Culture and Food Essentialism

Does the above look tasty to you? It’s a big bowl of spaghetti carbonara, overflowing with pasta, egg, good Parmesan, and pancetta. It’s a pretty classic Italian-American dish, originating from Rome, and there are a lot of different ways to prepare it, along with disputes on the most authentic variety. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, it probably doesn’t look too exciting. If you have gluten, egg, or dairy allergies, it also might not really entice. But for a lot of people, carbonara is considered pretty baller, and I’m one of them; it was my favourite dish in childhood and I still make it frequently as an adult, using the recipe my father taught me (which, in turn, his Italian grandmother taught him).

I’ve been thinking a lot about carbonara lately, and not in the usual sense of how much I’d like to eat it, and why I don’t have the ingredients for it, and how quickly can I have the ingredients for it, because I would like to eat some. I’ve been thinking about it in terms of cultural domination and food essentialism; the assumptions we have that ‘everyone’ likes a particular dish, and also, the extension of that, that some cultures have superior cuisines, that ‘everyone’ likes, for example, hamburgers, a classic American food, or that apple pie is universally beloved.

I’m fascinated and sort of horrified by the way in which US hegemony has also extended through the culinary world, as though this country really cannot get enough of trying to convince the rest of the world that it is really, truly number one, no holds barred, etc. The fact is that, as I oft remind people, it doesn’t really matter what other people eat or don’t eat, because it doesn’t affect your life. If you don’t like carbonara for whatever reason, it doesn’t change the fact that I do, and neither of us is affected by the other’s preferences — unless you come to my house and I try to insist on feeding it to you, or you, I don’t know, come to my house every time I make it and take it away from me. We can coexist in a world where one person likes carbonara and the other does not.

Yet, many people seem to be deeply invested in making sure other people understand that their food is inferior, and this takes on new levels of complexity when we are talking not just about intracultural tastes — I don’t really care for hot dogs, I love burgers — but shifts across cultures. If you condemn Chinese food or say that Ethiopian food is ‘gross,’ you’re committing a form of culinary essentialism, and it’s loaded and troubling on a great deal of levels.

There’s the obvious:  These statements are pretty racist. You’re judging an entire cultural and racial group on the basis of its cuisine, and suggesting either overtly or otherwise that people are inferior because of what they eat. Whether you’re saying that chicken feet are disgusting and Chinese people are gross for eating them, or claiming that injera is foul, you’re basically saying that people who eat that kind of food are inferior to you, the one with superior tastes. And that comes with serious implications when you are a member of a dominant culture; when a white person says that Japanese pickles are disgusting or that barbecued goat is repugnant, it sends a pretty clear message of cultural preference and superiority.

You’re also just being ridiculous, because you’re often wrapping up an entire, considerable, culinary culture into one huge umbrella. Look at the United States; while we talk about ‘American food,’ there are actually numerous distinct cuisines within the US that are quite different and have their own regional and cultural roots. You won’t find frybread in California. Cajun cuisine isn’t available in New York City. Southern cooking is very distinct from TexMex. (Obviously all of these foods can be obtained outside their native regions, but I’m talking about their origins.) The United States is a place with huge culinary variations and traditions, and it’s kind of ludicrous to treat the country like it’s uniform.

Now extend that to another country. Like, say, India. Indian food is hugely diverse, with all sorts of different regional specialties, spicing preferences, and so forth. Yet, we hear ‘Indian food’ used as a blanket term, like regional cuisines aren’t wildly different. Northern and Southern India have different influences. Food along the borders can be very different. Some regions have a great deal of seafood thanks to their proximity to the ocean, other regions have a heavy focus on vegetarian cuisine. If you say you ‘don’t like Indian food,’ you’re throwing a whole nursery, not just one baby, away with the bathwater, and you’re being kind of ridiculous. You also loop back into the racism issue, as there’s a distinct whiff of racism in statements that suggest a huge community is totally uniform and has no regional cultural variations.

Expressing shock and surprise that other people aren’t enthused by your own cuisine is also equally troubling. When you ask why anyone wouldn’t like cheese and you’re interacting with someone from a different culture, there’s a value judgment there. There’s a judgment about the inferiority of that person’s cuisine, but also that person’s tastes — if that person had grown up on the right side, been born into the dominant class, then that person would know better. Would understand what ‘good food’ tastes like and would like ‘real food.’

It’s something to think about when we challenge people about the food they do (or don’t) eat and why. I’m not too invested in whether someone likes carbonara or not, honestly. But I am invested in wondering why so many people feel the need to judge the food choices of others.

Photo: Mmm…spaghetti carbona, JeffreyW, Flickr.