Gastronomic racism?

Kebab food truck in Besançon, France

That term, “gastronomic racism” was used by Rim-Sarah Alouane, a researcher at the University of Toulouse, to describe a crackdown on street vendors of kebabs in the city of Marseille. In France, a kebab is a sandwich in pita or flatbread filled with meat, usually mutton, with salad and sauces. The city is making it harder for owners of kebab shops to be licensed to operate in the central business district. According to the story on PRI’s The World: “Although kebab shops are not singled out, the owners of the establishments fear the initiatives will effectively force the entrepreneurs to shutter.” The owners of those establishments are overwhelmingly North Africans, most of them Muslims.

This is not the first time that kebabs have been involved in issues around immigration and discrimination. According to the story, “A stall at the 2013 annual convention of the far-right Front National called for ‘Ni kebab ni burger, vive le jambon-beurre.’  That means, ‘Neither kebab nor burger, long live the ham and butter sandwich,’ the classic French fast food — a baguette with ham and butter.” In the recent presidential election campaign, the Socialist Party candidate, Benoît Hamon, tweeted the following:

The tweet, “J’ai craqué”, literally, “I creacked”, means I gave in, namely to the guilty pleasure of eating a less than healthy snack, namely the kebab and fries shown.

France is not the only country where kebabs have entered the political arena. Chancellor Merkel has been pictured repeatedly with the popular German version, Döner Kebab. Her love of the Turkish street food has sometimes been seen ironically, in the context of her famous statement in 2010 that “Multikulti ist tot” (multiculturalism is dead). On the other hand, she has been celebrated with being out front in welcoming refugees into Germany. Given the large number of newly arrived Syrians in Germany, maybe in the future she will be pictured enjoying the Syrian version of the kebab, Kufta Kabab.

Story in The World:

Too many Chinese?

From Timothy Yu's blog

From Timothy Yu’s blog

A poem this week in the New Yorker by Calvin Trilling, “Have they run out of provinces yet?” has caused some controversy. The poem begins:

Have they run out of provinces yet?
If they haven’t, we’ve reason to fret.
Long ago, there was just Cantonese.
(Long ago, we were easy to please.)
But then food from Szechuan came our way,
Making Cantonese strictly passé.
Szechuanese was the song that we sung,
Though the ma po could burn through your tongue.
Then when Shanghainese got in the loop
We slurped dumplings whose insides were soup.
Then Hunan, the birth province of Mao,
Came along with its own style of chow.
So we thought we were finished, and then
A new province arrived: Fukien.

The critique of the poem is that it characterizes China as an endless sea (what, yet another province!) of anonymous people (have they run out). A professor of Asian-American Studies, Timothy Yu. wrote a response he called “Have they run out of white poems yet?”, in which he writes:

When my family arrived from Fujian.
The country they found was now eager
For Chinese food, but not its people.
We’re now just a dish on the menu
For gourmets to sink their teeth into.

Others have defended Trilling, agreeing with his own rebuttal, that he was intending to poke fun at the foodie culture rampant today in US cities, where always finding something new and different is a badge of honor. In fact, Trilling is a big fan of Chinese food; he wrote a fun column about Chinese chef Peter Chang a few years, a master of Szechuan food, which we have the good fortune to have now in Richmond. It is more the tone of the poem (especially in the title) which are unfortunate. In fact, speaking and writing today of issues involving specific cultural groups or immigrant populations can be a minefield, even if writing about something as seemingly innocent as food. NPR published a piece today entitled “Why Hunting Down ‘Authentic Ethnic Food’ Is A Loaded Proposition” which explores some of those issues.

Given the great variety of Chinese culinary traditions, it is wonderful to see that variety finally showing up in the US. It would be ironic indeed for anyone in the US to see this welcome development as Chinese cultural imperialism, given the fact that we have saturated China (and the rest of the world) with our representative cuisine: McDonald’s, KFC, and Pizza Hut.

