Bristol is not a melting pot

Words by Holly Nash; Illustration by Helen Hugh-Jones

Perhaps we need to put a moratorium on the phrase ‘melting pot’. Not only is it almost always a fundamentally inaccurate metaphor, but who even has a melting pot nowadays? It brings to mind less a crucible and more a big pot of fondue. Or perhaps it is accurate in a way that reveals what people really mean when they use it. The term ‘melting pot’ comes from the utopian American ideals of the late-19th, early-20th centuries, which said that every person, no matter where they came from, could be an American on equal footing. It was a lie then, but a century or so has stripped that lie bare. It’s often used to refer to any city with a degree of diversity, but the melting pot assumes a homogenisation towards a point where the cultures all meet. Often this is not a middle ground.

I think about this when I read about much of the ‘community’ ventures that sprang up over lockdown, claiming diversity, adverts for the great melting pot. Many of these ventures have their hearts in the right place; lots of them, including the Bristol Food Union, have done tangible good. But the media needs to be more critical of what these ventures really represent, who they include, and what terms they are included on. Why must it always be one group assimilated under the banner of another, rather than the other way round? And when this happens, who does it benefit more?

Today’s newsletter by Holly Nash examines this phenomenon in Bristol, where a city has been sold to the media as something easily parsed, as a fully incorporated melting pot. We should always be skeptical of these stories: cities are messy places, jagged with hidden inequalities and grievances ─ in fact, Bristol is one of the most racially unequal cities in the UK. To pretend otherwise is to smooth out those contours, to create adverts where there should be journalism. I hope this piece gets people to think more constructively and critically about how food movements can really serve communities best ─ shouting about it can be one part of the solution and gets the headlines, but the bulk of the work still goes on behind the scenes, uncredited, by those who may not have a voice but know how to listen.

Bristol is not a melting pot, by Holly Nash

‘Melting pot’ is a dangerous metaphor for any city. The term is rife in descriptions of Bristol: see restaurant reviews, travel guides, and even coverage of the Colston statue’s toppling. It condenses a complicated landscape into an easy soundbite. It suggests a place where all people and perspectives meld together. 

Lately, another imprecise term has been adopted to describe the spirit of Bristol: community. Charitable ventures and neighbourhood initiatives have spread across the city, all with the tagline of ‘community’. For Bristol restaurants, this renewed community spirit has been fronted by the Bristol Food Union. The organisation was quickly formed in response to the widespread closure of restaurants, and by the end of March it had a solid web presence and a ‘Feed the Frontline’ campaign.

“The idea for the model was that we'd raise money through a crowdfunder to pay the restaurants to create food for [people on] the frontline,” explains Aine Morris, one of the BFU’s founders. “And by paying the restaurants to create that food, they were then buying products from their suppliers.” 

The BFU is led by a small group of Michelin-starred chefs and industry figures who pooled their skills and resources. They swapped small plates for batch takeouts and cooked quality food for key workers. The aim was to keep these workers – NHS staff, support workers for various organisations – fed through the peak of the pandemic. But Aine hopes that it will have a long-lasting impact on the city’s food ecosystem. The mission is to “promote Bristol food businesses, and [drive] consumers in the city to avoid big supermarkets, avoid the big retailers and spend their money with independent food producers”, she adds.  

By all metrics, it’s been a success story. National newspapers have covered the efforts. Screen prints designed by Massive Attack co-founder Robert Del Naja were auctioned and raised huge amounts: print sales alone raised £106,000 for the cause, and served as a fantastic PR platform. It’s meant small businesses with little-to-no online presence have been featured on the BFU’s Instagram page and the feeds of its 5600+ followers. Since the national lockdown has lifted the BFU has continued to encourage the support of independent restaurants, and has joined a UK-wide campaign against ‘no-shows’.

