Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Chef’s Culinary Critique of Assimilation and Affirmation

In the United States, children in their primary education are told, often repeatedly, that their nation is the “melting pot” of the world, the place where all cultures come together and are blended into a new, unique mixture. As a peer of mine recently stated, all the flavors added to the melting pot remain to be tasted. The melting pot, however, should not be the analogy of choice when describing the United States—it does not accurately reflect the nature of the mix of cultures in the US nor is it a very flattering one, for the melting pot is a cauldron of one homogenized flavor that masks its individual components, rather than allowing the sweet and sour, the salty and bitter to mingle on the tongue, each flavor in turn adding to the experience, rather than detracting from it. Instead of a pot that melts all things into one glob of viscous matter, America should embrace the kitchen as a whole: each race, nationality, subculture, and ethnicity sending its own chefs with their own dishes and spirits.

It is easy to see why assimilation is such a desirable thing, why the melting pot takes hold so greatly over the American heart. It unifies and solidifies—it brings disparate elements and melts away the unwanted bits (those that can’t melt can be scooped out and thrown away). As an object, the pot is solid, cast-iron. It suits the patriotic ebb and flow of the American ego that sometimes spills over into jingoistic rhetoric. It is tall and wide, just like America itself, but it is also contained within itself though its source of energy is foreign, just as America prides itself on an imaginary self-sufficiency that is made imaginary by its reliance on foreign oil.

The pot fails precisely because it is a singular entity that tries too hard to contain all within it. As any chef can tell you, too many spices will ruin the food. The wrong mixture will smother the flavor or overpower the senses. It takes a balance of a fine palate and understanding to truly craft a delicious dish. And when we extend this metaphor to the reality of race relations in the United States, we see that a prudent hand has not been applied to the mixing of a thousand thousand different ethnicities and cultures. The English have dominated the French, Spanish, and Dutch influences. The western Europeans have made southern Europeans into easily caricatured mobsters and depressed communists of eastern Europe. Whites plucked unheeded from the gardens of west Africa, destroying them in the process and losing trace of where the ingredients came from, but not caring, what with their cavalier attitude towards their human produce. Asians have been made bland and marketed as a soft, narrow-eyed “Oriental” whose meals are finished with fortune cookies, that most American of ethnic treats. The maize of the First Nations is now the corn on the cob of the white man and the Indian has been forced to market a doughy, greasy, sugar coated confection (the ubiquitous Indian fry bread, also known as "elephant ears") that bears the name Columbus gave them while simultaneously mocking the rampant diabetes (the modern smallpox, with its twin brother alcoholism) that inhabits the Rez. The pot no longer operates as a means of making a soup or stew of many ingredients, but instead as the source of fondue—a viscous (slow to move, slow to change) mess that tastes like plastic left in the noonday sun, its burnt offerings crusting over on the side and top. It loses its dynamism that different flavors (ethnicities, races, etc) can bring and instead becomes a homogenized mess that takes forever to clean up and is really only presented at parties where people coo and awe over it with feigned interest. The melting pot, indeed, is not the way to go.

But should we go so as to say that all the ingredients should be sent back to their respective owners, with a note that says “Thanks, but the soiree is cancelled”? Good gravy, no. When the Seneca chief Sagoyewatha, whose double-breasted jacket is called Red, rejected the Christian missionaries of Boston, he retorted that the Great Spirit made his white and red children for different purposes. Maybe. But Sagoyewatha goes too far when he claims that no shared comingling should occur. “[Our young men who study under whites] become discourage and dissipated—despised by the Indians, neglected by the whites, and without value to either—less honest than the former, and perhaps more knavish than the latter….We believe it wrong for you to attempt further to promote your religion among us, or to introduce your arts, manners, habits, and feelings.” (Sagoyewatha 33) It is a fallacy to say that people of different cultures can not peacefully join and stay together—Sagoyewatha is chief of the Seneca, one of the seven tribes of the Iroquois. In China, Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism coexist and dip peacefully within each other’s realms of influence to the point where the priesthood of one faith is readily accepted as priesthood in the others. Turkey, a nation long associated with its Muslim Ottoman rule, seeks entry into the European Union. This is not to say that such interaction is easy—quite the contrary, in fact. But it is also not impossible. Medieval European philosophy certainly would not have flourished in the direction it did if not for the preservation of ancient Greek texts by Arab scholars. International trade would not occur without the mixing of races—to be fair, while the rest of the world learns English, the anglophones learn Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, Russian, and a dozen different languages. His Holiness the Fourteenth Dali Lama (a Central Asian) would not maintain a strong friendship with the Archbishop Desmond Tutu (a black South African) if such interaction between peoples was impossible and unwarranted nor would George Harrison (a white Englishman) have collaborated with Ravi Shankar (a Bengali Indian). These examples may be among the more famous, but the fact of the matter is that different cultures can and will influence one another through means peaceful. The meaning of peace here is not merely “non-violent,” but also non-coercive, non-threatening, a willingness to both compromise and debate with passion.