Gourmet poutine

Poutine, as traditionally made

Poutine, as traditionally made

As I am writing this, at a state dinner for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is being served by the White House chefs a dish famous as a late-night treat in Quebec, poutine, composed of French fries, covered with cheese curds and topped by brown gravy – a triple cholesterol threat. The version being served at the state dinner is somewhat different, according to the Washington Post: “shavings of smoked duck and cheese curds finished with red wine gravy and served on delicate wafer fries: a one-bite canapé.” The basic dish is well known in Canada and in parts of the northern US and, according to Wikipedia, in other places as well, including an Italian poutine with Bolognese sauce. Given the numerous jokes about US citizens moving north of the border, as soon as President Trump is sworn in, those would-be Canadians may want to get used to the notion of eating the fastfood treat, but without the gourmet makeover being served tonight.

Language & Identity

Traditional Navajo clothing

Traditional Navajo clothing

The language we speak is a crucial part of our individual identities. Language can also be a social identifier – a way to tell who’s in and who’s out. This has been the case within the Native American Navajo Nation, where a candidate for president was disqualified last fall because he didn’t speak Navajo fluently. That candidate, Chris Deschene, had an impressive resume, having graduated from the Naval Academy, and subsequently earning a law degree and a master’s in engineering, before serving one term as a state representative. But he doesn’t speak Navajo fluently, having grown up away from the Navajo community. According to a story last year on NPR, “Deschene blamed his limitations on what he calls the tribe’s cultural destruction. Up until the 1960s, the U.S. federal government forced thousands of American Indians to attend boarding schools – among them, Deschene’s mother. While there, she was punished for speaking her native language. The U.S. government later relocated his parents to Southern California, where Chris was born.” This summer the Navajo Nation held a referendum on whether the president of the Navajo Nation should be required to speak fluent Navajo. The majority voted no. The story on NPR about the issue included laments from members of the Nation that the vote will erode the connection between the members of the tribe and their culture. It will also, they say, lead to less interest among the young in learning the language. They point out that many rituals and traditional aspects of the Navajo culture are tightly linked to the language.

The Navajo Nation has been in the news this summer also because of the action taken to tax junk food and soda. This too has a cultural side to it. The action was taken because of the very high rate of obesity and diabetes. The intent is to encourage members of the tribe to eat healthier food, especially more fruits and vegetables. One of the problems on the reservation has been the paucity of grocery stores; as a consequence, many people rely on convenience stores and fast food restaurants. To get to a good grocery store, tribal members need to drive off the reservation. According to Denisa Livingston, a spokeswoman for the grassroots group that pushed for the tax:

When people have to drive that many miles across the Navajo Nation in this food desert, it definitely is discouraging because healthy fresh fruits and vegetables and healthy foods will not last a very long time when you have to take it back hundreds of miles across the Navajo Nation.

The tribe plans to use the funds generated from the junk food tax on local farm initiatives. This is the socio-cultural aspect of the plan. Traditionally, Navajo people traditionally lived off the land. New initiatives such as the North Leupp Family Farms have helped about 30 families return to subsistence farming and eat healthier foods.

Moving the Navajo people – or any other community in the US – in the direction of embracing traditional ways of life, including native language use, family farming, and healthy food culture, is likely to be an uphill battle, given the ubiquitous presence of mainstream US media and advertising which point decidedly in opposing directions.

Binge Eating Stars

Rachel Ahn, a Korean binge eater [NPR]

Rachel Ahn, a Korean binge eater [NPR]

I have written before about “slow TV”, exemplified by Norwegian television, with shows on stacking firewood and watching slow-moving ships. Another country with interesting video productions is South Korea. Well-known are the video productions of contests of online gaming, which have a substantial viewership outside the country. Recently NPR had a story on the popularity of eating shows, or mukbang. It profiles one of the better known binge eaters, Rachel Ahn, who goes by “Aebong-ee”. Every weeknight, she gathers a huge amount of food — noodles, dumplings, seafood — in front of her and starts to eat and broadcast. Her fans expect not just a large volume of food to be devoured at a sitting, but also to have it done in a particular way:

The demands on Ahn and other mukbang stars like her are high — she can’t just eat, she must eat ferociously. As she devours noodles, loud slurping is a must. Audiences offer feedback on a live stream, asking how spicy the noodles are, suggesting she move dumplings closer to the camera or do a dance in excitement. The stream continues for three hours every night.

