Life as an Extreme Sport

Food is Complex

Food is complex.

That’s really the only conclusion I can draw after reading Francis Lam’s NYTimes article Cuisines Mastered as Acquired Tastes, and the following back and forth Lam had with his friend Eddie Huang over at Gilt Taste, Is it Fair for Chefs to Cook Other Cultures’ Food?

Because of paywalls and irritating things like “flaky commute wifi access,” I actually read the second article, Lam and Huang’s back-and-forth, first. This was probably a mistake, since it made me cranky in a sort of ineffable way. I knew I disagreed with the piece, but putting my finger on a single reason why was elusive.

Lam’s original NYTimes piece actually addressed some of the things that I think bothered me about the subsequent give-and-take. He did talk about how it’s difficult to start your own restaurant, and that non-immigrants may have a leg up there, not just because they may have the financial capital not accessible to new immigrants, but because they have the innate cultural knowledge necessary to start a business, especially one as volatile as a restaurant. Pulling back to my education, and piggybacking on what Chefs Bayless and Ricker, as well as Dr. Ray, said in Lam’s article, there is a bilingualism in cooking food from another culture that allows these chefs to be liminal people – they become translators understanding both cultures.

Anyone who has learned another language in a formal setting will come across the word “gloss.” It’s a translation or interpretation of a word. There are linear glosses: champignons versus mushrooms, for example. But then you have interlinear glosses, when you have to understand not only the words but the structure of the language itself. The interlinear gloss I’m most familiar with is that of American Sign Language, given that it’s my second language. Here’s an example, via Wikipedia:

“I don’t like garlic.”

Now, picky linguistics people will note that this also contains prosody – telling you the emotional inflection of what’s being signed. (The signs are in brackets, the prosody in superscript, and the interlinear gloss would be the structure shown in the written text, and how you’re getting “I don’t like garlic” from that series of signs.)

So what does linguistics have to do with cooking and food? Well, I think that what we’re seeing with these “bilingual” chefs is the ability to do what is functionally an interlinear gloss, “explaining” food from other countries in a way that is comprehensible to people who are missing the cultural connection that typically comes with food.

Which means that I pretty much agree with Lam’s basic NYTimes article. What, then, was my issue with the followup in Gilt Taste?

I think what bothered me, ultimately, was the lack of focus on the things Lam did bring up in his article: access, culture, and perhaps even desire. (For example, one of the best restaurants I’ve ever eaten at is the pub around the corner from my house. It’s Irish American food, it’s a pub, and they have no desire to be noticed by Beard. Does this mean that they’re not good food, or that I wouldn’t cheerfully put them up against some of the best “fine dining” I’ve eaten? No. It just means that getting the notice of a Beard award isn’t something that happens if you run a pub. Or food cart. Etc. Just like there are fine writers out there who will never receive any of the numerous writing awards: Pulitzer, Booker, Nobel, etc.)

What the Lam and Huang article did focus on was ideas of access and appropriation, with Huang apparently taking the position of gatekeeper: keep those damned whities out if they don’t have permission to be cooking the food.

Well, who gives that permission?

But perhaps worse, or at least beyond that, is this idea that Americans should cook American food. What is American food? Is it Native American food? You can’t really say “yo white person! Just cook things that the Mashpee Wampanoag or Powhatan ate,” because well – that’s not “white American food.”

There is no white American food. There are European foods – French and Spanish and Italian and German and so on for each country, each of which have been horribly butchered and beautifully elevated by American chefs and cooks. But none of them “belong” to American chefs any more than Powhatan recipes do.

Does a chef have to do a complex genealogy before being able to open a restaurant?

And then what in the world do you do with fusion chefs, like Morimoto, who come from another country and infuse local mishmashed American cuisine with Japanese standards, to amazing effect? Is he doing appropriation, or is it okay because he’s not white?

See what I mean? Food is complex, and this isn’t even getting into deeper cultural resonance tied to food and eating and social expectation and experience.

Ultimately, I think that my friend Lisa summed it up best: there are a lot of perspectives in this issue, and it’s illuminating to see that there is anger over this issue.

From my own perspective, discussions of authenticity shouldn’t be limited to the “lesser” or “non-French-based” cuisines. We should always be discussing authenticity, provenance, history and skill – and culture should be as much a part of that discussion as education.