Strange Fruit in the Friendly Toast

I finished my OB/GYN exam. Now it’s 6 down, 2 to go and I have a weekend off. A weekend I have thus far spent going to my medical school formal, lying in bed reading this book all day, making butternut squash gnocci 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 off-beat 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 sub-human. 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 e-mail our “concerns,” and then ignoring us when we said we didn’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
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 re-reading 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 beacons” like 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, 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 2/10/2015: According to Friendly Toast’s facebook page, they will be removing the drink from their menu. I’m not sure when, but thank you to everyone who tweeted and retweeted and shared this blogpost, and who joined in on the desire for change — we may have made a small but real difference! Thank you Friendly Toast — issuing a formal recognition and apology would be better, as in a separate post on your facebook page rather than a response to a comment but I’ll take changing the name. I’ll update again if they actually do remove the drink!

UPDATE PART 2, 2/10/2015: A post from Cambridge Day about removing the drink name.

UPDATE PART 3, 2/10/2015: Friendly Toast issued an apology and is removing the drink name from the menu. I appreciate that they listened to the multitude of voices calling for action and I look forward to eating their in the future. Thank you again.


37 thoughts on “Strange Fruit in the Friendly Toast

  1. I'm not here to argue, if you find the drink's name offensive, then that is your opinion. I will offer an alternative perspective. Without being the one who came up with the name, it seems plausible that the person who did name the drink was doing so to pay homage to Billie Holiday AND to get the message of the song out there. My natural assumption is that the person has a deep respect for the song which is why they named the drink the way they did.

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  2. Matt, I don't know how you think that's an alternative explanation. That's more or less exactly what the waiter and bar manager said, and nobody is arguing that its not true. The problem is that naming a happy fruity drink after the swinging corpses of Black people is NOT OKAY. And when somebody points that out, if your intent was truly to do no harm, you should listen, rather than argue.

    So, to be clear: good intent does not magically make it okay to name a fruity drink after the swinging corpses of victims of terror.

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  3. A well-meaning intent is fine – just learn from your mistake and fix it. Don't go on the offensive and feel hurt and defensive.

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  4. Mita – it's Anna Weick from Wellesley – thanks so much for writing this. Would you mind sending me an email anna.weick@gmail? I know a local journalist hoping to quote your piece.

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  5. http://youtu.be/w5asqNGCi3k – Catherine Wheel's “Strange Fruit” written in 1993. 54 years later after Ella's song of the same title. Completely different song, completely different analogy.

    Would it have been okay if that's where they got their inspiration to name the drink?

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  6. Anon — It's irrelavent because that's not what the drink was named after. It was named after a song about lynching.

    But to answer your question, no, because the original Strange Fruit was about such a horrific time period in American history that even if the drink was named after a different song, it is more than reasonable to imagine the response a black person could have when they see the name and that telling them, well no, don't worry it's about this other song, isn't really going to make it better. As I mentioned, it's not the intent that was problematic, I'm sure there was no malicious intent, but rather the very forseeable outcome of that drink name.

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  7. Speedyorange — Okay, but the problem is that when asked about what it was named after, they said an homage to Billie Holiday after that song in particular.

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  8. That's what I'm reading, yah. That list was made by the previous bar manager and I guess got lost in translation with new staff/changes. I'm sorry it wasn't able to be cleared up immediately

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  9. Speedyorange, why does it matter that it's named after the book that's named after the song that's named after the lynched people? At the end of it all, it's still a fruity cocktail named after a lynched person.

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  10. I was just trying to clear the air with mita. The menu formerly titled “modern classics”, was simply just a list of drinks named after the previous owners favorite classic novels alongside another list of “Hitchcocktails” (drinks named after hitchcock movies). Pretty simple and non-political intentions. Once again, sorry it was misconstrued.