The most successful binge eaters can make a lot of money and become quite famous. It may be that such shows offer a way for Koreans living alone to have a kind of companionship, even if it’s virtual. According to Ahn, most of her fans are women, many of whom are on a diet; she speculates that the eating shows are popular as a way for those women to eat vicariously. A professor of Asian Studies at UC-Irvine, Kyung Kim, has a different explanation:

Eating is something one activity that is strongly identified as being natural, and spontaneous…You think about K-pop or K-drama [and] they’re very artificial, they’re all about makeup and plastic surgeries. And a lot of people find this — mukbang — to be the exact opposite of all the things right now Korean popular culture really stands for.

Of course, describing the huge volumes of food consumed in the eating shows as “natural” might seem a stretch. I’d be curious if the binge eaters ever include a strangely popular food in Korea, Spam, the U.S. processed pork product from the 1930’s, which is particularly used to make a spicy soup known as budae jjigae, or army stew.

Scotland’s other national drink

Irn-BruWith the upcoming vote on independence, there have been a good number of stories in the US media about Scotland. Of particular interest seem to be stories about the distinctiveness of Scottish life and culture (especially as differentiated from England). On NPR this week there was a story about Irn-Bru, an orange flavored soft drink very popular in Scotland. The story featured interviews with Scots professing their love the neon orange colored drink, connecting that passion with Scottish patriotism:

As Scots prepare to vote on independence next month, the fizzy fervor for this fluorescent fluid may offer some insights into Scottish nationalistic tendencies. When asked why they’re so crazy for this Scottish soda, people most often reply, “Because it’s Scottish.”… Much of the world treats Scottish icons as kitsch. Kilts. Haggis. Bagpipes. But for Scots, these are potent symbols of national pride. One of Irn Bru’s advertising slogans is “Made in Scotland, from girders.” Girders, as in the steel beams that hold up buildings.

I have to admit that although I have visited Scotland several times, I have never tasted Irn-Bru, although I did liberally partake of Scottish ale, which has its fans as well, although it certainly pales in popularity to Scotland’s true national drink, Scotch whisky.

The NPR story led me to think about other soft drinks associated with specific cultures. The obvious example is Coca-Cola, a US icon, but less well known are some other drinks I have sampled. In Austria, for example, students I have taken on study abroad trips often discover and enjoy Almdudler, a carbonated drink made from apple, grape, and herb flavors. In Germany Spezi is popular – cola mixed with orange soda, as is Apfelshorle, apple juice mixed with minteral water. On hot summer days in Bavaria, I have enjoyed drinking a Radler or two, a mix of beer with lemon soda.

Particularly memorable for me was drinking cold Kvass in Moscow a few summers ago, when there were massive fires in the region, covering the capital in smoke, with the temperature the hottest it had been in years. Kvass is a slightly alcoholic drink (at most 1.5%) made from fermenting black or rye bread and one of the few drinks in Russia consistently served ice cold. In the summer there are Kvass stands all around, similar to root beer stands in the US at state fairs.

A drink I have heard about but never tasted is Inca Kola, a widely enjoyed soft drink in Peru. I would guess, given its popularity, that the Peruvian cola must be much better than the worst cola I have ever had, which was in East Berlin before German reunification. Coca-Cola, as a symbol of capitalism, was not available in the German Democratic Republic, instead a home-brewed version was made, Vita-Cola. To me it tasted like soap, but maybe it was just a bad batch, because with the nostalgia for things East German (“Ostalgie”), Vita-Cola has enjoyed a comeback.

