Food Nation

Some Thoughts About KKK Cuisine and Stereotypes

A few months ago, photographer Anthony Karen made headlines when he published a series of photographs of Ku Klux Klan members. For nearly eight years, Karen observed and photographed "knights" and their families at home, at work, at play and, indeed, pursuing their supposedly peaceful white pride agenda exercising their first-amendment rights.

The photographs are startling, disturbing and, I believe, important to see, if only because they give us some clue into what may influence and sustain the membership of one of America's most secretive and controversial organizations. Commentators more insightful than I have looked at Karen's collection and written eloquently about the role of poverty politics, regionalism and racism in the continued existence of the Klan.

I looked at the photos and thought about the food in them.

This is not to say that I regarded the photo collection and its subject matter in a flippant manner. I noticed the featured comestibles because I believe that the foods we eat say a lot about us, things that are often surprising.

For example, shots of Klan members' domestic spaces suggest canned soda, specifically Coca-Cola (not diet), is popular, as is beer. But it's not, as one might assume, all Bud Light, Miller and other inexpensive domestic varieties. Newcastle Brown Ale is at least one KKK family's beer of choice. It's also a brew I remember as being semi-regularly stocked in our fridge at home.

Another photograph shows the modest interior of a KKK member's home, the man of the house front and center. My eyes quickly drifted past him to the cheery red gingham tablecloth on the table in the background. The spread of cans suggests a casual gathering, as does the bag of potato chips, which appear to be Lay's Sour Cream & Onion. That's my favorite flavor, by the way.

The most intense scene of consumption can be found in a shot of a cookout. KKK members -- some sitting, others standing -- surround a picnic table littered with condiments (barbecue sauce, mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise), chip bags, utensils and a large empty Tupperware container that once held (I think) tuna salad. It's a rather pedestrian spread, yet one all too familiar to me after a summer of similarly catered barbecues. Perhaps the most salient aspect of the photograph is that the central figure is holding a can of Pepsi Throwback, which is made with real sugar. Sort of a hipster choice, I immediately thought. (Not to say hipsters can't be KKK members and vice versa.) Regardless, an aversion to high fructose corn syrup is clearly not confined to one subset of Americans.

When I wrote at the beginning of this post that "I thought about the food" while looking at Karen's collection, I omitted the word "just" from that sentence because I believe food is rarely "just" food. What self-identified members of different groups eat can be considered a differentiating marker of their "culture." These choices, however, can also suggest certain, sometimes uncomfortable, similarities between them and us. When faced with the overlaps here, inevitable questions arise: Are we then like white supremacists? Or are they, in fact, like us? Did we diverge in spite of our differing social outlooks? What does it mean that certain culinary commonalities transcend politics, socioeconomics and regional identity? And finally, is there really an "us" and a "them" anyway?

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Joanna O'Leary