Colonizing close to home

One of the strands of history I follow in Food Margins is the Minute Tapioca Company saga, starting with its invention by a woman named Susan Stavers in Boston in the late 1880s or early 90s. Stavers was basically done out of the rights to her product by businessmen in Orange, Massachusetts who figured out how to mechanize and scale up production of her signature silky-smooth tapioca pudding. She died in poverty shortly afterward, a sad non-success story that I don’t think anyone had uncovered before now.

And I hadn’t really thought of Stavers as part of the thick layer of un- or under-compensated labor that the whole modern food system rests on, until I read this piece by Adam Reiner in TASTE about how Trader Joe’s seemingly clones smaller “ethnic” food brands for its own wildly successful private-label products.

TJ’s has “a colonial mindset,” notes an entrepreneur who talked to Reiner about seeing the chain launch a product suspiciously similar to their own after abruptly breaking off negotiations about collaboration. “Whenever something is cheap, somewhere along the line, someone is being taken advantage of.”

The article is talking about colonialism in terms of cultural differences and distances, as we tend to do. But thinking about the similiarities with Susan Stavers’ experience makes me realize that that colonial mindset is quite willing to throw anybody under the bus – Stavers was a white, middle-class Yankee – if there’s a profit to be made. At bottom, extractiveness is the real name of the game.




1 month ago

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