Discussions of cuisine are fraught with historic, ethnic, and racial overtones which are impossible to avoid. Unavoidably, discussions of cuisine, such as this one, are a bit more academic than singing the praises of farm-churned butter, but they are important. We have touched on the larger discussion of defining a cuisine in reflecting on the video shared by founders of NOMA, widely recognized as instrumental in the promotion of “Nordic cuisine”. They do an excellent job exploring the ill-defined bounds of culture and history when considering cuisine of any geography. But in the end, the victors write the history books…and the cookbooks. This means for the Western world a culture of cuisine dominated by traditional European imperial powers.
The more recent rise of technology in our increasingly interconnected society has lead to two countervailing trends. We have experienced an exponential rise in our access to information across geographies and across times, experiencing other cultures and food traditions in the process. Yet as we rely more and more on technology to communicate and share experiences, we have come to prize authenticity. We seek authentic experiences rather than overly constructed and controlled experiences, authentic voices over hyper-produced, corporate media stories. And then there is the search for authentic food.
This search for authenticity in food involves a number of loosely related but poorly defined terms such as “ethnic”, “cultural” and the very word “authentic” while seeking to avoid approaches which are mass produced or reek of cultural appropriation. A recent interview with Krishnendu Ray, a food studies scholar at New York University, appeared in the Washington Post which suggested the American dining public may only “pretend” to like ethnic cuisine, while demonstrating an unwillingness to pay prices in line with more Western European food traditions. In the interview, price becomes a proxy for genuine appreciation and is then extended to suggest a level of ethnocentrism across the American population.
Equating price to appreciation seems a fair approach, but suggesting it also indicates a marginalizing of non-Western cultures may not be as clear. A very informal bit of research on Google helps to illustrate the point. Searching for a set of leading culinary traditions with either the term “cuisine” or “food” associated with it, we then compute the ratio of “cuisine” to “food” and then multiply by a factor of the number of mentions to derive a “Prestige Rank”. Recognizing that Google filters results based on location and past search history, we have to assume similar searches may yield slightly different results, but we feel comfortable suggesting these results help to illustrate a different view than that suggested in the interview with Ray.
|Ethnicity||Cuisine Mentions||Food Mentions||Cuisine vs. Food||Food vs. Cuisine||Prestige Rank|
These results are sorted by Prestige Rank, from high to low, and yield some interesting insights. French is by far the highest ranking in this view, which given that the word “cuisine” is of French derivation, is not much of surprise. Spanish and Vietnamese have the next highest ratio, but appear much less frequently. The appearance of Italian and Japanese may not be a surprise, but the high ranking of Indian, Thai, and Chinese suggest a level of appreciation of these cuisines that may be underestimated when simply equating price to appreciation.
The lowest ranking traditions helps to illustrate a counter-point to a view that American food choices demonstrate pervasive ethnocentrism. Irish and Polish food traditions exist in America, and perhaps nowhere more wide spread than in the Great Lakes region of the U.S. Those traditions rarely are spoken of in terms of “cuisine”. Irish food is more widely associated with bar food and the Polish traditions of pierogis, paczkis, and sausage hardly command premium prices. Even English food traditions rank poorly. These are some of the most well-established ethnic groups in the U.S. and yet those food traditions are not appreciated nor do they command high prices.
This suggests the simple approach of using price as a proxy for appreciation is fraught with many more layers of historic and ethnic viewpoints. Perhaps we view this issue of “cuisine” from a different vantage, as we are promoting the idea of cuisine for an area not traditionally appreciated in those terms. Greater education and promotion of any tradition can help broaden public understanding and appreciation of the nuances and value of each unique approach. This view may not square as neatly with the simplistic claim that Americans are ethnocentric and merely “pretend” to like other foods, but perhaps mutual appreciation could be a better starting point for the discussion.