Instagram has become an easy place to create, or rather curate, a sense of community, presenting an always-on positivity maintained by cheerful comments and high five emojis. The once-slick Instagram feeds of fine restaurants have been filled with DIY shots of chefs in face masks, toiling away over vats of food. There was a sudden change in tone: exclamations of ‘unprecedented challenges’ and efforts ‘to keep our nation well fed’ became the norm. The problem with such rhetoric is that, for many, such ‘challenges’ were already common. In Bristol’s concentrated areas of social deprivation, asking for help and sharing struggles was a necessity, not an act of humility. 

Easton, just outside the city centre, has been called ‘Bristol’s coolest neighbourhood right now’. It is also home to Baraka Community Café, a kitchen housed in a church. Before the crisis, Baraka worked with a very small community; people discovered the food service via the church service, or one of the many meetups hosted by the space. During lockdown, Baraka had to find new ways to reach those in need. Perhaps the Bristol Food Union presented an opportunity to reach the community? 

“They’ve listed us on their website, but that’s not how our users are reaching us, I don't think," says Esther Gooch, Baraka’s project leader. Instead, Esther works with a small team of volunteers, taking to the streets to deliver food packages to families and vulnerable, marginalised groups who often miss mainstream marketing campaigns, and who community initiatives often misunderstand. 

Esther came to her role at Baraka after years working in high-end London restaurants pressured by the competition for media coverage. "I got pretty annoyed at how exclusive everything was, how you had to pay so much for an ingredient that didn't actually cost too much, and was being produced by nature and good farming,” she explains. “We had amazing ingredients in these places, and some incredible suppliers doing really good things for the planet. But the goods of that only went to the people who could afford it."

Like London, Bristol has a trend of newcomer food entrepreneurs setting up restaurants in socially deprived areas. Restaurateurs who publicise a philosophy of ‘slow’ and local food and attract positive press for their ethical mantras. Meanwhile, the food culture that’s existed for decades is anchored in the lives of long-term residents yet remains ignored by the media.

Super Supper Club is another Easton-based initiative attuned to the broken food system. “We’ve been cooking here for four years and we have a very good idea of what our community wants,” says Helen Ashley, who leads the project with Rachel Hodgson. Both women are full-time frontline workers, and work voluntarily to turn surplus food from supermarkets into three-course meals. Menus are tailored to the community, incorporating halal and dietary preferences, and they point out the tendency for local community kitchens to offer exclusively or predominantly vegetarian menus. “We’re not about saying ‘you need to eat vegan food’. What we’re saying is, ‘we know you need a meal, we will cook the sort of food we know you like’,” says Helen. The suggested donation of £3 per meal has now been scrapped, as the team focus on feeding the vulnerable. Using vast amounts of perishable goods from supermarkets, the women cook hundreds of meals to freeze and distribute throughout the week.

“We support a diverse range of people and needs. We’ve supported people who have M.E, people with lung disease, older people who are scared to leave their homes, or people who have just lost their jobs,” adds Rachel. She describes the chilli enchiladas taken to an isolated woman who hadn’t had a hot meal in a week, the mother at home with six children, unable to leave the house for groceries ─ all the people who fall outside the brackets of mainstream charitable efforts. 

At The Bread Run in south Bristol – a not-for-profit, cost-price sourdough bread delivery service – every aspect of the bread has been moulded to meet the needs of the community, right down to the size and shape. “We’re baking around half of the dough in tins. It’s a more accessible and family-friendly format than the traditional hand-shaped sourdough,” says Chris Peers, one of the project’s founders. “Which people are loving – it’s a winning format for sandwiches.” This is just one tiny example of putting people over ego, foregoing a foodie shibboleth for socially appropriate food. 

This attitude is largely absent in an industry that posits the chef as culinary deity, rather than a steward of food. The dynamic between chefs and customers usually supports the ‘chef knows best’ approach. If, instead, restaurateurs engaged in discussions with the community – including their employees – they’d remain sensitive to its needs and wants. It’s a case of talking less and listening more. 

Fozia Ismail is a Bristol-based social anthropologist, chef and academic who uses food as a vehicle to explore themes of race, gender and identity. It was her supper club, Arawelo Eats, that caught the attention of food media nationwide. This began a series of encounters ─ and ultimately led to disillusionment ─ with a ‘cliquey’ food scene, where food writers and chefs of colour are welcomed on certain terms. “You’re kind of in it or you’re not. I’m not in it,” she explains. 

