Last week I attended a conference entitled Food: Heritage, Hybridity and Locality hosted by the American Studies Department at Brown University. It was a small conference, always the best, with just over a dozen papers in two days and time to meet and talk to people.
I should begin by saying that I am less than enthusiastic about food heritage. Having had the chance to listen the backers of Mexico’s successful attempt to have Mexican cuisine recognized by UNESCO, I came to the conclusion that when it’s given institutional backing by nations or UNESCO, it all too often freezes food customs at a particular moment, excludes outsiders, and quells innovation.
When it’s just a personal matter, it is fluid and frequently changing. Perhaps because I have happily skipped about the world benefitting from the heritages of all the places in which I have lived, as well as the heritages that follows from my activities, family and social relations, beliefs, and so on, it’s just not something I get exercised about.
So I was curious what others would say about heritage, as well as about hybridity and locality. We had a dozen or so stories, fascinating stories I must say, all of them from the twentieth or twenty first centuries.
But, as is usually the way with academic conferences, we all left before we had time to compare or contrast them, or to draw any general conclusions. What follows is not a synopsis, but a (long, be warned) personal attempt to capture what I found interesting and useful before the memory fades. If I have misrepresented any participants, please let me know and I’ll post a correction.
Heritage and the State
Not everyone however has the luck to choose their culinary identity (which most speakers took to be the unproblematic result of culinary heritage). There are those who are forced into more rigid senses of heritage and identity by the power of the state or of economic position.
How Fascist politics shaped Italian culinary traditions was addressed by both Silvana Chiesa and Stefano Luconi. Asking how polenta had been transformed from a food of poverty to a heritage food, Silvana argued that it was the result of its endorsement as good food by the Fascist government as they prepared the public for economic hard times and war.
The Fascist government, according to Stefano, seeking to boost exports also put out propaganda to persuade Italian emigrants, largely in the Americas, that the only true Italian foods were produced in Italy and that American pasta, for example, was but a second-rate imitation. (Ha, and wasn’t it true that much Italian pasta had been made of imported American wheat. And ha, here is one more reason why those who migrate and their food are also regarded as second class).
The WPA America Eats Project simply did not know what to do with immigrants like Italians, according to Camille Bégin. One photo she showed from the archive featured an Italian cook in Tennessee preparing spaghetti, fried chicken, and white bread. Industrialized white bread and fried chicken were luxury foods beyond the wildest imagination of poor, rural Italians condemned to polenta or other foods of poverty. So too was spaghetti made of wheat flour, probably American-made spaghetti. Yet the largely progressive writers hired by the project had been told to search for the pre-industrial, local, rural American cuisine of yeoman farmers or original inhabitants. Italians enjoying fried chicken, bread, and spaghetti did not fit this origin story.
Ironically, the abundant fossil fuel that made possible industrialized food also made possible tourism by train, by car, and later by plane. The photo Camille showed of Mexican women grinding and making tortillas in Los Angeles was not taken in a Mexican neighborhood. Instead it was set up on Olvera Street, then just recently made over as a place tourists could go to experience the Mexican culture that had once ruled in the area. Olvera Street is still a tourist destination.
The error of thinking that food heritage can be simply linked to religious or national groups was made quite clear by Cathy Gallin’s talk about two immigrant Jewish groups in Barcelona: observant Sephardic Moroccans and socialist Argentinean Ashkenazis. The first related Jewish food heritage to dishes served on religious holidays, the second to family, and the two groups had little to do with each other. And neither, it emerged in response to Paul Freedman‘s question, was concerned about the wildly inventive medieval Jewish culinary tourism in nearby Girona. (And ha, about the long and not always happy history of Jews in Spain, including under Franco).
According to Chi-hoon Kim, Korean Airlines, reeling from a sequence of crashes in the 80s and 90s, revamped their food service as part of their reorganization. Bibimbap, unlike the kimchee which had previously been seen as the Korean signature dish, delighted airline customers and did in fact help set the airline on the way to profitability.
