I think in some cases emigrants do create national or regional cuisines. They create them in their new countries. And then they introduce them to their home countries.
Not always, of course. But this pattern of back migration is one I’ve been thinking about recently because national cuisines are such a tricky issue.
Nations and their cuisines remind me of the story of the croquet match in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Alice has to play, croquet, supposedly a very proper game with strict rules, with the Queen of Hearts. Since the mallets are flamingos, the balls are hedgehogs, and even the hoops are made of living playing cards, the rules are constantly subverted.
And nations and their cuisines are a bit like that. In the ideal story, nations are surrounded by nice clear borders, inhabited by a common people who share a history, a language, not to mention flags, stamps, airlines, football teams, and cuisines.
In fact, it’s hard to find a nation with boundaries fixed for all time, without a civil war in its history, without minorities who speak lots of different languages, and without a population that has an unfortunate habit, like Alice’s flamingos, of moving in and out of the field of play by moving back and forth across borders.
So where does the national (or regional) cuisine come from? Consider the Cornish pasty, which I’ve been thinking and writing about on and off for the past couple of years.
Cornwall’s not a nation but a very distinct area of the British Isles, one of the Celtic areas, the southwestern peninsula that juts out into the north Atlantic.
Until a couple of hundred years ago, the people there spoke their own Celtic language, just like the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish, and the Bretons. Cut off from the rest of the British Isles as much by distance as by the River Tamar, It has its own distinct identity. “By Tre, Pol and Pen, Ye Shall Know the Cornish Men,” I was taught growing up, referring to the Trethowans, Trelawneys, Tremaynes, Trevithicks, Polkinghornes, Polwheles, Penhaligons, Pentreaths, Penruddocks and other Cornish last names and place names.
And the Cornish have their own signature dish, the Cornish pasty. The Cornish pasty that I learned from my mother, who learned it from her Cornish relatives, looks like this.
Beef is cut in tiny cubes, potato and turnip are whittled to small shards, onion chopped fine, and then mixed together with plenty of salt and pepper and a little water.
They placed on circles of short crust pastry, enclosed by the folded and crimped dough, brushed with beaten egg, and baked in the oven.
And now it’s official. On the 20th July 2011 after a nine-year campaign by the fifty-member-strong trade organization, the Cornish Pasty Association based in Cornwall, the European Commission awarded the pasty Protected Geographical Indication. If the directive was followed, henceforth only pasties prepared in Cornwall could be called Cornish, and, although they did not have to be baked there, it was to be assumed that there were “strong links between pasty production and local suppliers of the ingredients.”
So what about all the other Cornish pasties around Britain and the world? “Pastes,” the Spanish pronunciation, are made in Real del Monte about fifty miles north of Mexico City and Zacatecas three hundred miles further north. They are sold in the hangar-sized Central del Norte bus station in Mexico City. They are the signature dish of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, subsequently adopted by other immigrants from Finland in particular, and now sold to homesick retirees in Florida. They are found in Butte, Montana, are the pride of Moonta and surrounding towns in South Australia, and appear in mining towns in South Africa, and possibly in Peru, Bolivia and Chile where they overlap with empanadas.
Since all these pasties have the same half-moon shape, since they are all filled with beef, potatoes, and other root vegetables, the simple story is that they were taken overseas by migrants.
And Cornish migrants there certainly were too. In the early years of the nineteenth century, they went to Mexico, Bolivia, and Peru and Spain itself. In the 1840s, Canada and the United States were the favored destinations, particularly the upper peninsula of Michigan. In the 1860s, it was south Australia. And in the 1880s and 1890s, South Africa became the primary destination.
The reason they went was that the tin mines of Cornwall, worked since Roman times, were now so deep they were flooded. In spite of investment in steam-driven pumps and other cutting edge technology, the mines could no longer compete with the new ones opening up around the world. So the miners and engineers who were some of the best in the world took their skills with them and left. “A mine is a hole anywhere in the world with a Cornishman at the bottom,” the saying went. All in all, a quarter of a million emigrated in the last forty years of the nineteenth century. It was not until after World War II that the population of Cornwall itself climbed again to the 350,000 it had been in the mid-nineteenth century.
