Service of Well-Meaning Gestures That Miss the Mark

February 6th, 2023

Categories: Birthday, Misunderstanding, Political Correctness, School, School Lunch, Sensitivity


Image by Shaun from Pixabay 

You may remember similar stories. This one was about a spectacular surprise 50th birthday party that went south because the birthday girl didn’t want anyone to know how old she was. Her husband, who planned a creative and lavish event for everyone she knew, didn’t understand that about her. When she arrived at the venue, her expression was of horror, not surprise.

It happens.

Misunderstanding may also have happened at a Nyack, N.Y. middle school on the first day of Black History Month. A student received a lot of local publicity for criticizing the cafeteria for serving what she considered to be a racially insensitive meal: chicken, waffles and watermelon. She was on TV news, all over the papers, and the media also jumped to the conclusion that the meal was indeed a terrible slight.

The food service company apologized.

Because of my marketing background, I wondered whether the meal planner at the food service company had been trying to do something in recognition of the day, to respect it–in no way intending to make fun of it or demean it.

I mentioned the incident to Deborah Wright, a retired Chicago public lower and middle school teacher with 40 years under her belt. When I said: “call out the food police” she replied: “Food police for sure! I am pretty sure if it is a typical school, there will be other choices in the cafeteria. I agree that it was offered as appreciation for Black History Month. It would be comparable to Casimir Pulaski Day in Chicago highlighting pierogis and sauerkraut. Only in Chicago was that day celebrated!”

A friend who for many years was a food service director/chef at a major hospital said: “holidays always required themed days. So typical meals of the celebratory day were served and my food establishments were decorated in that holiday du jour!  People lightened up celebrating cultures.

“Maybe I don’t understand why this meal is offensive, sounds like a meal kids will eat…isn’t that the point of a school food service?

“Christmas/Hanukkah we’d serve ham, sweet potatoes next to the roast chicken and latkes, fresh vegetables, decorations, and a smile. One year, a black customer told me I wasn’t representing Kwanzaa. So, I asked her for help. She was thrilled. We served goat stew and fried fish, collard greens, black eyed peas and rice. I bought decorations and asked her to help. She told everyone and we were so busy pulling it off. It was a great success!”

It’s a shame that the CBS 2 News at 11 PM producer didn’t read up on the distinguished pedigree of the chicken and waffle dish. Like many popular recipes, kitchens and towns claim to have invented the combination in the South, in Pennsylvania and New York City. Harlem World Magazine found the best execution in its backyard: “Well’s Restaurant In Harlem, The Best Chicken And Waffles In The World 1938-1982,” was the title of an article.

According to the magazine: “Tori Avey reports that Wells became a late night hotspot for jazz musicians, who would stop by late at night after their various gigs. The musicians, arriving too late for dinner but too early for breakfast, enjoyed the appetizing compromise of fried chicken and waffles. Before long, Wells was frequented by the likes of Nat King Cole (who held his wedding reception there).” Avey is a food blogger. Sammy Davis Jr, Kim Novak and Frank Sinatra were only some of the celebrities who also frequented the restaurant.

The husband in the first example should have first checked with his wife’s best friend to float the concept of a surprise 50th. That might have averted a disaster. I wonder if the chicken-waffle-watermelon meal would have received kudos if there was a simultaneous recognition of Black History Month at the cafeteria through decoration the way the hospital food director amplified celebratory holiday food? Are we at the point at which we can’t safely recognize anyone’s heritage at a public school cafeteria? Or, at the opposite extreme, must we not miss a single holiday, starting with St. Swithin’s Day?


Image by WOKANDAPIX from Pixabay 

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15 Responses to “Service of Well-Meaning Gestures That Miss the Mark”

  1. BC Said:

    When is White History Month?

  2. ASK Said:

    Another take on the 50th birthday party…I was thrilled with mine, arranged by my husband who was more than a few years older than I. Guests also enjoyed the party, including one close friend of his, of a similar age, who actually came up to me and said, “I’m so happy you’re 50, you look great and you’re finally catching up to the rest of us.”

    Sorry, but the complainant about the cafeteria food should get a grip and take a more positive outlook on people’s intentions in this great age of enhanced sensitivity, the 24/7 news crunch, and social-media harpies.

  3. Jeanne Byington Said:

    ASK,

    I LOVE the friend’s comment. Still smiling.

    The kneejerk finger wagging against the food service company by the media, not a single one I heard positing that just maybe someone thought they were doing a respectful thing, is what surprises me and is what inspired me to open the possibility here.

  4. David Reich Said:

    I would think the husband should have known his wife’s wishes Re a birthday party.

