This article is an abridged version of Kwan, Samantha. 2003. “Consuming the Other: Ethnic Food, Identity Work, and the Appropriation of the Authentic Self.” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA), August 16-19, Atlanta, GA.

There are many ways of representing the self. Through cultural media such as language, clothing, and art, individuals make ongoing attempts to express who they are. Through “identity work,” individuals express who they are and what they stand for. Props and settings are manipulated in a performance aimed at “impression management.” While many cultural objects enable this performance, food consumption practices, including cross-cultural food practices, provide one important avenue for this accomplishment of self. How do individuals use food, especially another culture’s food, to project a particular sense of self?

Sherrie Inness notes that the term “ethnic food” is often a label many Americans apply to foods from foreign cultures. So while British fish and chips or Italian lasagna, foods associated with other cultures, are not necessarily considered ethnic foods, Japanese sushi is, since it comes from a culture considered “foreign.” Ethnic food then is a relative and shifting category involving subjective experiences and a sense of whether a peoples’ culture and foodstuffs are sufficiently different to be defined as ethnic. Individuals gauge the extent of this difference along three realms. According to Lucy Long, culinary experiences can be classified on three realms or continuums: the exotic (from the familiar to the strange), the edible (from the edible to the inedible), and the palatable (from the palatable to the unpalatable). Social context and personal biography, among other factors, influence the culinary experience and also the experience of otherness. For example, pizza began as an ethnic food with some question to its palatability but today it has lost much of its otherness and most consumers deem it palatable. Thus as ethnic foods and dishes become more familiar over time, accepted by the dominant culture, and ingrained in the mainstream United States, they lose their ethnic status. 

The argument that individuals use food to construct representations of the self is not new. Sociologist Herbert Gans’ earlier writing explores how third and fourth generation immigrants invoke myths, historical events, and consumer goods, notably food, to reinforce their symbolic ethnicity.  Identity does not require functioning groups or networks but is instead instrumental and constructed from experiences. Marilyn Halter describes an even stronger formulation of the constructionist approach to the self through the use of cultural objects. As she observes, younger generations “pick and choose the when and how of ethnic expression, creating highly individualized and multidimensional variations of cultural formations”. These choices are enabled by the open market where a plethora of consumer goods are sold.  Identities are not only constructed, they are literally purchased.  

Representations of self are expressions of who it is one desires to be, but they are also expressions of who one is not. Food consumption permits identity work precisely because it is able to separate “us” from “them.” Taste “distinguishes in an essential way, since taste is the basis of all that one has – people and things – and all that one is for others.” That is, it symbolically separates those who buy Camembert from those who buy Velveeta. Not surprisingly, attendance at a wide range of ethnic restaurants correlates with high levels of both economic and cultural capital. Beyond mere consumption, food also distinguishes us from them since food sharing facilitates familial bonding and reciprocity by strengthening social ties amongst close kin. This, in turn, makes social boundaries unambiguous, especially to those who are not invited to the dinner table.

Although the search for authenticity often results in the shunning of ethnic restaurants serving “Americanized” ethnic food, it also leads to the avoidance of menu items such as duck’s feet, steamed whole fish, or wax gourd – items perceived as too ethnic. While “American customers explained that they selected Chinese food for its difference from American cuisine – its otherness – this display of otherness had to remain within the context of American foodstuffs and presentation. Exoticism was not absolute but related to the standards of the American palate.” These internationalist consumers are willing to go on “gastronomic tours”, their journeys however, do not take their palates too far from home. Restaurateurs are well aware of this tendency and adjust their menus accordingly. Flirting with the other while avoiding the downright unfamiliar is also evident in the wedding of specific ingredients. For example, while a dominant culture may adopt some foods of a subordinate culture, they do so by “divorcing them from those aspects of the culture they regard as inferior…They also tend to marry colonial foods, flavors, or methods to foods that are of high status in the imperial centers.” The end product is, for example, curried beef, shrimp, or even lobster – dishes found in Britain but never or rarely in India. While such fusion cuisine should not be dismissed in and of itself as unattractive, it unmistakably deviates from the key criterion of authenticity – that it stays true to the ingredients and cooking methods found in the homeland.

