Monday, June 05, 2006

Politics and Food

For our daughter's end of the year school picnic/pot luck I was making up a batch of hummus. As I was squeezing the lemons and limes (hint: for really good hummus, use both lemon and lime) , I asked TheWife whether she thought that the long-haired libruls bringing Middle Eastern food would be perceived by some as a political statement (it wasn't intended as such, there just tends to be few veggie options at these things, it's quick to whip up, and we make pretty good hummus). She didn't think so. "It's just hummus," was her sentiment. But I wasn't so sure.

The political meaning of food is something that I find very interesting. Politicians are always flipping pancakes. "Meat and potatoes" certainly is a loaded term. To call someone a "tofu eater" or a "latte drinker" is hardly subtle in its connotation.

But the act of enjoying the foods of other cultures is what interests me. Uma Narayan, in "Eating Cultures: Incorporation, Identity and Indian Food," argues that "foreign food" is not really foreign food, but an act of colonization. One frequently hears that "our Chinese food is not real Chinese food, it's Americanized Chinese food" -- the same with our Mexican food , Italian food... The colonizer remakes the food as it suits its own tastes, exoticizes the other culture, and congratulates itself on its ability to incorporate "foreignness". In the process, it creates a cartoon of the culture it appropriates, a cartoon that dovetails with other means of stereotyping.

A colleague of mine, a historian and African American studies scholar, recently got rather annoyed at a bunch of us who were discussing the new non-traditionally American food offerings in a nearby city. Some of us were giddy at having access to three Indian restaurants, a new Thai restaurant, and a new Ethiopian restaurant in a region where offerings have generally been quite limited. He took the underlying meaning of seeking out these these foods not to be the mere appreciation of spicing options, but as an elitist symbol of social status. To eat "exotic" food was meant to demonstrate a certain sort of cosmopolitan air with the intention of distinguishing yourself from the KFC eaters around you. It was an insult to the common person as being provincial, unworldly, less educated and uncultured.

In light of these arguments from really smart people, I just don't think I'm sold. I agree that eating the foods of other cultures is in some sense political, but I think it may be so in a positive fashion. There is little that is as universally human as eating and when you enjoy the food of another culture, it must play some role in humanizing that culture.

For example, if you look at white pride literature from the first half of the 20th century, one vilified group is Italians. Now, this is not odd, all major groups of immigrants have their turn in the spotlight of hate and Italians got a double dose because of the Protestant/Catholic tensions added in. But Italians are now "white." Indeed, you can now even find some Italians amongst the writers of the racial separatist movement without drawing a peep from the Aryans with whom they are aligned. I have no doubt that part of this assimilation is related to the normalization of Italian foods into "American" fare. We no longer think of pizza, pasta, and minestrone as foreign in the same way that we think of pad Thai or chana masala. Mexican food seems to be having a similar integration, where burritos are becoming just another version of "wraps." This seems like it must be having some implicitly political ramifications.

I am certainly not arguing that masticatory activism will single-handedly change the world, but it strikes me that menus are political documents. Bad foreign policy often requires creating caricatured villains with the face of the Other, representations that would be made more difficult to construct if they were being undermined by lunch.