I have a weekend off that I have thus far spent going to my medical school formal, lying in bed reading this book all day, making butternut squash gnocchi in a brown butter sage sauce adapted from this recipe with blistered shisito peppers and a butternut squash ginger bisque, talking to my mom, doing my nails in a lovely black color, and wrapping my mind around an event that happened at the Friendly Toast in Cambridge on Friday.
The Friendly Toast is a wonderful beacon of offbeat hipsterness in Kendall Square that serves delicious breakfast/brunch food with amazing waffles, interesting breakfast plates and unconventional drinks. So unconventional that one of their drinks is called “Strange Fruit.”
I don’t remember exactly what went into the drink, because I couldn’t entirely believe what I was seeing. “Strange Fruit,” a poem written by Abel Meerpol and immortalized into a song by Billie Holiday and later Nina Simone. “Strange Fruit,” a song of protest and grief so deep and palpable that I can’t quite wrap my mind around it.
Southern Trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood on the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulgin’ eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin’ flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
A song that should never, ever, ever be the name of a fruity drink, especially in a restaurant that purports to be a liberal hipster beacon in the heart of one of the most academic cities in the country and near a city that has an enormously problematic racial history.
But I am aware that not everyone knows of the song, and after looking at the menu for a few moments and repeating, “Wow, that’s offensive. Wow, that is offensive. Wow, that is offensive” I decided to bring it to my waiter’s attention. Perhaps they didn’t know? Perhaps, in their self-righteous, racially privileged positions they just didn’t know what the song was about and didn’t hear about the Strange Fruit PR firm debacle of 2014. Maybe.
We ordered our food and I brought it up to our waiter saying, “The drink name is offensive, as the song is about black bodies swinging from trees (the strange fruit), and naming a drink after it is repackaging domestic terrorism into a pretty picture.” The (white) man looked genuinely taken back, and for a moment there was a glimmer of hope. Maybe they didn’t know. Maybe they thought, “Huh, fun name, we are strange and we like fruit – boom.” Maybe … not.
The short of the story – after bringing it up and asking him to take it to his manager or whomever the drink menu maker is, he repeatedly returned to our table to “discuss” the issue. It started out as him saying he had never heard the song and what a horrible tragedy it is that people continue to face racism, and then eventually morphed into telling me, “You know, we just have have to see the positive light of things. The drink was supposed pay respect to a great singer, and well, there’s a positive light. Try looking at it from a positive.” Oh yes, I should just see things in a positive light. How could I forget?
Some highlights: “We can’t take down everything that offends anyone in the restaurant. What about that picture [a picture of a man holding two animals on a leash], is it animal cruelty? Should we take it down if someone is offended by it?” Yep, hanging black bodies and animal cruelty are quite similar in that black people were treated as subhuman. And some extra verses of
“I’m sorry you’re offended, I’m sorry you’re offended, look, I’m sorry it offends you,” telling us it was inappropriate to bring it up with a waiter and we should email our “concerns” and then ignoring us when we say we don’t want to have this conversation anymore. Multiple times.
The bar manager came over, apologized for the waiter and reiterated that the drink was meant to be be an homage to Billie Holiday and not meant to be offensive.
Then why not name the drink “Summertime” or “Fine and Mellow” or “Crazy He Calls Me” or any number of other songs she sang? Why that song in particular? Why select a song that was sung with anger, sorrow and fearful fearlessness the depth of which many of us cannot possibly understand today? Because you’re trying to be edgy? Controversial? Because it’s a cute name and who would notice a 1939 song on a drink menu, given that the majority of your clientele is well-to-do white folk?
I truly don’t believe that anyone at The Friendly Toast made a conscious decision to name a beverage after lynching. I think they just didn’t think about it, and that’s the problem. They didn’t think about what it would be like for a black person to read that on the drink menu, the bile-rising horror of reading and rereading the name that evokes hanging black bodies and radically appropriating it into a blend of liquor. They didn’t think about it because they didn’t have to. A few generations back, most of their ancestors were not owned, sold and brutalized. They may look at Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and get upset, support the protests, and say “Man, that’s horrible, when is it going to end?” but stop before they try to truly empathize enough to understand what it could feel like for someone who is black to hear, “I’ll have a strange fruit” or “The strange fruit is a great.”
I am tired of people telling me to see the “positive light” in microaggressions (unintended discrimination) as though somehow the lack of malicious intent makes it all better. I get it – no one likes being told something they did is offensive, but demanding that people of color stop being offended and just “try to see the positive” is dismissive, demeaning and halts progress. It infantilizes and diminishes the value of how a group of people feel, which is racist. Always remember that racism can exist without racial animosity.
It is critical that people open themselves up to the uncomfortable sensations of discussing race and microaggressions, particularly in “liberal bastion” such as Cambridge where most people (who are not people of color) don’t expect racism and don’t see microaggressions. So please, if you are white and a person of color tells you something is offensive – fight down the urge to defend because you didn’t mean it and just listen and digest. Ruminate on it and grow yourself, because “standing your ground” isn’t going to get us very far.
I will not be going back to The Friendly Toast as long as that drink is on the menu, and I ask that if you live in Cambridge or Portsmouth, N.H., please consider finding somewhere else to enjoy a delicious breakfast. Though the owners may feel that “inclusive” is the word that best describes their restaurant, their drink menu and staff say otherwise.
Update on Feb. 10, 2015: After a mention on Eater, a Facebook status update by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and MIT professor Junot Díaz and a flood of upset tweets restaurant says it is taking the cocktail off its menu. Read more here.