By Joseph Naeem
In the past fifteen years, the local food movement has experienced a global renaissance and won converts the world over. Its advocates contend that this their core idea represents a triple coup d’etat for all parties involved: eaters, who want healthier food, patronize the work of small scale local farmers, who, by virtue of their smallness, cause less damage to the environment. The arguments in favor of promoting a system like this are strong. Though economically implementing such a program is, of course, an uphill battle to say the least, the benefits of doing so are clear.
One dimension of new eating paradigms that is often overlooked, however, is the idea of eating culturally. To get a better picture of what eating culturally is, think of the Pakistani immigrant to America who continues to shop at a nearby desi food market. The food is not local, but its meaning is closer to his identity.
One leading proponent of eating culturally is Renè Redzepi, founder of the award-winning Noma restaurant inCopenhagen. During World Policy Journal’s recent interview with the chef, Redzepi explained the concept of eating culturally as being an attempt to eat “local in the cultural sense”. To illustrate, he uses the example of onions. When his restaurant runs out of onions, they are met with the decision of where to source the new ones from. He says they would rather source onions from Sweden than from Germany. “Because,” he says, “in our minds, we see Sweden as being a local nearby area, so we search that place. But in reality, Germany would be much more local for us to source those onions, but because culturally we aren’t aligned as closely as say with Sweden, it becomes almost a moral issue.”
The guiding principle of eating culturally is that food’s meaning to our identity, to our selves, matters. For an immigrant this is an obvious phenomenon: having left behind his literal homeland, his food remains a secure touching point, establishing a connection to the place of his birth.
Yet we are all local somewhere,
Many of us are local in several places. Those whose parents come from different cultures or those who have lived abroad for long stretches of time, for example, may feel that their local food sources are incredibly various. These people probably have eaten culturally for a long time without knowing it.
“We are the only animal that cooks,” writes Robin Fox in his excellent essay “Food and Eating: An Anthropological Perspective,” “so cooking becomes more than a necessity. [It is] a symbol of our humanity, what marks us off from the rest of nature.” If cooking marks us off from the rest of nature, then cooking in accordance with the culture of our choosing marks us off from the rest of cultures. Cooking culturally then becomes a way of exploring your own identity: you become what you eat, and you eat what you are.
Yet foodies should be wary not to casually appropriate another’s cultural identity via food. Shing Yin Khor, in her entertaining and enlightening comic, “Just Eat It: A Comic About Food and Cultural Appropriation,” mocks the desire of eaters who seek authentic cultural experiences from “foreign cultures.” Eating culturally should not be seen as a convenient passport for food voyeurism. Instead, it’s more like an introspective journey into one’s own cultural food identity, where you learn about yourself and simultaneously adopt a more communicative stance toward another person’s cultural food process.
Finally, in the end, “it’s just food.” Eating culturally can give great benefit to those who attempt it. Those who seek to eat culturally will experience the gusto that comes from the interplay of food and identity.
Joseph Naeem is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photos courtesy of Laura Prijatelj]