Fortune Cookies in Shanghai

Co-owners David Rossi and Fung Lam of the Fortune Cookie

Co-owners David Rossi and Fung Lam of the Fortune Cookie

A few years ago I went with two visiting colleagues from our Chinese partner university, Fudan University in Shanghai, to eat at what was considered the best Chinese restaurant in Richmond. They had a hard time with the menu, despite the fact that dish names were given in both English and Chinese.  What really baffled them, however, were the fortunes cookies, which they not only had never eaten, but had never heard of. Anyone who has visited China has experienced how different authentic Chinese restaurant food is from what is sold as “Chinese” in the U.S. This is not unique to the U.S. or to Chinese food.  Consider “Indian” or “Mexican” food in the U.S., but the same applies to Chinese food in India or Russia. In India, for example, adding cheese to a “Chinese” dish is common. Jennifer 8. Lee in her book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles discusses the various origins of American Chinese food.  She also has done a nice TED talk on the same topic, the hunt for General Tso.

These thoughts were brought on by a story on NPR on a recently opened restaurant in Shanghai, called Fortune Cookie.  It features, of all things, American Chinese food, including General Tso’s chicken, and has turned out to be popular, especially for ex-pats from the U.S. who are nostalgic for the particular variants of Chinese food they grew up on.  The comments from Chinese diners, however, were not universally positive, with the majority finding the dishes too sweet or too salty. Intriguing to the Chinese customers, however, are the white cardboard takeout boxes, something else unknown in China.

Pasta not rice

Melanie Vanderlipe Ramil  & her parents

Melanie Vanderlipe Ramil & her parents

“I ate pasta, family ate rice,” says Melanie Vanderlipe Ramil, who comes from a Filipino-American family and wrote that phrase as a contribution to the Race Card Project and as a way of characterizing one aspect of her cultural identity. As a girl Melanie was embarrassed that she couldn’t offer visiting school friends main-stream American snacks like hot dogs or Tater Tots – such things weren’t to be found in her family kitchen.  Melanie’s friends were mystified (and she was mortified) by the huge rice dispenser which was the centerpiece of her family kitchen. Her family ate Filipino food, and rice was served with every meal.  In middle school Melanie told her family she wasn’t going to eat rice any more and her accommodating mother made her pasta instead.  Her story is not unusual for immigrant families.  Fortunately, Melanie’s subsequent story is common these days as well.  In her 20’s she came to discover that her Filipino heritage made her special, and she has since embraced Filipino cooking. Ironically, as she told NPR, she is now making sure Filipino traditions are kept alive in her extended family, making sure the young people in her family know how to make the traditional dish of lumpia, (similar to an eggroll):

“I would prepare my grandmother’s lumpia recipe and kind of set up a lumpia sweatshop, if you will,” Ramil says. “For each of my cousins’ children … there are about 25 or 30 of them — I would put a place mat in front of them, lumpia wrappers … a little bowl of raw meat.”

Melanie is making sure such traditions have some permanence and extend beyond her family, writing a blog, Lola’s Journal, based on her grandmother’s life (and cooking).

For many of us food is an important part of our cultural identity, which may or may not be tied to ethnic backgrounds. Melanie’s story shows us that sometimes that connection is complicated and changes over time.  I’m writing this on Thanksgiving and I’m looking forward to a new tradition my family started last year:  the 10-minute instant Thanksgiving dinner, consisting of a purchased roasted chicken (how great that our main grocery store is open on Thanksgiving), boxed stuffing, instant mashed potatoes, canned vegetables and gravy, heated-up rolls. No gourmet feast, but it does allow more time for socializing, games, and emptying my growler, not to mention eliminating the 5 a.m. turkey preparation – a tradition I’m willing to pass up.

How to insult: Shoe or Vegemite?

vegemiteTo express unhappiness with a public figure, such as a President or Prime Minister, one of the non-verbal methods sometimes used is to throw something at that person.  In 2008 an Iraqi journalist hurled both his shoes, one after another, at President Bush, in protest against the Iraq War. In many cultures, showing the sole of one’s shoe is an insult, as is throwing a shoe.  There is a long list of shoeing incidents listed by Wikipedia, mostly directed at politicians in the Middle East and India. This week it was Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard who was attacked, but not by a shoe – by a Vegemite sandwich. It was thrown at her by a school child as she was visiting a school. It’s hard to tell if there was anything symbolic in choosing a sandwich – most likely it was just what was at hand.  Gillard is deeply unpopular at the moment in Australia and the sandwich toss may be a reflection of that fact.

