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On cultural appropriation (II)
In my first essay for Line of Beauty, I wrote about brunch and its sociality. I didn’t say anything there, however, about the genre of ‘brunch food’, as transnational and deracinated a phenomenon as the culture shared by coffee shops from Sydney to Berlin to Edinburgh to San Francisco. To some extent I’m grateful for that coffee culture. I really like a good flat white, especially where it displaces the burned and bitter drinks that pass for coffee in so many places. I’m not so sure sometimes about avocado toast, so much maligned in the US; as it happens, the best instance of it I’ve tried was in the Ginger & White café in Hampstead, London.
Is it the globalization of this phenomenon that puts me off? Or is the expectation of a certain kind of young bourgeois patron that I want to distance myself from, knowing that I fulfill it amply? There is something to be said for culturally embedded food – food that belongs somewhere in particular. There is something to be said, too, for knowing you can find a decent vegetarian meal when you’re far from home. Let us not condemn avocado toast too quickly.
There are, however, few practices so central to the identity of a cultural group as their culinary ones, not just characteristic dishes, but a whole sensibility: the sorts of conversation that find their home around meals, the ways that recipes pass from one generation to the next, the markets that supply these habits – the local ones, the physical places one buys food, as well as the global ones that are merely abstractions.
Some months ago, when a writer for the Washington Post maligned ‘Indian food’, one-quarter-jokingly representing it as a single category made up of various kinds of ‘curry’, I was, of course, affronted. But I also wondered how an editor let someone make this criticism in what seemed like total ignorance of the sheer variety of Indian cuisine. (In fact, the article was so inaccurate in this regard that, despite its appearing in the ‘Perspective’ section of the WaPo Magazine, it won itself an editorial correction.)
When I go out to a typical Indian restaurant in the United States, my experience is actually not so distant from what I experience in a Thai or a Korean restaurant, despite my growing up in an Indian household and eating Indian food daily. That’s because the restaurant food tends to be Mughlai, a quintessentially North Indian fusion borne of the Mughal conquest and the Persianate culture of the ruling elite (think korma and biryani). My own native cuisine is the South Indian food my mother makes (think idli and dosa).
While there are affinities between these food cultures, I experience them as worlds apart, just as the Dravidian languages of South India, like my native Tamil, are entirely unrelated to the Indo-Aryan languages of North India such as Hindi and Gujarati, even as these Indo-Aryan languages turn out to be related, distantly, to Lithuanian and Portuguese and English.
Food, culture, and identity are bound together. But my own relationship to food is very much a generative one. I love to cook – and to invent in the kitchen. Even when I’m dining out, I’m usually trying to reverse-engineer the recipe or filing away flavor combinations for my own reference. If food is so culturally saturated, isn’t this a dangerous endeavor?
I was struck by this thought over the summer when we were in Tbilisi, Georgia. While nearly every restaurant serving traditional Georgian food was a revelation to my untutored palate, our favorite spot was Teko’s Tacos, an outpost of Tekuna Gachechiladze’s growing restaurant empire. (Tara’s talked about Tekuna’s restaurants in her Tbilisi travel writing.) Two of Tekuna’s other spots serve Georgian food in a relatively familiar register, albeit inflected by a cosmopolitan sensibility one would expect of a graduate of New York’s Culinary Institute: the upscale elegance of Café Littera balanced against the comfort food approach of Culinarium Khasheria, the latter of which was – gloriously – just a few steps away from our apartment.
Tekuna insists that the food at these venues isn’t ‘fusion’; rather, its foreign influences make for what she calls Modern Georgian food, a robust counterpart to so-called New American cuisine. But Teko’s Tacos, with its Dia de los Muertos décor and margarita offerings, can hardly disclaim the term.
As a Texan, I was especially attuned to the possibility of things going wrong, and two years of occasionally trying (what passes for) Mexican food in England when I lived there left me skeptical. But, to its credit and despite the margaritas and guacamole on its menu, Teko’s Tacos is very much still a Georgian restaurant. The best thing we tried there involved forest mushrooms and tarragon in a taco: Georgian in matter, Mexican in form. But just about everything on the menu betokened inspiration rather than absorption.
From this vibrant example we can learn a useful lesson. Food cultures, like culture generally, do not belong, as property, to a designated group (as I argued in my first piece in this series). Rather, we should say that the practices central to a given culture deserve protection for their own integrity. Participation in these practices, after all, can take the form of exploitation. But it might also help transform and revitalize them. If you went to Teko’s Tacos expecting simply Mexican food, authentic or otherwise, you would probably be disappointed. What you will find there is something better than that: a culinary conversation, open in both directions.
When ‘fusion’ goes wrong, it is usually because that conversation is distorted or asymmetric. One can multiply a thousand examples, but the typical pattern is flattening, the rendering intelligible of a food culture to a group of people outside that culture, who nevertheless have a set of expectations that are to be met. In just this way, Chinese food in the US is almost always Cantonese or Szechuan, with simplified menus that generally aim to frighten diners as little as possible.
The idea of culture as conversation helps us confront one of the specters of cultural appropriation. If culture is not proprietary, we may leap to thinking (wrongly) that it is common property, to be dispensed with as we please. If instead we consider cultural practices as a matter of conversation, we must ask ourselves what has been said before we arrived, what we ought to say given what has gone before, and how we are to go on productively. Just as people do not arrive at a conversation neutrally – but rather invested with the status they have and shaped by their peculiar experiences – neither does any instance of cultural contact unfold innocent of the power of its participants. Yet the desire for mutual intelligibility that is central to conversation is also operative here.
That is how I make sense of the sheer joy with which my mother both shares our distinctive food culture and absorbs every recipe from others that she can. To me, this has always been a model: never confuse what is yours with what is someone else’s; but always invite them to share in it.