A Look at Cuisine Through the Cultures

Why are Italians used to eating pasta but not sushi or tempura? Why are Mexicans accustomed to eating tortillas but not foie gras? To answer these kinds of questions we have to delve into the history of cultures. “Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, eighteen-century gastronomist, drew a useful distinction between the alimentary activity of animals, which ‘feed,’ and humans who eat or dine, a practice he suggested that owes as much to culture as it does to biology” (Pollan 7). We can try unusual exotic food and say: “That is delicious!” However, more than likely we will not eat that meal on an everyday basis because we are used to eating our traditional food based on our culture and nationality. What can we learn by looking onto a plate of food about the people who created and consume the dish?

The world cultures are as varied as the cuisines. There might be a broad culinary diversity even in one country, especially, if it is geographically extensive. Nowadays, you can find most recipes of interest merely by browsing the Internet. However, it would be difficult to find a recipe from an ancient extinct civilization. French historian Jean Bottero writes in his article “The Cuisine of Ancient Mesopotamia” that except for Rome the ancient diets still have not been studied enough (36). Fortunately, there is some archeological evidence about food culture in ancient Mesopotamia (Bottero 36). The knowledge of the cuisine is impressive. The Mesopotamian written tablets contain “about 800 entries which are but a representative selection of all food and drink known to the Babylonians” (Bottero 38). Some artifacts indicate that the people made 18 to 20 varied sorts of cheese and over 100 kinds of soup, “300 kinds of bread, each with a different combination of ingredients” (Bottero 38). It is amazing how rich and developed the Babylonian civilization was, is it not? Bottero exclaims: “Is it too much to credit these extraordinary people with the earliest form of sausage?” (37) As opposed to the Babylonians, the Bedouins that inhabited the western desert had a completely different diet. We can read the Sumerian point of view on Bedouin diet: “These people, they said, did not know what civilized life was. They ate their food raw. If you gave them flour, eggs, and honey for a cake, they would not know what to do with them” (Limet 137).

The Inka had a no less complex culture and cuisine than the Babylonians. The more complicated, with more preparation time that the recipe was, the more value the dish had. Inka utilized their best and most tasty dishes for their politics of Empire building. They conquered new territories not by sword but by spoon. Professor of archeology Tamara Bray in her article about Inka pottery points out that “the labor services owed the state by local communities, which could range from cultivating fields to massive public works projects, were typically couched in terms of the reciprocal obligations of chiefly generosity” (4).

Of course, culinary traditions depend on the geographic conditions and the resources of flora and fauna of the region. Nevertheless, even in neighboring European countries the recipes of national cuisines are different. In this context French cuisine stands out from all others. Cultural sociologist Priscilla Ferguson in her article “Is Paris France?” points out that Frenchness is represented by “cuisine, acknowledged everywhere as a vital characteristic of what it means to be French” (1053). She continues that “French foodways are predicated on the belief in the superiority of food in France, the deep conviction that cuisine involves much more than food and cooking far more than the obvious material changes that take place in the process” (1053). As well as French cuisine, French clothing, furniture, perfume, and other consumer goods are distinguished by luxury, elegance, originality, and sophistication; they are valued by experts all over the world.

It is, therefore, not surprising that historians have long underscored the particular importance of luxury products to the French economy and balance of trade. It is, however, only more recently that scholars have sought to determine their role in the making of French national identity.

(Auslander 233)

When the French borrow foreign culinary or any other ideas, they do it very selectively, quickly, and without doubts judging what elements of the foreign culture apt to be named French. Ferguson accents that “the dominant linguistic and culinary codes integrate the foreign element to indigenous tastes … the French readily, and authoritatively, articulate their understandings of what is appropriate and what is not, of what is truly French and what is not” (1061).

It is not only the French cuisine that is an important part of national identity. When my family traveled across France to Barcelona last year, from all the different dishes that we tried the most impressive and memorable was the Duck Casserole that we had in the French province of Languedoc-Roussillon. We immediately concluded that this rich in proteins and fats hot dish is well suited for mountain people, who live in a mostly cold and windy mountain climate. Later I learned that this province is part of borderland Catalonia, which another part runs through the North of Spain and is crossed by Pyrenees. Catalan nationalists, named themselves as mountain people, along with language and religion, consider “traditional Catalan cuisine Mar i Muntanya, which combines game with seafood, …as a central constituent of the Catalan identity” (Hakli 115).

I asked two of my friends, Mohini from India and Ai from Vietnam, who attend English class with me, to answer a question: “What could they say about the culture of their nationality on the basis of their national cuisine?” Mohini said that she believes that native recipes have relation to local culture. Gujarati (her homeland) people believe in Ahimsa, who proclaims nonviolence to any living thing, and their belief is reflected in their food culture, thus most of the Gujarati’s are vegetarian. Ai told me that Vietnamese put a high value on cooking. They use the freshest, finest ingredients; their recipes are complex and time consuming, it is the most important that the dish should be prepared with a positive mood and love. They try to make a dine enjoyable and memorable. Hospitality is a main quality of the Vietnamese national identity.

