Sunday, April 12, 2015

Is there such a thing as a "national food"?







This is the monologue for the latest episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “Cuisine and Empire: What does food tells us about culture?” with our guest, Rachel Laudan. To listen, click here.


So, there’s this thing called New York pizza. It’s unlike Chicago pizza, favoring thin crust rather than thick, and it’s different than pizza in Italy because it’s meant to be served in slices and eaten with your hands. There are many people who think that it’s the best pizza in the world, but that is, ultimately, a matter of taste. What interests me more is that there is a New York pizza at all, that something so Italian, can be made so American without any sense of compromise or irony.


On the most simplistic level, New York pizza can be explained by Italian immigration around the turn of the twentieth century; the word itself has been used in Italy for over a thousand years and the first documented American pizzeria appeared in Manhattan in 1905, in the midst of the main wave of Italian relocation. But, in fact, the idea of a national cuisine was a recent innovation, and if there was one in Italy, it was pasta, not pizza. Even what we think of as pizza, flatbread with marinara and toppings, couldn’t have existed without the Americas. The tomato was brought from the new world to Europe four hundred years earlier and met significant resistance; Europeans thought it was poisonous. The reality is that we no longer think of pizza as an ethnic food at all. It’s basically fast food and American chains like Domino’s and Pizza Hut, possibly the worst pizzas in the world, dominate the international scene with restaurants in over sixty countries.

Let’s think about the brief history I just offered. To truly understand it, we have to know geography, and about three major periods of migration and trade; we have to grasp that vegetation is local, but can be relocated; we have to understand basic capitalism, the idea of the nation state, and the concept of a multinational corporation; we have to accept that language changes meaning, as do culinary traditions, and, not the least of it, we have to grasp the role of identity in ethnicity and nationalism. That’s a lot of background knowledge. Like clothing and music, cuisine is world history writ small.

What’s particularly interesting about pizza is that it is recognizable by everyone involved. Neapolitans and Sicilians may not like what Americans have done with it (or vice versa), but they’ll still understand the dish when they see it. This wouldn’t be the case with fortune cookies, which are not from China but invented in America and modeled on a Japanese cracker, nor Fajitas, which are probably from Texas, not Mexico. But pizza is a global food that speaks to the best of humanity, our ability to combine innovation and tradition, and to create a truly cosmopolitan experience.

Pizza is just an easy example. All cuisine migrates. Every food is individual, familial, regional, national, imperial, and global. It reminds us that the borders we create are political, not natural, and that there is something arbitrary about the distinction between the American and the Canadian, the Italian and the Spaniard, the Greek and the Turk. I recently asked a Pakistani citizen how his food differed from that of his neighbors and he responded that Pakistani and Indian food are “identical twins with different names.” Imagine that. The two countries most likely to destroy each other with nuclear weapons have the same cuisine. Despite their partition and religious conflict, their sustenance unites them. Their food knows no borders, even if they refuse to break bread at the same table. 

Today’s episode is about the history of cooking. We’ll look at the philosophy, politics, anthropology, and sociology of cuisine, and we’ll try to learn from the changes in food patterns. We’ll see how differences in dining are largely a matter of class, not nature, and that access to foodstuffs has been a force of intentional reward and punishment, not just convenience, and social control, not simply personal preference. But in doing so, we are going to have to reconsider how we think about food itself. Cuisine is a tool, no doubt. It is both a fuel and a resource, but it is also art, affection, and, more often than not, an object of worship. It is wild yet cultivated, uncontrollable but manipulated, nature and nurture, and not surprisingly, we think about it all the time, but rarely give it any real thought.

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