Eating Stereotypes: the Fluid Identity of Street Food Joints
I recently came across this BBC article. The issue at stake is this: are food bloggers fueling racist stereotypes? Interviewed in the piece, Filipino-American photographer Celeste Noche argues that her field tends to exoticize or misrepresent ethnic food (e.g. Filipino dishes with chopsticks in the background, although you don’t need chopsticks to eat them), which is a symptom of a wider and increasingly controversial fetishisation of minority cultures against white/Western as a default standard. Another piece questions the attitude of “foodies” themselves, who often act as if having a favorite pho joint in your local hipster neighborhood is enough to get an insight into Vietnamese culture. While searching for “authentic” food experiences may be intended as a way to discover something real, the consumerist logic behind it is in fact an object of some debate. This Everyday Feminism article by Rachel Kuo, for example, highlights the condescending attitude of the white majority towards “ethnic” delicacies, ridiculed and then superficially rediscovered at the most convenient time. A response by professor Jerry Coyne, instead, defends the right to appreciate different taste cultures without necessarily having to feel guilty of appropriating them. Again, one of the keywords here is authenticity: Kuo associates it to “pre-conceived exotic narratives”, Coyne maintains “‘authentic’ ethnic food is often BETTER ethnic food”.
Representation and cultural appropriation are layered concepts with a history of scholarly literature behind them, but while we’re used to take stereotypes with a grain of salt on TV our frown reflex is not as quick at the dinner table. Personally, I am exactly the type of enthusiast eater who will aggressively try and convince friends and family to try spicier cuisines, often with passionate opinions about the authenticity of my favorite food joints. Clearly, the debate hits close to home. While I recognize my responsibility (if anything for stressing my close ones out) I am not so sure focusing on the identity of the adventurous eater is ultimate the most productive. At the end of the day, as a friend of mine pointed out while talking about the topic — and as Noche herself discussed in this podcast, where the conversation was particularly focused on editorial policies, rather than consumption — it boils down to who’s making a profit out of it.
Cultural Appropriation VS Culinary Gentrification
Having lived in the Netherlands for seven years I know there is a thin line between culinary curiosity and (often embarrassing) appropriation. The Dutch are obsessed with food trucks — and who isn’t, in 2017? — and I was not surprised their street food-heavy pavilion at the Milan Expo 2015 was a hit. That being said, I’ve seen some weird stuff in my days in Amsterdam: Japanese-styled Belgian waffles are perhaps the highlight in the food truck abomination category, but more than that there are countless hip restaurants that, while pushing the pedal on interior design, present bland or mediocre versions of exotic cuisines tagged with the usual “street food” label. Mexican is probably the most abused cuisine, but then again how many Mexicans do run restaurants in Amsterdam for comparison? This sort of culinary appropriation is more ridiculous than anything in countries where the appropriated traditions are pretty much absent. It gets way more real and compelling where a true local tradition exists, as shown in this very good documentary about the history of the chopped cheese sandwich in New York. Going from staple bodega food to high-end hipster trend, the parable of the chopped cheese draws some demarcations in terms of culinary curiosity and social awareness, addressing a fitting example of food gentrification, and the rebranding of African-American soul food as Southern cuisine has reasons to be even more controversial.
When done within the same community, however, sometimes the rebranding of a cuisine seems to be a tool towards (or perhaps a symptom of) social mobility. I could be wrong, but while I get the impression that in Europe cuisines like Mexican, Vietnamese and Korean often enter the urban imaginary under the cool, hipsterized “street food” umbrella, others — possibly because sustained by a more substantial immigrant tradition? — have become more diversified. It is probably because of the need to stand out among a stronger competition, but I definitely noticed many Turkish or Chinese restaurants in Milan or Amsterdam (the two cities I know enough to remember a time when it was different) that have now adopted a more sophisticated approach to interior design, shifting from a fast-food to a sit-down vibe, sometimes toning down the folkloric details in the decor — e.g. minimally-furnished Chinese restaurants that privilege white over red elements. These are all business decisions, but I assume they do have to do with the hosting country’s more or less stereotyped understanding of a foreign cuisine and the need to reach beyond it.