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  11. The Friendly Toast has lots of cocktails named after books: Now Is The Hour, A Clockwork Orange, Death In Venice, Fahrenheit 451. It's been a while since my last visit but those are a few I recall. Strange Fruit is a classic novel about a interracial couple in love and the obstacles they face. The author Lillian Smith often wrote about gender and racial inequality. I don't see what everyone is so up in arms about here. Clearly the bar manager isn't a reader and maybe needs to pay a visit to their local library (and maybe some of you too who are so quick to lay blame). Why slander a great local restaurant because someone didn't know the origins of a drinks name?

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  12. Speedyorange — no need to apologize at all! I was just saying it doesn't matter. The book was entitled after a song about lynching, and transitively therefore, so was the drink. Intent isn't the issue here, as I said I don't think there was malicious intent at all, but rather how the situation was handled when it was brought up and raising awareness about the need to not only be liberal in name but also attempt to empathize with a group of marginalized people when they see a horrific part of their history diminished into a drink.

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  13. Come on folks? Why do you think the novel was named after a famous song anyway? To get some of the recognition the song generates. Since when did something being named after a thing change the meaning of the original. Plus the book is a tale about interracial relationships and deals with racism (which is why the author used a racial charged title). How does that erase the original, racial connotation of the song? Famous song about racism is used as the title as a famous book and then trivialized into a drink? Really?

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  14. I think Anonymous is having some issues with compassion, and is ticking off squares on the Defensive White People Bingo Card.

    If they really wanted an homage to Billie Holliday, how hard is it to name a drink “Lady Day”? I mean, come ON, people.

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  15. Hi Mita, saw this posted by Junot Diaz on FB via Cambridge Day. Thanks so much for bringing it up to your waiter and then writing about this. This quote is key – “They didn't think about it because they didn't have to.” I'm pleasantly surprised by Friendly Toast's response, as 'we're sorry you were offended, that wasn't our intent' non-apologies still abound.

    On a macro scale, I'm glad these conversations are happening and people who wouldn't have had a second thought about it are now forced to reconsider – if only briefly.

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  16. I worked for the original owners some years ago, and this never would have gotten by them, the new owners are making a mockery of a once great bastion of uniqueness, and breakfast.

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  17. This drink originated under the old owners on the bar menu 5 years ago when the Friendly Toast in Cambridge first opened. The new owners purchased the restaurant and menu with no knowledge of where the drink title came from and no knowledge of the historical context. The new owners have already reacted and removed this drink from their menus.

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  18. The swastika was originally created as a symbol of peace for millions of Hindus. But because of history, using it for any means of publicity would be distasteful. The same should apply.

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  19. Anonymous sounds pretty sane to me, the idea of attacking the business without actually trying to address it outside of the public is what is so embarrassing. What is offensive is to say that everyone should know the song and story behind it just because you do, or that all white folks need to pay more attention to everything because they're always just not being sensitive enough and they need to stop being defensive when they are being uniformly insulted (ironically, this should especially not be done when you're complaining about something being uniformly insulting). So, how about you listen to and digest this – not everything is about you, and no, not you because you're black or hispanic or anything else, just you, because you individually, you don't matter all that much, and you've been fooled into thinking you do.

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  20. …except that's not what she said. This isn't about expecting everyone to know everything, even if it would be nice if they did, it's about the appropriate way to respond when someone *tells* you (remarkably politely and reasonably, I would add) something you didn't know about how a thing is perceived from a different cultural context.

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  21. Anonymous #8 hit the nail on the head. Whether it was the book or the song, odds are that it was chosen from a list because it sounded like a good name for a drink. Given the history of both, *is* that appropriate? No, but people make mistakes all the time. There is a big difference between someone who accidentally does something offensive and someone who intentionally does that same thing.