With the miners and engineers went ministers, teachers, bakers and other tradespeople, and in some cases, wives. They sought a better life with time off to play football on the weekends, to march with their brass bands, and to eat the food they aspired to. They earned better wages than their relatives back in depressed Cornwall. Those in South Africa sent over a million pounds in remittances to impoverished Cornwall in the late nineteenth century.
The problem is that the migration slowed at the end of the nineteenth century. with this simple story is that, in spite of determined research by proud Cornish and assertions by the Cornish pasty industry, there is no positive evidence that “the” Cornish pasty defined above existed prior to the 1920s and 30s. The first Cornish cookbook, which appeared in 1929, had multiple pasties all right: apple, broccoli, chicken, dates, bacon and eggs, jam, mackerel, mutton and parsley, pork, rabbit, rice and turnips, but only one with some unspecified meat and potatoes that bears any resemblance to ‘the’ Cornish pasty.
So, I ask, in an article that’s just been published in Petits Propos Culinaires, could it be that it was the wealthier overseas Cornish who created the fairly luxurious beef Cornish pasty?
And was it then popularized with their movements from one mining area to another and, frequently, back to Cornwall itself?
After all, Cornwall was not traditionally an area that ate wheat flour products. Its chilly wet climate was better suited to barley. Nor was it a beef producing area but better suited to sheep.
Consider the Italian case. Here’s the distinguished food historian, Massimo Montanari, talking about the creation of Italian cuisine.
“It was in America that many southern peasants became “macaroni-eaters”. . . thanks to the integration that occurred between domestic customs and the business of groceries and restaurants. It was in those communities . . . that an Italian style of eating arose, which in many cases preceded similar experiences in the home country.” (And I would add that this was true of Argentina and perhaps Brazil as well).
There are lots of examples, particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, where emigrants moved to countries where they were able to enjoy a higher standard of living than in their home country.
That in turn meant that they were able to enjoy the kind of dishes formerly limited to the rich and wealthy and, as such, identified more with class than with the nation.
These emigrants were often mobile, traveling from one overseas destination to another, and back and forth to the home country. We know very well that emigrants returning to their home countries like to show how they have made good. And what better way than eating like the rich? And then this becomes the expectation among their stay-at-home relatives as well.
Here are few more examples.
Japanese migrants in Brazil were responsible for introducing and marketing coffee to the Japanese in Japan in the early twentieth century. It’s now the national drink (not tea).
And what about Indians and Chinese in the nineteenth century? Vietnamese and Filipinos today?
In short, what I want to argue is that we should beware of assuming that cuisines are created within national boundaries and then disseminated overseas.
And furthermore, I’d like to ask why only those who stay within national boundaries are allowed to call their food “Cornish” or “Italian?”
After all there are now 6 million Cornish descendants overseas, vastly more than are found in Cornwall itself. Do they need to look to the decision of European bureaucrats promoted by business interests in Cornwall?
For more details and documentation, see my “From a Pasty in Cornwall to the Cornish Pasty,” Petits Propos Culinaires, 100 (2104), 140-148.
On the EU designation of the pasty. Wikipedia contributors, ‘Pasty’, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 2012) <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Pasty&oldid=509852937> [accessed 14 September 2012].
On pasties in Michigan. Y. Lockwood & W. G. Lockwood, “Pasties in Michigan: Foodways, Interethnic Relations and Cultural Dynamics,”Creative Ethnicity, eds. Stephen Stern and John Allan Cicala. Logan: Utah State University Press. pp. 3-20.
‘The Cornish Pasty Presents: The First Printed CORNISH RECIPE BOOK’ [accessed 21 September 2012].
On the cuisine of Italians at home and abroad in the nineteenth century. Carol F. Helstosky, Garlic and Oil: Food and Politics in Italy, 1st edn (Berg Publishers, 2006); Hasia R. Diner, Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration (Harvard University Press, 2003), chap. 2 and 3; Samuel L. Baily, Immigrants in the Lands of Promise: Italians in Buenos Aires and New York City, 1870-1914 (Cornell University Press, 2004), chap. 1–4.
On the creation of Italian food. Massimo Montanari, Italian Identity in the Kitchen, or Food and the Nation. Trans Beth Archer Brombert (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 45.
On the Japanese and white rice. Rachel Laudan, The Food of Paradise Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1996), p. 127.
On the Japanese and coffee. Merry White, Coffee LIfe in Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 45-47.