In many ways, Cardi B is a tale of two Americas—one that says if you pull yourself up by the bootstraps, you’ll be fine, and one that tries to be there as a resource in case those bootstraps break (or, more likely, were never there to begin with). Cardi has never been afraid of showing us how those different Americas have intertwined in her life; in Bodak Yellow, she lets us into her world of newfound fame and fortune, and how it’s taking her to places and experiences that were otherwise out of reach:
I go to dinner and steak
Only the real can relate
I used to live in the P’s
Now it’s a crib with a gate
Rollie got charms, look like frosted flakes
These four lines are significant, not just for their catchiness (and the fact that I get a little too hype when Bodak Yellow comes on) but for what they signify. With her newfound fortune, Cardi’s going out to eat dinner and steak, which has always been a quintessential status symbol, a personification of version of “Hey Mama, I made it!” In this sense, Cardi is no different than the rest of us.
But this leads us to the bigger question of what food is, and what it comes to symbolize once a person has made it out of the P’s and into a crib with a gate (or at least a decently sized NYC apartment). Food becomes more than nourishment or a way to connect with others; it becomes a status symbol, one that goes beyond community and taking pleasure in one of life’s most basic necessities. It’s an act of performance that none of us are immune to—whether we work in food media or not —and if we’re gonna keep it real a là Cardi, then we should also admit that our Instagram and Facebook feeds do much of the same thing. I’m less interested in the kind of food Cardi’s eating now and really interested in what Cardi and others like her were munching on pre-dinner and steak. Because the truth is that there are a lot of folks in this country who don’t have the disposable income to afford dinner and steak, but whose voices are still just as valuable and needed in the discourse on food in America.
Since we’re keeping it real (Cardi wouldn’t want anything less), I think the food world does its part to perpetuate this divide that exists between the experiences of the have and have nots. It seems like much of food media is centered around this idea of luxury—the luxury of being able to dine out at 5-star establishments, create recipes using ingredients that are expensive or hard to find, and set the bar with techniques and terminology unfamiliar to the average working-class person. So where does your everyday Joe and Jane go if they want to see a mirror of themselves in their dining experiences? Surely there are more people who have been to a restaurant or two in their lifetime and can appreciate food as much as the next restaurant critic, and enjoy the opportunity to channel their inner Pete Wells. How can everyone a get a seat at the table, or do we simply accept financial restraint as an excuse for lack of access?
When we do talk about working-class America and what they eat, much of it is centered around scarcity—whether there is a lack of healthy food in bodegas, urban gardens, food deserts,or “ethnic food” spots that are popular among your average “Cheap Eats under $10!” lists. And I’m not saying that the stories surrounding scarcity and “ethnic foods” are not necessary (they absolutely are) however, we need to explore the stories in the middle of the spectrum between luxury and scarcity and look at how these two sides coexist for a lot of folks in America.
I want to hear the stories of how people LOVE the biscuits at Red Lobster (guilty as charged) despite it not being made with artisanal flour and cheese and hand-kneaded 234,034 times in a bakery somewhere in Brooklyn. Where are the conversations about how upward mobility affects the way you taste the world, and the ability to afford things and experiences your parents never attained and worked so hard for you to have?
There’s so many nuanced, beautiful stories waiting to be told stories to tell regarding class and privilege that we have yet to unpack, and we shouldn’t be afraid to go there. And yet all of us are, because talking about class and privilege or anything along the lines reveals feelings about ourselves and others that we’d rather not confront or be confronted about. To say that we all experience some form of advantage and disadvantage means that we not only have to acknowledge that, but expand our thinking to get real about personal biases as they relate to who actually has a say in food experiences? How do we get everyone to have a seat at the table and make sure no invite gets “lost” in the mail?
Cardi B affirms that there is room at the table for all of us. As Cardi, a daughter of immigrants who grew up in a working-class neighborhood, whose diction and cadence didn’t always fall into what’s “acceptable” by mainstream society, has a right to be heard. And if we want to practice what we preach in terms of inclusion, we have to make sure that all voices are not only heard loud and clear, but are also able to express the complexities of their experience living in this world without reprisal.
Let’s stop judging folks by their food choices and what they can or cannot afford to put in their mouths. And let’s not judge ourselves either, for what we do and do not know, for the world is big and wonderful and full of the unknown. Let’s stop boxing people into neat little categories that appeal to our senses, sensibilities, the masses and our collective consciousness, because our work is never done. There are so many stories waiting to be written and told, and so much more opening up of our worlds to be had.