This success was, in part, that led the Korean government to choose bibimbap as the signature Korean food when they decided to launch their campaign to make Korean one of the five top cuisines in the world by 2017. Why have certain governments decided to invest heavily in cuisine in the past couple of decades? Thailand being the other obvious example. It cannot be accident and it would be interesting to discover what was learned, whether there were direct contacts, how the agencies work.
The Japanese city Kesen-numa, which has been promoted by local businesses as shark city complete with museum and sharkfin dish, was devastated by the 2011 tsunami. Following that, it Kesen-numa turned not to UNESCO but to Slow Food for support, said Jun Akimine. It has banned shark finning. It has invented a shark instead of a shark fin bowl as the local delicacy. Whole bodies are now brought to port (though heads and innards may be discarded at sea for sanitary reasons. The real business of Kesen-numa is processing shark flesh into fish paste, best known in the US as kamaboko but available in various different forms in Japan.
Finally, Vegemite, the dark, salty spread so popular in Australia, failed to make it in the American market in spite of a vigorous advertizing campaign, explained Emily Contois, who managed to squeeze this in while busy doing a lot of the administration of the conference. Only with increased American awareness that Australia had fine sportsmen and a flourishing film industry were the conditions ripe for even a modest incursion of the delicacy.
Ethnicity,Hybridity, and Dining
Although no one used the term hybridity, the issues of mixed cuisines turned up chiefly in papers on eating away from home, particularly multicultural eating, by Casey Man Kong Lum, Sidney Cheung, and Paul Freedman.
Political events and scarce housing have meant that ordinary Hong Kong people have needed to eat away from home in the past century. Sidney traced two kinds of Hakka restaurants, a long-standing “fresh water Hakka” style that served simple dishes—salt-baked chicken, stuffed tofu—and a newer salt water style that ties in to fresh and local movements.
Sidney told me that many of the earlier dishes made their way into the mixed Chinese and European menus of the Hong Kong chachaanteng eateries . As Casey described these little mom ‘n pop places that had catered to working people, I was reminded of Hawaii’s Local Food served at plate lunch places, a comparison that also occurred to Robert Lee of the American Studies Department at Brown. And just as “Hawaiian” (actually Local) restaurants are now making their way to the US mainland, chachaanteng are making their way into Shanghai.
I wondered about the technology behind these. Did suppliers of ingredients, and even technologies as happened with British fish n chips or American fast food, or even with the plate lunch people in Hawaii.
In the case of “ethnic” restaurants in the United States, Paul Freedman gave details about the behind-the-scenes activity: the Fujianese network that monitored the US for areas without Chinese restaurants, put up money to start them, and supplied the waiters. And he mentioned the Chinese restaurant in New York where no English-speaking waiters were hired so that customers could feel they were enjoying an authentic experience. And how recipes like Mongolian beef or deep fried cheese wonton passed around the system as satisfying to customers.
So what are heritage, hybridity, and locality?
I was struck by how little attention participants paid to defining or criticizing heritage, hybridity, and locality. No one referred to the outpouring of work on cultural heritage, including food, that began before but was accelerated by the UNESCO intangible heritage program.
No one used the term hybridity nor talked about how scholars have used hybridity in the last couple of decades to reassess the colonial period. That has its advantages since much of that is an obscurantist bog. Indeed Sidney Mintz, in an articulate, generous, and charming keynote, suggested that since hybrid had a specific biological definition, we might be better off talking about mixing and mixtures. Glancing at the audience, I had the sense this suggestion was happily accepted.
The obvious disadvantage, though, is that if we do not understand the historical or cultural context of the terms we use, they can take on a seeming inevitability and, all too often in food politics, the power to command assent without understanding.
Other conceptual issues relevant to the conference topic were taken up by some participants beside Mintz.
Food historians might find it useful to think of contact between cultures as taking place along a scale from total rejection to total acceptance, a scale that had already been used to analyze the contacts between Christian missionaries and the native Canadians, said Olivier Bauer. Worth thinking about. He used it to untangle Jewish bagels and smoked meats at the intersection of Francophone and Anglophone Montreal.