Pizza and Deterritorialization
As a white, European male I don’t feel I belong to any oppressed minority, but as an Italian I’ve definitely seen my national cuisine manipulated to fit any nook and cranny across the world. Stopping short only of the infamous pineapple pizza, I’ve sampled my share of aberrations: 10€ cream and ham “carbonara” in Amsterdam, deep dish “pizza” in Chicago, you name it. Granted what is commonly understood as “Italian cuisine” abroad is itself a revisitation of regional staples that are clearly mapped within the peninsula — Milan has risotto, Bologna has lasagne, Genova has pesto and focaccia, Rome has the carbonara, Sicily has cannoli and Naples has pizza — we are almost in “post-authenticity” territory here.
First of all, Italian food is perhaps the only cuisine that fits any social level of food ingestion. If you walk past enough legit Italian restaurants (by legit I mean they’re run by Italian food professionals) you can assume rent is high in the neighborhood, but you’ll also find some form of pizza in any unpretentious eatery in more borderline environs. Italian food mingles with Turkish and Pakistani dishes, but also with French and Lebanese in upmarket delis. It is probably the most deterritorialized cuisine in the world.
Given the availability of ingredients, there is a practical flexibility that is inherent to Italian food, while the simplicity of flavors we’re so proud of is probably the reason why the spice-inclined feel entitled to add hot or sweet to appease their taste buds, often in ways that would make a Belpaese native cringe. So, why are Italians annoying — and yes, we are — when they complain about their food being contaminated?
Let’s put aside the fact that complaining is part of our national aesthetic. Italians have been migrating for a long time, within Europe most of the ones I know would instinctively be labeled as “expats” rather than “immigrants”, two words that ring different for several reasons (I’ve explored some of them here, in Italian). Apart maybe from the Swiss, nobody seems to be really worried about Italian immigrants anymore. Clearly, then, the issue of who is eating whom’s food — and the historical relationship between the two — is quite crucial in the culinary appropriation debate.
Street Food and Strategic Anti-Essentialism
The postures of the self-appointed foodie are definitely annoying, but perhaps the debate would best be addressed towards a more materialistic critique, encompassing the relationship between a restaurant and its social context.
The use of exotic decor or the adaptation of taste to accommodate the hosting country has always been a valuable strategy for immigrants: it’s easy to forget lots of curries like korma or vindaloo are mostly known in their Asian-British version, like the so-called “kapsalon” — the ultimate Turkish night-cap in the Netherlands — is entirely Dutch. We could say the same about the burrito or even the hamburger, which carries none of its German heritage (and, of course, the pineapple pizza).
As for cultural appropriation, there is a useful concept coined by cultural and racial theorist George Lipsitz that might help define this type of things: “strategic anti-essentialism”. Coined after the more famous “strategic essentialism” by post-colonialist theorist Gayatri Spivak, the concept is defined as the calculated use of a cultural form outside of your own to define yourself or your group. As Wikipedia explains, this strategy is used by both majority and minority groups, with different levels of responsibility: “when the majority culture attempts to strategically anti-essentialize itself by appropriating a minority culture, it must take great care to recognize the specific socio-historical circumstances and significance of these cultural forms so as not to perpetuate the already existing majority vs. minority unequal power relations.” Lipsitz, in an essay on musicology, makes the example of El Gringo, an American making traditional Mexican music yet implicitly denouncing his own relationship to the culture by adopting the aforementioned stage name, which literally means “the American” in a kind of derogatory way.
If we then assume anti-essentialism goes like satire, that is you should “punch up” and not down, perhaps the rule with culinary appropriation would be to “cook up” and not down? In this case the rebranding of lahmacun as Turkish pizza would be a good example: an established format — the word “pizza” — is co-opted to sell a staple from a lesser known cuisine. Although lahmacun, like pizza itself, is ultimately the evolution of a format with vague Mediterranean origins, its marketing in contemporary European cities passes through that necessary affiliation.
In the end, I believe food is a way to connect to different cultures. Sometimes you look up a dish on Wikipedia and wind up learning something about the history of a different country, sometimes it’s just a nice way to break the ice with someone you might not have much in common with otherwise. I will probably keep on annoying my friends with my street food expeditions, but I might definitely think twice before I open my own exotic food truck.