A few years ago, the city council of Lucca in the Tuscan region of Italy declared a ban on "ethnic" foods. The council explained that this measure was imperative to protect the integrity of Tuscan products and cuisine, and blocked the opening of any new "ethnic" restaurants “with a view to safeguarding culinary traditions and the authenticity of structure, architecture, culture and history,” in the exact words of the Lucca municipal council. This flagrant act of gastronomic racism belies the fact that culinary globalization has been synonymous with human civilization since the earliest memory. The ubiquitous Spice trade between almost all the regions of the ancient world led to a dissemination of flavors, and with it, a variety of dishes and recipes that we now take for granted in national cuisines. Even something as basic as a pilaf – simply, rice made in a flavorful broth – spans multiple geographies, with pulao in India, polow in Iran, pilafi in Greece. Drop the linguistic parity and you still get paella in Spain, jambalaya in Louisiana or jollof rice in West Africa.
While more joyful evidence of shared culinary heritages is all around us, food, sadly, remains one of the most contentious, divisive and politicized aspects of everyday life. Some of the most intense divisions are, of course, religious in nature: Hindu aversion to beef, Muslim and Jewish aversion to pork and the many fasting rituals in Christianity are some obvious examples. Diet is among the most central arguments against interfaith marriages. Meanwhile, some of the most racist slurs, sadly, revolve around food differences: “kraut,” “limey,” “dog-eater,” “curry-muncher,” “rice-eater,” “koshie,” “doner,” “beaner,” “chalupa,” “banana,” “oreo,” “coconut,” “garlic-eater” etc. The list is shamefully long!
However, there are forms of food prejudice that remain largely under the radar or have become accepted in mainstream parlance. A few years ago, a woman I worked for walked into the office I shared with a colleague and asked for recommendations for a fancy restaurant to entertain some clients. As my colleague started to throw out names, my boss suddenly realized I was in the room as well. She flashed me a smile and said, “Ethnic will do!” Incredibly, it was meant as an inclusive gesture, but for me, who had always seen Indian food as a diverse and multifaceted cuisine spanning dynamic street food, home-cooking or the elegant and intricately prepared core of Indian culture’s highest ceremonies, it was a shock to find out that none of these permutations matched the haute standards of French or Italian, but rather might simply “do.”
Even as the explosion in foodie culture in recent years has brought us closer to more and more niche cuisines from around the world, ironically (insidiously), prejudiced and exoticist discourse around food remains ingrained in our general vocabulary and daily interactions – this however “aware” or liberal the urbane consumer may imagine himself to be.
The hierarchy between high and low cuisine continues to dominate the collective foodmind. There is a great reluctance, even now, to admit certain cuisines that have had humble beginnings in big western cities as take-out or street food into the club of the fancy, or to use a very loaded word, “classic.” A fairly recent review of a trendy New York restaurant which served “nouvelle Korean” called it a “rash experiment,” declaring that, “as one stylish, mannered course succeeds another…it’s hard not to feel that infectious, communal quality that makes good Korean cooking special being slowly leached out of the meal.” It is unclear what is specifically infectious or communal about Korean food that doesn’t exist generally in all food rituals, but it seems the reviewer’s disappointment stems from the displacing notion of Korean food as snobbish or fancy. A fellow diner at a dinner party once even argued that Mexican or Indian food isn't supposed to be fancy or high-end. Only foods from rich places like France should be fancy. She argued that to make such foods fancy is to project certain western sensibilities onto these cultures, and refused to believe that people within those cultures can have an endogenous or authentic desire for creatively served food in a luxurious setting.
We at Warscapes hope to discern (and destroy!) some of the dangerous undercurrents to what we see as a renaissance moment right now when it comes to the culture of food, not just at the level of innovation, creativity and representation, but also in the proliferation in cities worldwide of restaurants preparing and serving foods from far-away places. There remains a grave danger in all of this of slipping into some of the same traps that drive race, class and gender relations, and anything else that is related to identity: that of stereotyping, othering and fetishizing.
Our unique Food retrospective opens up a space to put all of these issues under the microscope. On a whimsical note, we are excited to present an excerpt from the graphic novel Get Jiro! by master chef and food writer extraordinaire Anthony Bourdain. In this satire, which holds a mirror to urban food culture, Bourdain’s hilarious post-apocalyptic Los Angeles is ruled by chefs from warring clans.
While the violence of Get Jiro! is playful, cuisine becomes an important marker of identity in places experiencing the actual violence of conflict. Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt take us on a culinary journey into Gaza, where its residents – more specifically, it’s women – put delicious food on the table even in the most extenuating of circumstances.
Meanwhile in the United States, Andrew Ryder explores Pittsburgh’s pop-up restaurant Conflict Kitchen, which attempts to serve up cultural understanding and facilitate serious discussion by offering delicious dishes from places with which the US is in conflict.
Food has been a central topic in the feminist debate, as well. Edible Women, published in 1969 is one of the first examples, addressing the anxiety of resisting oppressive roles and a patriarchal model of femininity through resisting food. It's not until the 1980s, with books like Como agua para chocolate by Laura Esquivel and Clara Sereni's Keeping House (excerpted here) that we find a reevaluation of domesticity. Sereni claims to have written Keeping House after "having caught something in the air" – a necessity, an urgency. Taking the kitchen as the domain of her inquiry, Sereni rebuilds femininity and turns what had been deemed as a place of resistance into a space for political debate, creativity and re-invention of the self.
The short story, “Sausages,” introduces food in the context of race, religion and ethnicity, in particular during the years of the Italian Bossi-Fini law of immigration demanding the fingerprinting of every non-EU immigrant to Italy. In this new order of categorization in which Italian is synonymous with being white and Catholic, and in which every migrant is a potential threat to "Italianness," the author finds herself questioning her own identity. Her disquiet over whether to eat sausage unleashes an exploration into her doubleness as a Somali-Italian, bringing forth (literally in the form of reflux) centuries of violence on the part of Christians who forced Muslims to eat pork in order to prove their conversion.
Offering a piercing look into the new, liberal, conscientious consumer is Flavio Rizzo’s honest, hilarious, but pathos-inducing personal journey through the giant organic supermarket chain Whole Foods. In her article, also about new “bourgeois bohemian” consumers, Samantha Kwan asks, “How do individuals use food, especially another culture’s food, to project a particular sense of self?”
Tuleka Prah, inventor of My African Food Map, however, asserts her right as a consumer. Her quasi-manifesto calls out African restaurateurs abroad for disrespecting the incredible flavors that African cuisine has to offer. In a yet another assertive piece, JL Schatz lays out the definitive imperative for a militantly vegan lifestyle.