In keeping with her experiences, Fozia was made aware of Bristol Food Union when she was contacted in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. She commends the work they do, but was disappointed to be called only at this point. “I wasn’t really comfortable with it being led by them. I feel like everything is very tokenistically done.” 

Fozia questions crowdfunding efforts to save restaurants (and ultimately restaurateurs’ livelihoods) being assimilated with food aid work that has been carried out for years, with little recognition or reimbursement. “There’s nothing wrong with what’s being done. But just be upfront about the fact you’re fundraising to keep yourself going. Not just working to help other people.” 

Her words highlight a problem with any union using the term ‘community’. As writer Alicia Kennedy mentions in her newsletter: who constitutes this community? And who does it serve? If a group of self-appointed experts oversee and execute the salvation of a holistic ‘food community’, the efforts to ensure the survival of restaurants are conflated with efforts to ensure vulnerable people survive, full stop. The not-for-profit projects are offered aid to do the community work they were already doing. 

Another problem posed by well-meaning food initiatives that seek to perform a ‘breaking bread’ interaction between communities is the positive, idealistic tone adopted at the expense of unveiling inequity. Wrapped within utopian headlines of ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘melting pots’ is ignorance of how segregated Bristol really is. “It’s part of selling Bristol to the wider South West, the rich tourists.” says Fozia. “There’s zero interest in St Paul’s, zero interest in Easton, other than in a very tokenistic way.” This attitude can seep, unwittingly, into food initiatives that risk emphasising the outsider/insider mentality. “Be a grateful immigrant, be a grateful Black person”, as Fozia puts it. 

The question remains about whether Bristol’s food sector can really collaborate for an inclusive conversation around food and community in a meaningful way. Fozia doesn’t believe the system will be changed from within the existing structure. She looks to alternative models cooked up outside of it – initiatives like the Bristol branch of the National Food Service who have found creative, sustainable ways to organise mutual aid groups and community enterprises. 

Ari Cantwell, director of Coexist Community Kitchen in Easton, points to Josh Eggleton, the Michelin-starred chef and one of the co-founders of Bristol Food Union, as someone who has been able to successfully bridge that divide. For years, he’s found time for good causes, heading up the Cheers Drive initiative, which delivers food to the homeless, and donating his skills to provide hospitality training to people with disabilities. All whilst running multiple restaurant ventures. 

“There is a particular group of restaurants in Bristol who do have that social conscience, even before Covid-19,” says Ari. “The question is how do you do that, and not just do it as a token? Not simply give a proportion of your profits to an organisation, but really integrate more?” She also suggests that more chefs could volunteer their skills in community kitchens, learning to cook delicious and culturally appropriate food. Actions that mean donating time and interest, rather than just money. 

If both grassroots projects and gourmet restaurants are part of the conversation, then it’s up to the powerful to share their platforms and media connections. And the media itself also needs to reassess its own role in generating conversation. Both national and local outlets have jumped on stories of struggle and heroic resilience; it’s part of selling Bristol to the world. The preoccupation with presenting high-profile figures as pandemic superheroes paints a false and easily-parsed picture of Bristol, ignoring stories from people of colour and the working-class.

Perhaps an even bigger gesture of solidarity from any union seeking a more inclusive food industry would be to recruit a diverse board of trustees. On the whole, chefs – whether they have a Michelin star or not – are unaware of how vulnerable people access and engage with food. The people working directly with marginalised communities have incredible insight into how the industry could be reimagined for everyone. Community kitchens, food co-ops, growing projects and front-of-house and non-chef staff should all be included in conversations around change. Meaningful inclusion is only meaningful once it includes everyone.

Holly Nash is Bristol-based copywriter, who has written for and about restaurants You can find her on Twitter @hcntweet

The illustration was done by Helen Hugh-Jones of Nell’s Originals. Her work can be found on her Instagram and website . Both Helen and Holly were paid for their work.