NOTE: Today marks SEVEN years since I first started writing this blog. It’s been an interesting journey, with many bends and curves along the way.
It’s fascinating to observe the increasing awareness of how language defines so many cultural attitudes and reveals long-held biases.
Take a recent article, “Why Everyone Should Stop Calling Immigrant Food ‘Ethnic,'” by Lavanya Ramanathan, a Washington Post writer. Although closely related discussions of terminology akin to “ethnic” have been fielded before (see this link for an example concerning the word “minorities”), the author zeros in on “ethnic,” a word that she finds troubling and frankly a tad bit derogatory. She writes,
“But it’s time to stop talking about ethnic food as though we’re Columbus and the cuisines served up by immigrants are ours for the conquering. Let us never again blog a lengthy ethnography, no matter how well intentioned, when we visit a pupuseria. In fact, let’s drop the term “ethnic food” altogether.
It’s not the phrase itself, really. It’s the way it’s applied: selectively, to cuisines that seem the most foreign, often cooked by people with the brownest skin.”
To sum up, the author basically believes it’s time to drop the colonial attitudes that still color so much of the world, recalling the fraying antique maps depicting the range of British or French imperial power that once hung on the walls of school rooms.
In spite of feeble attempts in a Facebook discussion of the article to label cuisines such as Icelandic or Finnish or Danish as “ethnic,” the truth is that “ethnic” as a word DOES carry with it a certain connotation, one quite strongly associated with white culture looking at the cuisines of immigrants as a sort of “otherness” or exoticism or foreign. “Ethnic” is a subtle marker for “Otherness.”
“Foreign,” too, well, that’s another one of those words. Look at the word for “stranger” in many languages and you’ll find some semblance to the word “foreign.” Feranji (Arabic) or faringhi, all which may be derived from “Frank,” referring to Europeans such as the Crusaders or merchants or just plain strangers (faranj). But what’s foreign? Obviously it depends on where in the world you’re standing. Edward Said examined this phenomenon in his classic, Orientalism (1978), delving into the tendency for Westerners to apply a certain patina over their views of the Middle East, Asia, and parts of Africa
So much of what transpires in today’s food world leads right back to attitudes fomented during the long nineteenth century, and earlier, as Europeans strove to conquer the globe, first during the so-called Age of Exploration and then during the nineteenth-century imperialist race for African and Asian colonies.
Reams have been written about these subjects, and these few words here hardly do justice to the richness and complexity of the material available for study. At root of this particular inquiry lies my curiosity about the ways in which people assimilate the ingredients and cuisines of the strangers in their midst.
It’s truly an ancient story, a tantalizing and mysterious one, dating back to the days when humans lived in caves and ran free in the grasslands.
© 2015 C. Bertelsen