The term “ethnic” to describe restaurants that were neither American nor French was introduced in 1959 by Craig Claibourne, pointed out Paul Freedman. What terms, I wonder, were were used before then? Simply Italian? Simply Chinese? Is there an equivalent term for “ethnic” in French, or German, or Japanese?
Ethnic takes two: the included and the excluded, said Sidney Mintz. And I ruminated, two are necessary for heritage, identity, and locality too. A single group, out of touch with others, just takes their past, their present, and their place as unproblematic. Indeed pairs (or triads) are everywhere: food manufacturers and customers, advertisers and consumers, governments and citizens, restaurateurs and diners (as pointed out by Paul Freedman) all have to come to terms.
Simple notions of locality and heritage just don’t do justice to the way the spice mixture ras el hanout has jumped around the world, argued Jean Duruz, migrants and cookbook authors helping it hop from Morocco to the immigrant areas of Paris, from Morocco to Australian lamb roasts.
I had a go at locality as well. I drew a distinction between foods associated with/assumed to be the product of and definitive of extended spaces or territories and foods produced in specific locations. The first are often assumed to travel with mass migrations, their authenticity being diluted along the way. The latter are disseminated by networks with back and forth traffic between the nodes and only limited constraints of states or empires. The “Cornish” pasty did not originate in Cornwall and travel from there to the US and Australia as the territorial theory might suggest. Instead it was codified in Australia (and perhaps elsewhere) and transferred around a worldwide network of Cornish miners.
Finally, Sidney Mintz pointed out what had not come up in the papers: that food heritage may bring people together and sustain them but that it also divides and, all too frequently, hurts, harms, or kills. Something that given the dark side of many of the cuisines described needs to be borne in mind constantly.
Food Heritage in Providence
The best conferences are more than just papers and discussions. John Eng-Wong made sure that our experience in Providence added to the formal sessions. Providence is a city that has always faced seaward. Its wealth came from sugar, slavery, and the China trade.
Eighteenth-century Providence was brought to life by a tour of the house of John Brown, slave trader and China trader, the shelves of its butler’s pantry laden with three china services from China, and the hall table adorned with an oval Staffordshire platter depicting the Cape Coast Castle on the Gold Coast (Ghana), the major slaving market.
By chance, I sat next to Meg Ferguson of Bee and Thistle Antiquarian Books during Sidney Mintz’s keynote. She told me that her father had invented a special sieve for centrifuged sugar in Providence. The factory still makes these sieves, selling them, among other customers to Chinese sugar manufacturers.
The gilded age in Providence was evident in the Biltmore Hotel where we stayed.
When the Biltmore opened in the 1920s, diners could push a button to summon a Bacchante Girl. According to the hotel literature “She would appear in her costume, which featured a diaphanous, see-through skirt. The bar area had a glass floor which was under lit with pink lighting, a feature which showcased the girls’ beautiful legs.”
That’s a particular bit of culinary heritage that has now been consigned to the hotel web site. There were no signs of pink tinted lights under glass floors in the bar.
Then there was the moment when the group collectively gasped as an “Italian” gondola complete with passengers and gondolier drifted past on the river, celebrating the Italians who had come to work in the factories around the turn of the twentieth century. Stefano, who had studied Italians in Providence explained that these had been the brainchild of the current leading candidate for mayor, of whom much more could be said.
And for the final meal we repaired to the dining room of the Nightingale-Brown house, of the same Brown family. It was restored recently with funds from the sale of the Brown family’s secretary-style desk for $12,000,000. What a delight to see the American foam clamshell boxes of take-out Chinese food lined up on the table.
Thank you Sidney Cheung for encouraging John Eng-Wong to put on this conference, thank you John Eng-Wong and team for a great conference, and thank you Priscilla Eng-Wong because I suspect it was you who added much-needed umbrellas to our swag bags.
In Charlotte Airport on my way home I laughed out loud over a menu of Dakota pea soup, Sedona tortilla soup, Tuscan hummus, Hawaiian pizza, Thai chicken pizza, and fresh, local beer.
And I thought about John Eng-Wong’s question to me. How do we become aware of the many networks and linkages that shape food heritage and identity?
How indeed? How can we understand the world we live in and, if not control it, at least not pass through it sleep walking?