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Eating for Peace: How cuisine bridges cultures (nautil.us)
67 points by dnetesn on July 6, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 35 comments



I guess I'm far more interested in the converse. My grandmother keeps a more or less kosher house, cooking according to some pretty narrow rules. Over the years has only assimilated a few other ethnic cuisines into her palate.

The divide that I have noticed most strongly is that she seems to have split society into barbaric, rice-eating cultures, and the noble wheat/potato eaters. I'm pretty sure she doesn't even know how rice is cooked. She would never say it like this, but her aversion to cuisine does happen to correlate with groups that she will make casually racist comments about. The most prominent example being the Japanese, with Mexico being a close second.

I've been wondering for a while how closely correlated racism and food-racism are. Are picky eaters more likely to be xenophobes? Certainly I cannot imagine myself ever saying anything negative about Thailand or Ethiopia, but I don't feel anything like that empathy for China, or people who consume ketchup.


There's a famous geographic distinction in China where the north historically had wheat as a staple and the south had rice. This means different regional cuisines, but there is even a claim that it's led to other cultural differences:

http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/4/4/eaap8469

I wonder if your grandmother has any awareness that rice is a traditional staple crop only in the southern parts of Asia. Around the world, you could find more rice cultivation in tropical areas and more wheat cultivation in temperate areas... although the historical dividing line in China is still some ways north of the Tropic of Cancer.


I am reminded of a joke from Rowan Atkinson, pretending to be a conservative member of Parliament: "Now I _like_ curry, but now that we have the recipe, why do they need to stay?"


Nick Griffin (BNP) released cooking videos with exactly that premise.

https://metro.co.uk/2014/01/08/nick-griffin-is-the-new-jamie...

> He then explains the etymology of ‘curry’ to convince us that we don’t need immigration.

> ‘Incidentally, the word “curry” first appears from a cookery book during the reign of, I think it’s Richard II, 13th century… so don’t let people tell you that you have to have huge numbers of immigrants to have good cooking,’ he says.

> ‘We’ve got a Mexican restaurant in a town not far from here. The place isn’t swamped with Mexicans. You take the recipe – that’s really all you need.’


Although I'd really hesitate to say he has a point (considering his positions which seem to be opposed to mine in every way I can see) it's a common rebuttal to an argument advanced by people who support immigration: that such people bring their culture with them, or more specifically, places that sell "ethnic food". The truth of the matter is that you don't need such people to cook the food for you, and this isn't even mentioning the (in my opinion) rather twisted logic in which we'd want immigrants just so that they can cook their food for us - perform a little dance and show, and not talk too much.


There's also the problematic notion that some believe: using a lot of spices is indicative of low class. Using fewer spices and letting the food shine through is indicative of higher class.

Initially, using a lot of spices was indicative of wealth and access, so it was desirable.

Then, spice availability increased and everyone could afford them.

At this point, the rhetoric switched and spices were looked down upon by the wealthy.


The interesting truth is that inept preparation of food requires a lot more spice to get the same effect. Speaking as someone who was long inept.


This can be true. At the same time, the Western culinary experience is shaped around the way people cooked in Europe at a certain time period. Lots of fuel was available for cooking and people stayed in one place a lot, so you got a cuisine where a lot of flavor comes from heavy browning and long cooking. Other cuisines came together in different circumstances, and so you have an emphasis on quicker cooking times, and more of the flavor comes from intensely flavored ingredients (like peppers and herbs).


As another poster mentioned, "people will find just about any reason to believe they are better than other people".

Your intuition about racism/xenophobia is probably correct. But that's not the interesting question, given how widespread it is. What is more thought-provoking is why did this kind of behavior evolve? What was the advantage? Is it still advantageous today?


> why did this kind of behavior evolve?

It's just an extension of the competitive nature of humans/social animals. Social animals despise animals of the same species that are of different social groups. They all want their social group to prevail, and will attack (actively or passively, e.g. by refusing culture) the others. Humans like to think they are above this 'primitive' instinct, but I think the vast majority of human behavior can be summed up by this.


I'm sorry, I don't find that terribly thought provoking. Xenophobia is a lazy heuristic, and the people who employ it simply don't understand their own interests.


You are definitely on to something. I see this India with enormous food diversity. The disgust it evokes in some people for those who eats rice and that too with fingers, or those who put tomatoes in all curries, or never add tomatoes, people who eat garlic/onion, eat meat, eat only vegetarian and so on.

Sometimes it proves fatal when people get killed in racist attacks mainly because of their food habits.


Some religions consider root vegetables like onions not okay to eat, because harvesting an onion involves killing the whole plant. 'Really holy' men and women might avoid any root vegetable to further their spiritual development.


"Some religions consider root vegetables like onions not okay to eat, because harvesting an onion involves killing the whole plant."

That is only one explanation for the taboo. In certain Indian and Nepalese religious strains, it is said that the devout cannot eat onions (or garlic) because of a folk belief that these vegetables encourage lasciviousness.


What is disgusting about tomatoes and onions? I can understand vitriol around meat, and I can imagine people who eat a lot of garlic being seen as smelly. But tomatoes and onions are healthy & fairly benign.


Speaking only from experience as a third party observer to my Indian friends & colleagues eating habits: onions are often lumped into the same category of 'unpure' ingredients along with garlic. Hindu tradition holds that such things cannot be offered to Gods, and negatively impact spiritual activities. So a non-trivial number of Hindus avoid these foods. Similar lines of thinking apply to other root vegetables. Jain dietary practices also tend to avoid garlic, onion, potoato, and other root veggies for reasons that I definitely do not fully understand.

Aversion to tomato is not something I have encountered though. I suppose it's possible I just haven't noticed it.


