Political correctness is not very appetizing


Friday's lunch menu at the cafeteria of a big auto plant in Normal, Ill., offered meatloaf and egg rolls. It wasn't expected to cause a stampede by gourmets.

But it was politically correct and sensitive.

You never know where political correctness and sensitivity will rear its stern head. It's something new almost every day.

This is how it came to the company cafeteria of the Diamond-Star Motors Corp.

Some time ago, an executive asked the firm that operates the cafeteria to broaden the menu, offer more choices, provide some variety. Man does not live by tuna patty melts alone.

So recently, the cafeteria operators told the executive that they'd like to occasionally offer some traditional Southern cooking.

The executive, whose job includes approving the daily menu, said Southern cooking sounded fine to him.

The cafeteria went ahead with its planned menus, announcing what last week's selections would be.

And for Friday, it was to be a basic Southern meal: barbecued ribs, black-eyed peas, grits and collard greens.

Almost immediately, the executive was visited by two black employees, who said they were protesting the menu.

It wasn't that they didn't like barbecued ribs, black-eyed peas, grits and collard greens. To the contrary, many blacks consider it "soul food."

But they pointed out that Monday was the holiday honoring the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

And they said that it was an insult to his memory to serve a meal on the Friday before that holiday that some would consider a stereotype of black dining habits.

The executive was surprised. He is black and he was not offended by being offered barbecued ribs, black-eyed peas, grits and collard greens on a Friday before the King holiday.

So he said he would consider their objection and decide what, if anything, should be done.

But he didn't get a chance to do much considering. The offended employees got in touch with the local newspaper, the Peoria Star Journal, and told their story to a reporter. They said there might be a boycott of the cafeteria, although they conceded that some black employees weren't offended and didn't give a hoot what was served for lunch.

And when the paper came out, there was a big headline that said: "Menu Offends Diamond-Star Workers." And a smaller headline that said: "Vendor's plan to mark King holiday with soul food leaves bad taste."

A lengthy story laid out all the sordid details of the !c ribs-peas-greens-grits affront to Dr. King's memory.

As one of the angry workers said: "Martin Luther King's birthday has nothing to do with black-eyed peas and collard greens."

Which is true. On the other hand, his birthday has nothing to do with meatloaf and egg rolls, either. Especially the kind of egg rolls served in company cafeterias, which are an insult to Chinese people everywhere.

Faced with this sudden explosion of publicity, and the threat of a cafeteria boycott, the company executive issued an immediate order to the cafeteria operators: Cancel the ribs, black-eyed peas, collard greens and grits.

So the menu was quickly changed to meatloaf and egg rolls.

And political correctness and sensitivity again prevailed.

But was this a legitimate grievance and a display of disrespect for Dr. King's memory?

I knew Dr. King, but we never talked about his feelings about ribs, black-eyed peas, collard greens and grits.

But since he was from Atlanta, where there are many outstanding soul food restaurants, I have to guess that he would enjoy such a meal. Probably fried chicken, too. I would also guess that he would prefer it to meatloaf and egg rolls. For all I know, he might have enjoyed a bite of watermelon now and then, too, but not while cameras were nearby.

And what about the feelings of white Southerners who work at the auto plant? They, too, have a fondness for ribs, black-eyed peas, collard greens and grits. They consider these foods to be as much a part of their culinary culture as the blacks do. As a friend of mine, who is a white Southerner, told me: "Ah lub dah foo!"

As a matter of fact, ah lub dah foo, too. The last time I was in Atlanta, I defied my doctor's ban on cholesterol and took most of my meals at a little place that served some of the best rib tips, macaroni and cheese, greens and black-eyed peas I have ever eaten.

This fracas raises a question that could have far-reaching effects on company cafeterias.

Next Columbus Day, would it be an insult to serve spaghetti and meatballs?

And what about Presidents' Day? Just about all of our presidents have been WASPs. So does that mean that a cafeteria cannot serve the traditional WASP meal, as defined by Steve Martin, in the movie "The Jerk"? WASP soul food, if you missed the movie, was a tuna salad sandwich, Twinkies and a Diet Pepsi. Little wonder that WASPs are so grim.

I don't know what kind of business the auto company cafeteria did with the meatloaf and egg rolls. But my guess is that nobody had to organize a boycott.

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