I cannot keep silent about Russian cuisine as I am Russian and prefer Russian food. In ancient times Russian territories were inhabited by various peoples with different cultures. So the country became more and more like a melting pot of nationalities. The same story is with the Russian cuisine. It is a mixture of borrowed dishes from the cultures that influenced Russia the most. German Vinaigrette, Belgium Olivier, French cake Napoleon, the names say that all.

One can argue that cuisine is not related to the culture, proving it with the fact that fast food has spread across the world, especially in France which “is known to take deep cultural pride in its ‘patrimoine culinaire,’… a central part of the national identity since the early nineteenth century” (Fantasia 202). Even the French Ministry of Culture became concerned of fast food penetrating the country. The government created a program for “protecting the culinary patrimony” (Fantasia 203). Actually, the spreading of fast food stands for my thesis instead of opposing it. People go to McDonald’s not for the meal but to experience American culture and atmosphere. As the professor of anthropology from Canada, Peter Stephenson, observed, “there is a kind of instant emigration that occurs the moment one walks through the doors [of McDonald’s]” (Fantasia 221). In France the majority of visitors of fast food restaurants are adolescents. When they were interviewed for the point why the fast food restaurants attract them, they answered: “You really feel the American atmosphere – the noise, the bright colors, the dress of the staff….you can talk loud and nobody minds” and so on (Fantasia 223). The youth describe their experience in “the fast-food outlet as a childlike world of playfulness, untroubled by the rules governing the adult world of the traditional restaurant” (Fantasia 223). Based on these findings and on assumption that cuisine parallels culture, it might be concluded that American culture has childish and immature nature.

It is easy to slip on oversimplification, generalization, and creation stereotypes on this topic. But eventually it can give us surprising, deep insight into cultures, as understanding different civilizations not logically but mostly intuitively, even through the sensual feelings. That is why gastronomic tourism became so popular today. It is not necessary to be an anthropological scientist to learn about local culture. Without knowing of anthropological slang and advanced sociological theories any amateur can literally get taste of foreign cultures by visiting authentic local restaurants.

Works Cited

Auslander, Leora. “Kolleen Guy. When Champagne Became French: Wine and the Making of a National Identity.” The American Historical Review 110.1 (2005): 232-233. Web. 5 Apr. 2012. Leora Auslander, the historian from University of Chicago, reviews the book of Kolleen Guy, where the author demonstrates how champagne became a national French treasure. The reviewer shows how French affection to luxury in the cuisine related their affection to luxury in general culture.

Bottero, Jean. “The cuisine of Ancient Mesopotamia.” The Biblical Archaeologist 48.1 (1985): 36-47. Web. 5 Apr. 2012. In this article French historian Jean Bottero tells about numerous archaeological findings in ancient Near East. They included many written artifacts about Mesopotamian diet, cuisine, and cooking techniques. His article helps understand culture of ancient Near East civilizations by learning about their cuisine.

Bray, Tamara L. “Inka Pottery as Culinary Equipment: Food, Feasting, and Gender in Imperial State Design.” Latin American Antiquity 14.1 (2003): 3-28. Web. 5 Apr. 2012. In this article professor archeology from New York Tamara Bray demonstrates how Incas built their Empire by reciprocity and generosity. She tells about cuisine of ancient Incas, their ceramic vessels, and other utensils. The article helps to show the relationship between cuisine and culture in ancient Andes.

Dao, Ai. Personal Communication. 5 Apr. 2012.

Fantasia, Rick. “Fast Food in France.” Theory and Society 24.2 (1995): 201-243. Web. 5 Apr. 2012. In this article American professor of sociology Rick Fantasia discusses a paradox of spreading fast food outlets in France. He finds out that this popularity of the fast food restaurants grows due to interest of European adolescents in American culture, but not in food itself. It supports the thesis about relationship between culture and cuisine.

Ferguson, Priscilla Parkhurst. “Is Paris France?” The French Review 73.6 (2000): 1052-1064. Web. 8 Apr. 2012. In her article professor of cultural sociology Priscilla Ferguson shows how Paris integrated local cultures in one common French culture.

Hakli, Jouni. “The politics of Belonging: Complexities of Identity in the Catalan Borderlands.” Human Geography 83.3 (2001): 111-119. Web. 5 Apr. 2012. Finnish scholar Jouni Hakli in this article considers aspects of the national identity of Catalonia, a borderland between France and Spain. One of the aspects is Catalan cuisine that helps support my thesis.

Limet, Henri. “The cuisine of Ancient Sumer.” The Biblical Archaeologist 50.3 (1987): 132-147. Web. 8 Apr. 2012. In this article French assyriologist Henri Limet presents data of archeological sites about the Sumer cuisine. Comparisons between Sumer and Bedouin cultures support opinion about the connection cuisine to the culture.

Patel, Mohini. Personal Communication. 4 Apr. 2012.

Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. New York: Penguin Books Ltd., 2008. Print. Michael Pollan, the American journalist and professor of Journalism at Berkeley, in his book criticizes a modern nutritionism as a substitution of real food that ate our ancestors. Rather than pay attention on nutritions he proposes ecological, traditional, and cultural approach what supports the thesis of the essay.

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