Food Readings Gabriella

Posted: March 14, 2012 by gablneus in Uncategorized

This week’s material about Food and Diaspora was of particular interest to me. My interest in ethnic foods has become a part of my own identity, and although I have spent a lot of time thinking about and researching where to find the most authentic Korean or Indian food in the city, I rarely stop to consider what it is that I value in that authenticity and why the food just tastes better when I know it is made by an individual who closely identifies with the “homeland” that his or her food is from. Because I am writing my final research paper about Hummus, I will focus more on the Mintz, Mamur, and Lee articles.

In Lee’s ethnography of food in Korean resident communities in Japan, she argues that the ability to eat Korean food strengthened the authenticity of one’s Korean identity. While this may seem obvious, there are actually many interesting conclusions to be drawn from this. Our preferences for certain foods are rooted in history and place, making them extremely important in the consolidation of diasporic identity–which is based on a connection to the past in a distant place. What she does an excellent job of doing is connecting the history of the individual with that of a society. KimChi, a food rooted in the history of Korea, becomes an expression of authentic Korean identity when consumed in Japan by immigrants. As individuals age, however, they become alienated from their body. Those who are no longer able to eat spicy foods see their bodies as not representing who they really are, their true Korean identity. By analyzing the bodily memory, we are able to understand the history of a single individual and the habits they have picked up from the society in which they were developed.

Another interesting point made by Lee comes from another author–the idea of food colonialism. She says that eating ethnic food contributes to Western prestige and sophistication–“eating the other.” In this sense, the Other is appropriated and “incorporated in the terms of the colonizer.”Hirsch, in his article about Hummus in Isreal, touches on this concept as well. I do see the ability to eat ethnic foods in North America as a privilege. One day, my friend and I were deciding where to have dinner. He suggested Chinese food and I replied, “No. I had that last night.” He said to me, “In China, they eat it every night.” It was through this exchange that I realized, even though I love Chinese food, I do not consider it my cuisine. I would not eat it every day, and perhaps this is a product of my culture that regards the culture of the Other as inferior or not belonging to me. Maybe I see myself as privileged because I get to choose which cuisine to eat every day.

This leads me to the question, is there such thing as an American or Canadian cuisine? Is a country primarily made up of immigrants capable of having its own authentic cuisine?

Mintz says in his anthropology of food movement, “When food objects, processes-even ideas-spread from one society to another, the receiving society is likely to modify, often misunderstand, and usually redefine what it has received.” Like Lee, he also examines the aging diaspora, arguing that ethnic foods do not become “ethnic” until they are recognized as different from the mainstream. According to Mintz, this tends to happen when the 1st generation immigrant’s children start eating and asking for the foods of the dominant society. The most important point that he makes, however, is that once a food loses its ethnicity in the U.S.A., it becomes American (pasta, pizza, etc). This partially answers my question posed earlier. Maybe North American food is the recreations of foods from other cuisines. Consider Butter Chicken, Pad Thai, and General Tso Chicken. These can be considered American or Canadian foods more than foods of the countries they came from. What then, does this say about North America? I would not say that our recreations of ethnic foods are more delicious. I think that they are less spicy, but more sweet and salty. Another question is then, what is it like for an immigrant to alter his or her own “cuisine” to fit North American tastes? Does it serve to reinforce a feeling of diasporic identity, a feeling of alienation from the host society? Or, does it make the individual feel more connected to the host society, since people are enjoying some recreation of the food from their homeland?

We can learn a lot about the dynamics of society by studying food, mainly because our tastes for food are rooted in what we have grown up eating–our personal history of habits. We then inscribe meaning in these tastes, viewing them as representative of our authentic national identity. In the same way that we may view ourselves as owning that identity, we transfer that ownership onto the food item. Therefore, Koreans can claim to own Kim Chi. Lebanese can claim to own Hummus.

  1. tupakkat says:

    Hello Gabriella,

    I loved your story about eating Chinese food! We probably all have made a similar experience one way or the other without consciously reflecting on it. I would not say though, that one’s rejection of eating it every night is linked to feelings of cultural superiority. Food is extremely basic to us, we are trained from baby age on to like/dislike certain things, food is something that you cannot just tolerate if you don’t like it because you incorporate it into your own body. So wanting what you know, what comforts you, what you are used to, in general, is completely legitimate and, I would argue, inherent to most cultures.

    For me, food (including tea and coffee) is much more than nutrition, it is related to my emotional wellbeing, my moods, etc. I am aware of nutritionists’ warnings that one should not use food for comforting but as far as I am concerned, for what else? In this part of the world, we hardly ever eat because we are genuinely hungry (whether that is a good thing or not is a complete other discussion). A bad coffee in the morning can spoil my whole day, the same way a great dinner can make it.

    I wonder why it is that food is so important to us on a level much deeper than the mere nutritional aspect, why we identify with it and why we feel offended if someone dislikes our food and feel proud if someone enjoys it.

  2. In terms of why we feel offended if someones dislikes our food.. that can be due to the affiliation of the self with that food. The rather obvious cause of feelings such as pride and offense is because if identity is produced through consumption and ownership of food, rejecting one’s food might be interpreted on a personal level where the offended party translated the dislike of his or her food to the disliking of the person’s identity.

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