    Mita, next time you get all fired up, please take a deep breath and try to handle the situation better yourself. You had an opportunity to right a wrong and educate at the same time (isn't that what you're supposed to learn how to do in doctor school?). By not being so aggressive and confrontational (macroaggression?) to the waiter, who almost certainly had no idea why the drink was named that, you wouldn't have put him on the defensive, which is what just about every human does when attacked. If you had just put down your thoughts on paper, either to the manager or the owner, I'm guessing they would have immediately seen things as you saw them and changed the name. But, instead, you chose to blast the restaurant in a public forum while bringing up every racially-charged buzzword you could tie together. Even if Boston were the most racist city in the US (which it almost certainly isn't), that has nothing to do with a bar picking a name for a drink without researching the connotation that might lend to said drink. I'm sure it feels great to be on the crusade, but there are more mature ways to effect change. Also, complimenting their food at the beginning of your blog post for one sentence doesn't make this anything close to a fair assessment of the situation. If you want the world to change, you have to take the high road once in a while yourself.

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  22. Anon– I was at the table, biting my tongue as hard as possible. I assure you, she never raised her voice, or was in any way aggressive. The three of us at the table were exceedingly polite to the waiter and manager, and perfectly clear.
    The waiter, on the other hand, continued to intrude on our meal even after I asked him (politely) to leave, twice.
    And I assure you, the experience did not feel good.

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  23. this seems like an honest mistake, insensitive maybe, but a mistake. many songs, books, and other forms of art are misappropriated for commercial reasons often with little or no knowledge of the content of such art. perhaps collective ignorance is more to blame than one little restaurant. settle down kids

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  24. Maybe because you made the waiter feel like he was a racist, which he likely is not. That's generally not a good feeling to have.

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  25. Time to quit feeding the troll (whose name is Anonymous) This is an well-written piece and I am glad that Junot Diaz lit it on fire so I was able to read it along with the comments. The drink's name is overtly offensive and insensitive. “I'll have a side of the Dachau fries with my BuchenwaldBurger”. Some things don't need discussion or debate. They just are.

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  26. Definition of MITA. : a forced-labor draft imposed by the Spaniards on the indigenous inhabitants of Peru

    Well MITA Shah Hoppenfield, looks like your parents need to apologize in more ways then one.

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  27. Hi Mita, this is a totally random tangent but I came across your blog and name, and wondered if you were the same Mita I studied abroad with at NYU in Madrid the Summer of 1999?? Amy Lurie- aelurie@gmail.com

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  28. Thank you Mita for exposing the latent racism that abounds in this so-called “liberal bastion” of Cambridge. I have eaten at The Friendly Toast before and experienced a strong sense of white privilege, general misogyny, and a startling ignorance of 1930s-era American Jewish poetry.

    I look forward to your takedown of other insidious culinary establishments. What about Grendel's Den and their “Beggar's Banquet?” This is clearly an attempt to ridicule the poor and homeless and I for one am looking forward to your take on this.

    Preach sister!

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  29. Would any of you racist apologists be rushing to defend a brunch spot with Auschwitz Fritatta's or Holocaust Hash Browns on the menu? I doubt it.

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  30. Would any of you racist apologists be rushing to defend a brunch spot with Auschwitz Fritatta's or Holocaust Hash Browns on the menu? I doubt it.

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  31. OMG, I am amazed at how Mita, and others, keep bringing it back to the song. The cocktail was named after the BOOK, which endorses racial equality and interracial relationships. The second you were schooled that you were wrong with your false assumption and accusation, YOU should have taken responsibility for your careless “blogging” and redacted your comments. That would have put this all to rest and saved the Toast an onslaught of unwarranted and falsely damning PR. It seems you aren't as well read and “enlightened' as I'm sure you think you are. And it's sad that you will never admit you were wrong or issue an apology to the Toast – an icon of liberal, progressive, accepting, fair, just, and equal ideology.

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  32. Wow – very powerful sentiment coming from something as apparently innocuous as a mis-named drink – but it's not – it's a symbol and reminder of a deep dark history that we all have to grieve and move forward from. Well done for your observations – and amazing the powerful of a little ol' blogpost every now and then, isn't it?

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