The search for symbolic authenticity thus entails a level of inauthenticity. What results in the case of mixing Indian spices with Western meats is the transformation of a dish – a transformation that may be either subtle or radical – to suit the internationalist’s palate and social expectations, including his or her expectations of, and demand for, authenticity. Within the safe haven of altered dishes, the diner is able to construe the inauthentic as authentic. He or she consumes a “pseudo-event” – a manufactured experience particularly reprehensible when the authentic is accessible – or even Umberto Eco’s “Absolute Fake”. Although the altered dish is a distorted replica of the original, it is nevertheless seen as authentic and even preferable to the original. In the end, it seems that what is important for the internationalist is not authenticity per se but the “perception of authenticity” or the “illusion of authenticity.” Authenticity is a relative phenomenon that puts judgment in the taste buds of the beholder. It is not necessarily what one eats but what one thinks one eats that matters. This being the case, one cannot help but wonder why it is this sense of authenticity is so important. Why do these internationalists search so ardently for it, even ironically at the possible cost of inauthenticity?

In The Soul of the New Consumer, David Lewis and Darren Bridger describe the rise of a new type of consumer found in the post-industrial society otherwise known as the New Economy. Unlike Old Consumers who are concerned mainly with conspicuous consumption, these New Consumers, who are individual, involved, independent, and informed, have one defining characteristic. “At the heart of the soul of the New Consumer lies a desire for authenticity.” This desire for authenticity can be satisfied through two main channels: spirituality and retail therapy. While spirituality is achieved through yoga, meditation, and other new age practices, with retail therapy, salvation comes with a $10 bottle of authentic olive oil from “the hills of Tuscany.”  

Yet what kind of men and women do these individuals really aspire to be? Put otherwise, what self is represented through authentic ethnic food consumption? Lu and Fine note that through “the consumption of ethnic cuisine we demonstrate to ourselves and others that we are cosmopolitan and tolerant.” The type of person these individuals want to be is therefore liberal, sophisticated, and urbane. Individuals who consume authentic ethnic foods desire to project a self that is cosmopolitan, enlightened, and worldly. Recalling that identity work includes at its core the delineation of boundaries, it permits these internationalists to separate themselves ostensibly from other whites who are less progressive, less tolerant of difference, and who are ambivalent about the authenticity of what they ingest. This specific cross-cultural food consumption practice not only allows an internationalist to appear worldly, it also enables him or her to momentarily and symbolically assume new traits. Through the process of “incorporation” one can take on the symbolic qualities of the food consumed. 

What are the symbolic properties of ethnic food that make it desirable to adopt?  The discussion of health foods as virtue provides a glimpse into the symbolic properties of ethnic foods that “consuming the other” permits. Today organic grocers and health food chains are burgeoning across the U.S. and the number of health-conscious folks is on the rise. According to Atkinson, the symbolic resolution of oppositions such as raw and cooked expresses themes of health and virtue, generally by means of a celebration of the natural. While the raw is associated with the past, the pre-industrial, and the rural, the cooked signifies the present, the industrial, and the urban. Health foods provide a reconciliation point between the two spheres associated with each side of the dichotomy, namely Nature and Culture respectively. By eating healthy foods an individual can restore the lost harmony with nature and ingest the virtue that supposedly comes with this past unadulterated state. Yet there is a certain superficiality among those who seek the good and virtuous life through health foods. For the great majority of people these ideas do not actually lead to a natural or self-sufficient way of life. Instead, only minor adjustments to lifestyle are made and health food consumption amounts to a ritual performed in lieu of major changes in daily life that might actually lead to greater personal autonomy and control.

Just as the consumption of natural and raw foods permits a consumer to incorporate and enact symbolic virtue, the cross-cultural consumption of authentic ethnic foods by white internationalists, particularly those who are conscious of their status in the modern world, allows an enactment of an imagined self. Specifically, consuming authentic ethnic foods provides a means for expressing a self that is both virtuous and innocent. Like health foods, authentic ethnic food represents a set of vindicated attributes. Historically and today, in both the national and international arena, the ethnic other has come to represent the oppressed not the oppressor, the colonized not the colonizer, the proletariat not the bourgeois. Theoretical and material representations of the marginalized ethnic other are abundant. The ethnic other is the subject of Orientalism, is the exploited party in core-periphery world politics, and whose existential place constitutes marginalized and subjugated knowledge. From British imperialism in India to factory workers in China working for Western multinationals to the annihilation, acculturation, and assimilation of those at home, the historical treatment of the ethnic other represents in part many of the things seen as wrong with modernity. Thus similar to the harmonious and virtuous state of nature represented by health foods, ethnic foods also represent a virtuous and innocent state. The ethnic other represents an innocent subject of larger global hegemonic forces.