Kosher Jews say the same about shellfish and pork. Calling those sources of protein quote "bottom feeders" and therefor unpure.


I suspect that's a historical tradition made religious due to the fact that it's easy to get "poisonous" pork or shellfish that will kill you if not sourced or prepared correctly.


If your culture lives in a hot desert then not eating shell fish makes a lot of sense.

Pork was full of parasites until the advent of some relatively modern farming practices.


I've been wondering for a while how closely correlated racism and food-racism are. Are picky eaters more likely to be xenophobes?

Off the cuff, we know from history people will find just about any reason to believe they are better than other people. The way they talk, or walk, or eat, or socialize, or the shape of their nose, or even the bumps on their cranium- there's always some way that we are better than them, we just have to think carefully to figure out what it is! So my initial reaction is, it's just a manifestation of xenophobia.


I take it your Grandmother is Ashkenazi or from northern/central Europe?

Does she then consider Jews from North Africa/Middle East/Israel, which do eat rice, to be barbaric?


I don't think that her prejudices are conscious enough to be evaluated for logical consistency.


Steven Pinker mentions in one of his books that the Jewish rule of not eating pork, is not rooted in some health-issue expressed as a religious dogma, but actually about minimising socialising between jews and non-jews.


>Are picky eaters more likely to be xenophobes?

Some picky eaters have to do with different levels of taste, or some people tasting different things.

Tomatoes, for me, get almost a nauseous reaction from me. There is a specific very loud flavor in raw tomatoes that I just can't stand. It's gone in cooked tomatoes. There are a few of us, and the idea is there is some chemical that some people taste but most don't.


I used to feel as you do until I had heirloom tomatoes that had been grown with care unlike the bland and irksome things presented as tomatoes at my local grocery store.


Fellow raw tomato hater here, you summed it up well. Sometimes people dislike food because of taste, who would have thought?


If you're interested in this concept, may I recommend the documentary film City of Gold, about the LA-based food critic Jonathan Gold, who rather famously was the first food writer to win a Pulitzer prize.

[The film: https://variety.com/2016/film/production/jonathan-gold-food-... -- Gold's approach: https://www.gq.com/story/jonathan-gold-gutsiest-food-critic]

Gold takes a very democratic and open-minded attitude toward reviewing. He has been one of a handful of writers that were early appreciators and promoters of various now-common food trends - food trucks and strip-mall food joints, niche ethnic/regional foods, unusual meats and ingredients.

But, clarified by a pair of quite touching anecdotes that, like parentheses, open and close the film, Gold's real guiding light is not foodie culture -- it is the ability of shared food to bring people together, in a metropolis that is ever more diverse. The first anecdote is about his sorrow after the LA riots of 1992, which devastated the Koreatown area where he lived at the time. And the second is a book reading at what looks like Skylight Books in Los Feliz, where he says that perhaps some of these tensions could be healed at the micro-level if we "could just invite someone over for dinner."

We all know there are structural problems as well, but the problem of ethnic tension and misunderstanding operates at many scales and many strategies are needed. Perhaps this is one.


Reminds me of Tony Bourdain.

May his soul rest in peace.


True, they have some shared motivations. Here’s Jonathan’s appreciation of Bourdain: http://www.latimes.com/food/jonathan-gold/la-fo-gold-anthony...


Thanks!

I'm currently in the Czech Republic, where the LA Times is blocked. I'll certainly read it when back in Switzerland (where it's accessible just fine).


We often take for granted how lucky we are here in the US that many people from different cultures come here and sell their food in restaurants, food trucks, bars etc.


Yet, typically, each country/culture is reduced to a single cuisine.

The exception to this is when you're lucky enough to live in an area with a sufficiently large immigrant population from a particular part of the world.

I've especially noticed this w.r.t. various Asian cuisines in California, versus anywhere else in the US that I've lived.


Wouldn't it be something if solving world peace were as easy as getting the Donald to grab a combo plate at the Halal Guys on 6th and 53rd on his way to see his friends at Fox while at home for the holidays?

Just kidding. You can't solve the world's problems with a coke and a smile... but it would make a great photo op :^)


It's not a panacea, but nothing is. When you have almost nothing to start with, there is always food.

I'm from the south and the foodie boom has been an enormous benefit for us. For most of my life there was a hard push to make a distinction between "southern food" and "soul food". It was a push from both ends of the political spectrum, as older white critics tried to keep it "white" and black critics in the 60s and 70s tried to get the taste of repression and feelings of stigma out of the menu.

It led to a lot of weird scenarios where a critic might call a plate of greens from Oakland "enlightened" and the same plate in Memphis "limp, servile, and impotent". That's still a thing. From a purely rational viewpoint this seems ridiculous, but from the cultural standpoint it makes sense. Still, it's reification, anthropomorphism, and all that jazz, like Harriet Beecher Stowe calling loblolly pines lazy and immoral.

The foodie boom offered a lot of mutual pride for a region that has always had an inferiority complex. As the lines blurred it was less "black" and "white" food and more "our" food. Everyone grew up eating collards, grits, cornbread, catfish, and okra. We all ate BBQ and drank sweet tea on the 4th. We all remembered eating tomato sandwiches with pepper and salt on cheap white bread as a kid. We all had pimento cheese. It was the one thing we weren't obligated to feel shame and resentment about in a region that is nothing but shame and resentment.

Not that it's all peach cobbler. As a retired shrimper friend of mine said after seeing a $24 bowl of shrimp & grits, "Man, this is what we ate when we couldn't afford food and now they are pricing us out of it."

Food is important.


There's an equally fascinating article in the same issue regarding the import of chilli to Sichuan @ http://nautil.us/issue/62/systems/why-revolutionaries-love-s...




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