What’s Vegemite?  If you’re Australian you wouldn’t need to ask.  It’s as popular there as peanut butter is in the U.S. or Nutella (a chocolate nut spread) is in Germany.  Like those foods, it is a sandwich spread, made from yeast (a by-product of beer brewing) and vegetable paste. Generally, I think of food as a great way to ease intercultural communication, but in the case of Vegemite, unless you ate it as a child, you are not likely to be a fan, as the video clip below between President Obama and Prime Minister Gillard illustrates:

Speaking of food, there was a wonderful article this week in the Guardian on how much an average family spends on food per week, with great pictures – amazing range of cost and volume of food consumed.

Cheap lunch

lew

US Treasury Secretary Lew at a Beijing dumpling restaurant

New US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, on an official visit to China, was spotted eating at a dumpling restaurant in Beijing.  One wouldn’t think that would be newsworthy, but it is created a stir in China.  Why?  Because government ministers in China would not consider eating at such a modest establishment.  Total cost for Lew and two colleagues for lunch:  less than $20 (109 yuan).  While such actions as this, and similar behavior by US government officials, such as new US China ambassador Gary Locke buying a coffee with a coupon while carrying his own bag, have brought praise on Sina Weibo (the Chinese Twitter) from ordinary citizens, some Chinese officials are complaining that US officials are trying to embarrass them by their conspicuous non-consumption.  This is all the more stinging for Chinese officials who, under new national leadership, are fighting against perceptions of corruption, cronyism and opulent living on the part of party officials.

Of course, American politicians tend to make a show of being one of the people, in line with American egalitarianism and populism.  In China, despite an official communist “government of the people”, different behavior and treatment based on social status is a long-standing aspect of Chinese culture.  However, with the rise of social media, which has spread fast and widely stories of abuse of power by party officials (and sometimes their offspring), the traditional respect for higher-ups is waning, while the admiration for the modest behavior of US officials is on the rise.

Coffee not soda

gulpArticle in today’s Wall Street Journal on the decline in consumption in the US of carbonated soda drinks, worrying companies like Coca Cola and Pepsi. Young Americans are increasingly drinking water, energy drinks and coffee. It’s of course not just a question of taste, but increasingly of health. Americans are becoming more conscious of the importance of a healthy diet and increasingly aware of how much the consumption of soft drinks is a factor in the obesity epidemic in the US.  High profile actions like the recent initiative from New York mayor Bloomberg’s to ban the sale of large sodas at restaurants and movie theaters help to spread the message.  The soda companies have been fighting back; Coke has a recent ad encouraging Americans to fight obesity, which has been received with considerable sardonic criticism.  Drinking soft drinks – and lots of them – has been culturally entrenched in the US for decades.  Tourists from abroad are often amazed by the size of American soft drinks (like 7-11’s Big Gulp) – the small size here is often equivalent to the largest size available in many other countries.  When I was hiking with my son in the Black Forest, he complained about the fact that my (standard size) beer was half a liter but his (standard size) soda was .3 or even .2 liter.  And no free refills! It must be that the move away from soft drinks is part of a communist conspiracy (probably from our Socialist president!) to undermine American culture, just like the sneaky move years ago to fluoridate our water (see Dr, Strangelove for the truth!).

Of course, it’s not necessarily the case that Americans are turning away from soda to something healthier.  Young Americans in particular are getting ever larger doses of caffeine.  A story recently on NPR discusses the trend on American campuses for students to drink more and more coffee, as well as caffeinated energy drinks. Besides the high cost on the wallet of this trend, the cost in terms of health is high as well.  High caffeine consumption interferes with getting a good night’s sleep.  This can have negative consequences in terms of academics.  A researcher cited in the study comments that high caffeine has been linked to decresed REM sleep, which is important for memory consolidation and learning.  Of course, that’s part of the conspiracy as well – trying to get us to dump our soft drinks and switch to drinks that make us dumber!

