Politics & Policy

Whole Foods’ ‘Cultural Appropriation’ of the Chopped-Cheese Sandwich

(Dreamstime image: Jonathan Weiss)
Whole Foods is what you worry about when you’ve run out of real things to worry about.

In 2016, the nation lost its mind over many things: men in dresses, presidential candidates, and, not least, terrible sandwiches.

For the sake of our sanity, let’s talk about the sandwiches.

There is, in the parts of New York City above 125th Street, something called the chopped-cheese sandwich, or, as one local calls it, the drug-dealer sandwich. As a former resident of the South Bronx who was before that a Philadelphia resident, I will let you in on a little secret: The chopped-cheese sandwich is a knock-off of the Philly cheesesteak sandwich, which is itself — how to put this gently? — garbage food. (Delicious garbage food, to be sure.) Just as Philadelphians get insanely tribal over their preferred cheesesteak vendor (the one you want is from Bella Italia in Ardmore, by the way), New Yorkers, or at least a certain subset of them, take a cultish attitude toward their chopped-cheese sandwiches. The item even shows up in rap videos as a sign of uptown authenticity.

Chopped-cheese fetishism is an extension of bodega fetishism (my local place in the Bronx was run by two very rage-y Egyptians who were always screaming at somebody on the phone in Arabic and hence was known as the “Bodega al-Qaeda”) which is itself only a sub-current of the worst and phoniest of all New York pretensions, i.e., complaining about how nice the city became once Rudy Giuliani put his boot on the neck of the squeegee man and all his little criminal friends. You hear this all the time, upscale Manhattanites who have never been so much as downwind of a mugging talking about how they miss the old days when Times Square was full of hookers and porn shops and the city was so much more “vibrant” and nobody wanted to live there.

“Vibrant” means poor and dirty and terrible, which is to say, the opposite of Whole Foods, which is expensive and clean and great. So when Whole Foods began selling its own version of the chopped-cheese sandwich — on Columbus Circle, no less, from a cart marked “1492,” for eight bucks — the culture warriors lost their damned minds. The usual noises were made: cultural appropriation, imperialism, etc., evil Corporate America selling a ghetto staple to white-bread tourists in an entirely anodyne corner of Manhattan.

But the real cultural appropriation here is being done by those black and brown critics of Whole Foods: If there is a definition of well-off white-people problems, it’s worrying about what’s for sale at Whole Foods. You think the poor and dispossessed and oppressed of this world care about whether that $25-a-pound roasted salmon is farm-raised or wild-caught? I think not. If you are close enough to a Whole Foods to get pissed about what’s in the deli case there, you are a 1-percenter, globally speaking. You have won the game of civilization, and if you aren’t happy with the state of your life, then you probably aren’t trying hard enough.

This phenomenon is a kind of social gout, a disease of affluence. This is what you worry about when you’ve run out of real things to worry about like famine, war, and slavery. As such, it is no surprise that this disease afflicts the people of New York City, which isn’t an especially rich city (the median income there is lower than the median income of New York State) but a city where the cultural tone is set by the rich, who congregate in six or seven of its neighborhoods.

The real cultural appropriation here is being done by those black and brown critics of Whole Foods.

I moved to New York in 2008, which, I fear, we’ll look back on as the end of a golden age of safety and livability in the city. My first neighborhood was in the South Bronx, not far from the intersection where the death happens at the beginning of Bonfire of the Vanities. It was, famously, one of the worst neighborhoods in the United States, once. When I lived there, it was a perfectly pleasant example of early-stage gentrification. Later, I moved into Manhattan, down by city hall. In my time in New York, I never saw a hooker on the streets of Manhattan (you’d see a very specialized version of those professionals on the Third Avenue Bridge going into the Bronx) or a drug dealer or a mugging. You could find all those things, sure, but they were pretty rare unless you went looking for them.

I did see a great deal of “cultural appropriation” in the form of phony “Southern” food in trendy Brooklyn restaurants and in Manhattan “dive” bars where the owners had spent $200,000 to make them look like crappy establishments on the outskirts of Lubbock, Texas. I never felt offended by this, though it often is hokey. Indeed, as more than one observer has pointed out, the ironic effect of all these protests about cultural appropriation is that a vaguely defined white culture — the “unmarked” nature of “whiteness” is part of the Left’s oddball rhetoric here — ends up being the only shared and shareable culture, and hence is reinforced in its position of dominance.

All of this in a world in which Taco Bell exists.

#related#The prankster-documentarian James O’Keefe, early in his career, succeeded in convincing his college that Lucky Charms, a leprechaun-themed breakfast cereal, should be banned on grounds of cultural insensitivity. He rages at the deans about Irish suffering, English oppression, and the potato famine: “I don’t feel lucky!” he thunders. It’s good stuff, and even better is the fact that they took him seriously.

“Children are starving in China,” they used to tell us when we complained about this or that. Children aren’t starving in China any more, thanks to capitalism, or in India, and we’ll fix up the rest of the world, too, just as soon as the politicians let us. And, one fine day, some well-fed youngster in Somalia will bitch about the local Whole Foods selling cambuulo for $22 a serving.

We will have won, and it will be glorious. Annoying, but glorious.


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