    I don’t see a problem with the chicken and waffles in the school cafeteria, but watermelon has had av racist connotation to it for a long time. It might not have been an issue if they hadn’t included watermelon.

  5. Jeanne Byington Said:

    David,

    I think we all need to take a breath and not jump to negative conclusions. I hope they don’t serve French toast anywhere on Bastille Day because the direct translation of this dish– pain du pauvre–is “bread of the poor.” Insulting to someone no doubt. But gosh. I feel sorry for the person who came up with the idea of doing something pleasing who no doubt has been fired. Lighten up people. What healthy dessert would be OK?

  6. ASK Said:

    David’s comment reminds of a remark on Georgia TV upon the opening of a Six Flags amusement park near Atlanta. A reporter was interviewing one of the executives of Six Flags and zeroed in with a question of specific amenities for the Black community. The hapless individual pondered for a second (an eternity in broadcast media, as you know), then said, with some hesitation, “Well, we serve fried chicken and watermelon in all our restaurants…” End of interview, per a client of mine at that time.

  7. Linda Levi Said:

    Linda on Facebook: The use/choice of such a complete, stereotypical meal perceived so negatively today by the African American community is what makes this sad, hurtful, potentially harmful and racist. While intent may have been right, execution very flawed in my opinion.
    As for the surprise party, wouldn’t you think/hope husband knew his wife better? And wouldn’t need insight from her friend?

  8. lucrezia Said:

    Current attempts at PC behavior are nauseating while giving off a stench of insincerity as well. Addressing history in a racial manner is discriminatory in itself since it ignores/disregards equal and/or more important events. How about treating our black brethren as fellow citizens? That also goes for other folks of colour. No more “African” “Asian” “Native” & etc. Americans – just Americans — or are those insisting on particularization closet members of The Proud Boys?

    Both CBS and their small “heroine” need to learn that equality means inclusion and acceptance into a culture, which means the enjoyment of watermelon, chicken, waffles, and the works!

  9. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Linda,

    At some homes they traditionally serve fish on Christmas Eve and at others roast beef and still others ham. So does this mean that the hapless menu planner for any school had best steer clear of any and all of these in recognition of Christmas holidays so as not to offend some?

    What’s the difference between traditional and stereotypical other than the latter is considered offensive by some? What menu would be appropriate?

    I think that there may be a possibility that the menu planner meant no harm, which is the point of my post.

  10. Deborah Wright Said:

    People need to read Ray Bradbury’s classic, Fahrenheit 451. There is a wonderful section where books and subjects are destroyed because they might offend some people. Even though it was written in the 1950’s it is uncannily prescient in its recognition of a society that is mesmerized by the new electronic talking walls. Bradbury recognized the inherent danger of television and its hypnotic impact on people so they don’t have to think. And, banning anything that might offend someone.

  11. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Deb,

    I am afraid it has come to that.

    Someone should make a list of politically correct food to be served in public school. What a shame for those who might not otherwise taste food enjoyed by other cultures such as the pierogis and sauerkraut served in Chicago to celebrate Casimir Pulaski Day. There must be some Poles who resent the recognition or who would select other foods to represent the day.

    It’s exhausting.

  12. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Lucrezia,

    I just had a flash. Our mother liked to have on hand our boyfriends’ favorite desserts. For one of yours she always had cherry pie and chocolate ice cream in the house. For Homer, she made floating island.

    So I naturally think of people trying to please others with food choices–not demean or make fun of them.

  13. Linda Levi Said:

    Linda on Facebook: You said it yourself perfectly– if some will find it offensive that’s a problem. And you’re probably right in that intent wasn’t to be harmful, but in my opinion it’s clear there was an absence of insight.

  14. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Linda,

    I wasn’t clear. I think schools should be able to celebrate the dickens out of any and every holiday because it would make lunch fun for the kids and the chefs. Grumping about the small stuff is way out of control. If need be, a PTA could agree on what it considered appropriate recipes.

    Otherwise, so what if the latkes or Christmas cookies aren’t like the ones grandma makes–are they stereotypical or traditional?–and that a Jewish food would insult a Muslim student? What happened to melting pot? We might also consider the suggestion of Lucrezia above: “No more “African” “Asian” “Native” & etc. Americans – just Americans.” I’m proud of my French roots but consider myself American pure and simple.

  15. Linda on Facebook Said:

    Linda on Facebook: This is too complex a topic to really continue here. In short, it’s not offending others that concerns me, but if the group being highlighted is offended then in my opinion it’s not a good choice. To be continued when we’re face to face.

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