Food, identity, and polarisation
Promise Frank Ejiofor / July 3, 2019
( 3 min read )
When we talk about culture, we tend to overemphasise emblematic features such as language, art, laws, customs, beliefs, knowledge and morals of a particular people and to underemphasise one particular feature: food. But food – like these other features – is a potent force of cultures and identities not only because it is a biological necessity but also because it connects people everywhere. When served sushi in a restaurant in Hungary, we experience Japanese culture even without visiting Japan; when we share bulgogi with a friend in the UK, we are reminded of Korea; and when we enjoy that goulash meal in a Hungarian restaurant in France, we get the feel for something Hungarian – for Hungarian culture – whilst navigating other spaces in France. With globalisation, diverse national cuisines have become domesticated, nay enjoyed, in spaces other than where they had been exclusively enjoyed. It is unsurprising, then, that on my twenty-seventh birthday in Budapest, I shared chicken biryani – a dish with its origins amongst the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent – with friends and colleagues from different parts of the world in an Indian restaurant.
So significant is food for culture and identity that Robin Fox categorically avers that our food choices define us in terms of our religion, social class, ethnicity, nationality, and so on. Exactly because food is always shared with others – it would be so boring, I suppose, to wine and dine alone without company – it always helps to connect people of the same identity. Italians will always be fond of pasta and spaghetti, Mexicans will always be fond of tortillas: whenever the members of these nationalities meet, they could agree not only in terms of their language but also with the national food they consume. Regardless of the differences in worldviews, Italians and Mexicans will always perceive these national dishes as one thing, amongst many others, that makes them who they are, that is, that gives them that sense of belonging to one Italian or Mexican culture.
I have said that food unites people, but there are other times when food polarises. Consider, for example, the case of a Chinese restaurant – Lucky Lee’s, by name – run by a Jewish-American couple in New York. Lucky Lee’s advertised itself as capable of providing clean and healthy Chinese food that would not make people feel “bloated and icky the next day.” And they ended their statement by asserting that “There are very few American-Chinese places as mindful about the quality of ingredients as we are.”
Although Lucky Lee’s statement sounded somewhat neutral, it stimulated serious backlash from many who considered the statement not only racist and lacking proper comprehension of Chinese culture, but an instance of “cultural appropriation.” Amongst those who vehemently condemned the restaurant were a large Chinese following, that is, mostly people of Chinese descent. This episode forced the restaurant to render an official apology to those who were offended by the statements. I am quite sure that Lucky Lee’s did not expect that their statement would provoke such a huge backlash: had they known they would certainly not have published it on their website.
Although I do not agree with the charge that Lucky Lee’s statement was an instance of cultural appropriation – the concept is too ambiguous and would merit a separate piece to explore – I do think it was a clear demonstration that food can both be personal and political. It shows that one’s being Chinese connects to one’s having an interest in eating Chinese food but also in that food being respected by others, even when they do enjoy it. So, the issue here is, I think, clearly the sentiment of disrespect rather than appropriation. The backlash happened because some people – mostly Chinese – to whom Chinese food constitutes their identity felt that they were disrespected, that their identity was disrespected.
To respect people is, I think, to respect not only their personhood but whatever constitutes their identities, including their food. Whenever we share those delicious cuisines of German, Italian, Hungarian, French, Chinese or Spanish origin, it is worthwhile to always have in mind that they make up the culture and identity of others. Because our increasingly globalising world can never be at peace devoid of respect, it is morally imperative we accord what others eat respect even when we partake them with our own friends, colleagues and compatriots on our birthdays, vacations, weddings, and so on.