Saturday, February 15, 2014

What we eat and what we don't

When she realize that her mythic childhood Soviet kotleta was the result of a Soviet emissary's investigations in United States in the 1930s,  food writer Anya von Bremzen exclaims, “That’s what it was? an ersatz burger that mislaid its bun?” We often maintain a romantic view of food and many of the dishes or habits we consider being genuine or local are creations in the same way as the hot dog or the hamburger. Most “traditional” foods are late comers in the same way as most “traditional” farming systems. 

Food historian Rachel Laudan explains that a number of dishes may not be as local as we believe. In Hawaii people eat lomilomi salmon, a salted salmon rubbed with tomatoes and spring onions. There are no salmon off the coast of Hawaii and spring onions and tomatoes were brought there quite late. The baguette? Spread in France after World War II. Fish and Chips emerged in the late 19th century and Tequila is a product of the Mexican movie industry[i]. Even modern processed foods can become “traditional and national food”, Tim Horton’s donuts in Canada and Marmite in England are such foods. It is all the better if “other” people don’t like them; “Like it or hate it”? is a popular Marmite slogan. As I write Kalles Kaviar[1] even use this in a current TV commercial where they serve bread with Kalles in streets in Tokyo to unsurprising Japanese that almost vomit when the try it (but politely nod their head in appreciation). The final voice over is “Kalles Kaviar, a very Swedish taste.  

What we think is “our” food is a strong marker and there is often a lot of discrimination implicit, and sometimes explicit in who are “we” when food is discussed. In a study of the four most popular American Food magazines, the researchers[2] found that the magazines were clearly written for white- middle class people, they were the “we” when iconic holidays such as Thanksgiving or Independence Day was featured. The range of people at show is much more narrow than the population composition of United States. The introduction of “foreign” components is phrased in context of cosmopolitanism and diversity, rather then a representation of the already existing joint American heritage. Bon Apetit writes. “Italian and French [already “foreign”, my note] may be perennial faves, but these other cuisines draws you out and into their restaurant”. Identity is also created by what “we” don’t eat; not eating dog joins many Westerners[3] in disgust for China and Vietnam.

It is under the threat of competition from something else that we start to appreciate the local or traditional (whatever that is). “If nobody was attracted by the foreign, the local would be in no danger and there would be no need to protect it. The only reasons to make noise about the normal daily bread on the table is if it appears to be replaced by rice, noodles or corn flakes” concludes anthropologist Richard Wilk from Indiana University[ii]. Many of the national cuisines we think of today are social and cultural creations being part of a nationalist project. As late as in the 1980s the first pan-Indian cookbooks emerged. In the 1920s, Greek intellectuals were concerned about the effects of cosmopolitanism on Greek culture; this threat from the outside was the impetus to write the first pan-Hellenic cookbook for the still young Greek republic[iii]. Politics enter food in many different ways. People object to American imperialism by not eating hamburgers while the Americans dumped the British controlled tea into the Boston harbor, and turned to coffee instead. Most readers might remember the (rather pathetic) efforts in the United States to rebrand French fries into “freedom fries” as a protest of lack of French support for the second was in Iraq. This was reportedly inspired by similar actions against Germany in World War I, when sauerkraut was called "liberty cabbage", and frankfurters were renamed "hot dogs"[iv]. Hot dogs stuck, however.

People demonstrate a strange mix of neophobia and neophilia when it comes to food. Mostly we need to domesticate food from other cultures. So by pouring ketchup on an unfamiliar food it becomes American, by salting more, adding sugar and a flavorless cheese it can be Swedish;  with curry a dish is Indian. An interesting story is what happened with macaroni shipped by the Italian government Salvadorian refugees in camps in Honduras. Macaroni? What? thought the Salvadorians and set out domesticating it instead of making an Italian style dish with cheese and tomatoes (which they didn’t have in the first place). Deep fried macaroni made a nice snack; toasted and pulverized mixed with cinnamon, sugar and water and you got a nice drink and by grinding it to flour it could be baked into bread[v]

These are some of the political and cultural reasons for why we eat one thing and not another. Others are found in the local and economic conditions under which our food systems and diets developed. The post is raw material for my upcoming book Global Eating Disorder: the cost of cheap food.  

[1] Kalles kaviar is a Swedish brand of fish roe spread with the picture of the boy Kalle, the son of an ex CEO of the company owning the brand, Abba.
[2] Josée Johnston, Shyon Baumann and Kate Cairns from University of Toronto.
[3] For the record, I have eaten dog as well as whale and grasshoppers as well as crayfish (a Swedish national dish) and I do eat mushrooms, but not Kalles Kaviar or surströmming.

[i] A Plea for Culinary Modernism, food historian Rachel Laudan
[ii] Wilk, Richard 2009, Difference on the Menu: Neophilia, Neophobia and Globalization, in Inglis, David and Debra Giimlin (eds) (2009), The Globalization of Food, Berg
[iii] Inglis, David and Debra Giimlin (eds) (2009), The Globalization of Food, Berg
[iv] Fox News 2003  "Americans Just Say 'Non' to French Products". Fox News Channel. February 19, 2003.
[v] Fieldhouse, Paul, Food and Nutrition, 1998, Customs and Culture, Stanley Thornes Ltd

No comments:

Post a Comment