Non-freedom fries

Chip Butty – not at the Olympics!

Big bucks win over cultural preferences. There’s a ruckus in England over food at the 2012 Olympics, specifically the well-beloved Chips (French Fries). Seems that McDonald’s as an official sponsor has exclusive rights to sell fries at the Olympics. Only approved exception is fish and chips, no luck if you feel like sausage and chips, egg and chips, lasagna and chips, steak and chips or even the famous chip sandwich (Chip Butty, popular in York). Part of the problem is that the skinny McD’s fries are not the style the Brits like – they prefer fat and greasy.

Reminds me of the uproar in Germany at the 2006 World Cup when originally only Budweiser (an official sponsor) was allowed to be served at the games being played in Germany, quite a slap in the face to German beer drinkers. There is actually an excellent Budweiser beer, however it’s not the Anheuser-Busch brew but rather the original Budweiser from Budvar, in the Czech Republic. Unfortunately for beer drinkers, the relationship between the FIFA, which puts on the World Cup, and Anheuser-Busch InBev recently was extended to 2022. It remains to be seen, however, if beer will even be served at the 2014 championship in Brazil, since beer at soccer stadiums there has been banned since 2003 (too much alcohol-fueled violence). Same ban applies in Russia, the sponsor for 2018.

Side note:  There will be a new world’s largest McDonald’s for the London Olympics, taking over from the McDonald’s in Pushkin Square,  Moscow.  I visited that McD’s a couple of years ago – quite an operation there.  I went to have an American breakfast – which I have to say I enjoyed immensely, as a break from Russian food.  I have to admit as well that I have also visited the second busiest McD’s world-wide – at the Karlstor in Munich.  I enjoyed the chance to have a beer with my “Royale with Cheese”.

Are French women worried about getting fat?

Interesting article in the New York Times on efforts by a weight-loss company (Jenny Craig) to see their products and services in France, a cuture not big on pre-packaged cooked foods, especially if they come from a company associated with the home of the Big Mac: “Selling an American-style weight-loss program to France would seem an absurd business proposition: from a French point of view, Americans might appear better equipped to give pointers on how to gain weight than how to lose it. The obesity rate in the United States is around 35 percent, compared with 14.5 percent in France.” But the obesity rate has been rising in France lately as well, although not nearly at the rate of the US.

The article points out that the many people in France believe that the traditional French food and eating culture is the answer to obesity.  Valérie Bignon, the director of corporate communications for Nestlé France comments:  “The solution to America’s weight problem lies in what I call the French food model, a model that is very social, as opposed to the individualist approach of the Americans.”  She points to the importance of placing high value on everyone getting together at the same time, eating the same thing, and making meals into a social event, thus discouraging between-meal snacking.  She is down not only on American fast food but also on self-serve restaurants (le Self)  – which move away from the “French food model”.  I have to admit that when I was a student in France, I often ate at self-serve restaurants – they were cheap.

Chicken conquers the world

Chicken Tiki Masala

Chicken Tiki Masala

One of the wonderful benefits of having a great variety of cultures in our world is the diversity of foods that results.  An article in the current issue of Smithsonian Magazine points to how popular chicken has become and how many different ways cultures have made it their own.  This includes the legendary Indian-British Chicken Tiki Masala, which then Foreign Secretary Robin Cook called in a speech in 2001 a “true British national dish”, as a way to point to the benefits of a multicultural Britain.

This presents an interesting contrast to Angela Merkel’s comment in 2010 that in Germany “Multikulti ist gescheitert, absolut gescheitert” (multiculturalism has utterly failed).  That speech was given in Potsdam, not far from Berlin, where the  Turkish Döner Kebab has become the most popular street food, over the traditional Currywurst.  The article points to an interesting take on chicken today in China:  for many Chinese, cooked chicken on the go means only one thing:  KFC.  Why?  The most important is that KFC has adapted their menu to Chinese tastes.  But the article points to an additional humorous explanation:  the resemblance of Colonel Sanders to Confucius!