use story to do so. Yigal made a point to give us some examples about how Culinary Backstreets does this with some of their documentary projects. He began his lecture with these two videos. This first one focuses on Erisvaldo in Brazil and his business selling pastries called roscas on the streets.  A quick note, Erisvaldo is also a poet, as rosca is not only the treat he sells, but also a euphemism for “anus.”

The humor in this approach works for Erisvaldo’s business, and also demonstrates his character in a particular setting. This is important for Culinary Backstreets, to represent the characters in huanizing ways, in this case through humor. In the scene, we zoom into his experience and follow him along the streets. This gives us a glimpse of neighborhood life, and in this way we come to understand the role of food in everyday lived experiences. I think what’s most telling is how the documentary represents Erisvaldo with dignity, and respectfully allows him to tell his story. This is very much in the manner of hte documentaries from the Southern Foodways Alliance we had watched previously.

The second documentary Yigal shared focused on Istanbul, using a different method to tell the story.

In this short film, we follow a restaurant in a working-class neighborhood, in a kind of slice-of-life method, also sometimes described as Cinéma vérité In this film, we hear the voices of folks, but not specifically the story as narrated by someone. Rather, we follow the camera capturing the sounds and sights of the scene, in a way that seems unedited. Again, the film portrays neighborhood life, and how food becomes a way to understand how folks live their lives, and, again, with dignity.

Yigal also spoke about food writing, and how students in the class could potentially become food writers. This was important for us to hear, especially because Yigal’s story tells us how food became a way for him to explore the world. The taco crew also asked some amazing questions, ranging from aspects of migration and labor in Turkey, to appropriation and race in the food industry, how to represent folks without objectifying them, and how food shapes personal and group identity. I was super proud of the questions from the taco crew, as they demonstrated that the themes we’ve covered in the two books so far, as well as the discussions in class, are contributing to larger questions they are asking about how foodways humanize experiences through stories, and how communities build resiliencies through their foodways practices.


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