The consumption of ethnic food thus allows a consumer to instantiate innocence and virtue, even if only momentarily and allegorically. Through consumption, these individuals not only place themselves into the group of the other, through the process of incorporation, they symbolically take on the foreign traits they perceive as being essential to their view of these others. Consequently, should they bear ancestral guilt, consumption absolves and relieves their consciences. However ephemeral, at the point of consumption, the consumer incorporates the symbolic other and imagines an empathetic self that is cosmopolitan, virtuous, and innocent.  

Who are these consumers? They are in many ways David Brooks' “bourgeois bohemians” or Bobos, educated elites whose consumption practices reflect both mainstream culture and counterculture. While Bobos drive gas-guzzling SUV’s, they also espouse anti-establishment rhetoric and buy environmentally-friendly and health-conscious organic food. They are a cultural paradox. They acquire goods and services while they escape accusations of greed through their liberal and progressive mindset. They buy into the consumer ethic but are also able to soothe their consciences.  White internationalists who are mindful of their social position and who use authentic ethnic food to accomplish self work are similarly situated, socially and social-psychologically. As well-to-do whites, they acknowledge their white privilege and thus have a need to instantiate innocence. Their cross-cultural consumption practices enable this. If entrenched within the authentic self is some notion of who one is not, and if self work is a process of becoming who one wants to be, it follows that other mechanisms may be at work for less privileged whites who are not highly conscious of their place in the social hierarchy or who have little desire to accomplish identity work through this means. For this group, or in times when identity is not salient for the white internationalist or Bobo, it is likely that the consumption of ethnic food is nothing more than a cheap tasty meal.

Over two decades ago, van den Berghe argued that food sharing serves as a bridge for crossing ethnic divides and can provide a basis of multicultural harmony.  Food, he writes, is a “paradigm for ethnicity” and “internal tourism” enables inter-ethnic contact. Through such safe cross-cultural experiences, individuals vicariously experience another culture and foster cross-cultural understanding. Undoubtedly there are many motivations for “culinary tourism” and various consumers attach myriad meanings to their cross-cultural food experiences, some of which are more meaningful than others. However, if cross-cultural consumption efforts by certain whites involve attempts to represent the self in ways that do not involve genuine and longstanding change, ethnic food provides a tenuous foundation for cross-cultural understanding and empathy. In the best-case scenario, ethnic food consumption by these elites amounts to a superficial display of the self. In the worst-case scenario, it is the further appropriation of the ethnic other and their cultural objects. It is the use of an ethnic group’s cultural artifacts, i.e., their food, to promote one’s self-interests, i.e., to construct a self that appears cosmopolitan, virtuous, and innocent. In some ways this representation can be reduced to a display of cultural capital. That one imagines that one eats authentic ethnic food and is subsequently cosmopolitan, virtuous, and innocent, is little guarantee that one is. As consumption it may simply be a display or a veneer.

The consumption of ethnic food as a means to represent the self is a representation that is ultimately ornamental and aimed primarily at impression management. As a momentary transaction, consumption does not imply any long-term change in the self. Essentially the ethnic other is “eaten, consumed, and forgotten.” This momentary transaction also “decontextualizes the other.”  In the process of consumption, “the significance of the Other’s history is denied” and denying history is, in effect, the denial of a people and their culture. If the consumption of authentic ethnic foods by certain white elites occurs under such conditions that render dialogical contact with the other unnecessary, an agenda of cross-cultural understanding and harmony is not advanced. Consumption becomes not only a momentary act, but an artificial market-based phenomenon devoid of real social interaction. The cross-cultural food experience of elites also involves little need for thought, self-scrutiny and social participation. Representations of the self must go further. An authentic enlightened self is constructed only through dialogue and a genuine attempt to understand the self in relation to others including the specific historical, cultural, and social contexts of the consumed and consumer, the oppressed and oppressor, the marginalized and the privilege. The cross-cultural consumption of ethnic food for the sake of identity work separates cultural symbols from the culture that generates them. It detaches ethnic food from the marginalized others it represents. Consequently, it dangerously absolves elites from real dialogue with the ethnic other – a dialogue crucial for true multiculturalism and the construction of an authentic self.

Samantha Kwan is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and a Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies faculty affiliate who specializes in bodies, gender, and health. Her research examines the social construction of bodies, embodied resistance, and body modification practices. She is co-author (with Jennifer Graves) of Framing Fat: Competing Constructions in Contemporary Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2013) and co-editor (with Chris Bobel) of Embodied Resistance: Challenging the Norms, Breaking the Rules (Vanderbilt University Press, 2011). With Rose Weitz she co-edited The Politics of Women's Bodies, 4th edition (Oxford University Press, forthcoming, November 2013).