Privilege in the Gardens

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French Laundry Gardens

It’s a sunny February afternoon in Yountville, California, in the heart of Napa Valley. My fellow bloggers and I just finished a sumptuous lunch at Michael Chiarello’s Bottega, easily a new contender for one of the best meals of my life, and have consumed just enough wine to give the landscape a softened haze.

Yountville is also home to The French Laundry, one of the best restaurants (if not the best) in America. Chef Thomas Keller’s gardens that supply the restaurant are open to the public, and we stop briefly to wander the rows of produce.

My feet squelch through the damp grass. A gardener tills the soil in rows of cabbage. Bees hum at a nearby hive. The gardens are so straight and immaculate, I wonder if Keller has a secret garden that grows wild and straggly, where he hides the really good vegetables.

We’re happy. It’s the perfect time to take a group photo.

“Ooh, let’s get the farmhand in the background!” squeals one blogger.

And I freeze.

Bottega Wine Glasses

I’ve worked in the restaurant industry and I consider it among the most formative experiences of my life. Anyone who has worked in the restaurant industry in the United States knows that restaurants are built on undocumented immigrants. (Not every immigrant who works in a restaurant is undocumented, but a great many of them are.) And these people are often the hardest working employees with the worst jobs in the kitchen — and, paradoxically, the best attitude.

That goes for the fields, too, especially in an agriculture-driven state like California. I don’t know this man’s story; I wish I did. But he is not an Instagram prop.

We live in a time when Donald Trump is on his way to the Republican nomination after claiming that he wants to round up and deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants. A time when the alternative Republican candidates argue about who speaks Spanish better and who would treat immigrants worse.

Anthony Bourdain was succinct: “If Mr. Trump deports 11 million people or whatever he’s talking about right now, every restaurant would shut down.”

Napa Flowers

Like most of my blog trips, our group consists of entirely white middle-to-upper-class bloggers. And that is a problem. It’s not enough that one of the bloggers says hello to the gardener and chats with him in Spanish. It’s not enough that I write and publish this post. What we need is people of diverse backgrounds going on these trips and sharing their viewpoints.

(The travel blogging world can be surprisingly segregated by race. Did you know that? How many bloggers of color do you actually read? Think about it.)

The overwhelming whiteness of our group stands out even more as we explore Oakland, a phenomenally diverse city with a history of social justice. Here, I’m struck by how this city isn’t defined by a white narrative with people of color relegated to side players, a place where hip-hop isn’t “too scary” or “too inappropriate” for families to dance to on a Friday night at the excellent Oakland Museum of California.

But this isn’t a story about Oakland — that will come in due time. This is about a moment while standing in the French Laundry gardens, sunshine on our faces.

My stomach turns at the thought of smiling white people who make their living traveling to exotic places and posting pretty photos on Instagram making sure they get the brown-skinned gardener, a man who likely went through hell to get here today, in the background of their selfie, because — why, exactly? To prove how much better we have it than him?

“No,” I say. “No farmhand. Just us.”

I take a selfie of our group, but the moment’s gone. It sits on my phone, never to see the light of day.

I was hosted in Yountville as part of a campaign with Visit California. All opinions, as always, are my own.