In this spirit of peace, the kitchen becomes the ideal that the pot by itself failed to uphold. In the kitchen, several cooks can work together in harmony, crafting dish after magnificent dish. In the kitchen, the cook can specialize in the regional treat, a national entrée, or an international style. Each person can present their unique contribution—spicy Szechuan peppers in one plate, Indian style curry in another, with spiced German and Italian cold cuts occupying a third while French, Belgian, and Swiss cheeses rest next to fruit from Brazil and the Philippines. For dessert, a bitter-sweet Mexican chocolate sauce with Japanese wasabi flavored ice cream.

The kitchen is the place where races are recognized not as the ingredients of the dish, contained within its cast iron walls of conformity. Rather, the kitchen is the place where races are recognized as cultural and historical constructs, not simply as a biological one. In his work, “On Race and Philosophy,” Lucius T. Outlaw argues that if the act of philosophizing is recognized as a verbal term denoting the practice of thinking by different people at different times in different places on different subjects, then the very act of philosophizing is diverse. As people are drawn towards certain epistemic, metaphysical, and ethical questions (let alone political, logical, aesthetic, etc), philosophizing becomes a universal art of all people. Philosophizing acts as bond between the people of a singular place and time asking one question, the answer which acts as a guardian against the threat of existential angst. Because philosophizing is not restricted to one culture/ethnicity/race/etc, it cannot be truly used as a way of domination of other cultures as an act—philosophizing as a verb is a process in which humans engage one another and their environment. The kitchen is the environment of American thought—it is the place where ideas and thoughts are cooked up, taste tested, and approved or disapproved on their merits as dishes, both artistically (their presentation), pragmatically (the use of ingredients), and practically (their taste). “If biodiversity is thought good for other species and for the global ecosystem, why not for the human species and its biocultural ecosystems?” (Outlaw 67) Just as every other living thing in the world is suited to a particular place and time, so too are humans. But humanity, in its continual act of philosophizing, is not restricted to just one place, one time. Different cultures may, through philosophizing, encounter one another, grow stronger in that meeting and yet let the other survive just as strongly as well. Philosophizing prevents cultural entropy, prevents the victory of angst. In the kitchen, cooking introduces the cooks to each other and their ingredients. It engenders innovation between cooks, between ingredients, between styles.

Anthony Bourdain is no philosopher, in the academic sense of the word—he is a trained and respected chef and host of the popular television show No Reservations on the Travel Channel. But he is a philosophizer—someone who engages in the act of philosophizing. He is an advocate of multiculturalism, if only for the culinary experience, though he rightly notes that culinary practices derive from cultures. To wit, he is fond of pointing out that several dishes of modern haute cuisine originally came from the kitchens of the peasantry and working class. Multiculturalism also allows a chef to experiment not only with the ingredients of a dish, but also in its presentation, learning about and from the aesthetic values of a different culture, a different culinary style. Bourdain correctly points out that a non-assimilatory approach to the kitchen has broadened the culinary styles—as he discusses in both his television shows and books, recent Spanish and Japanese influence has revolutionized how restaurateurs view not only food, but its presentation, its composition, the very way that it is served. Bourdain rails against the assimilation present in the American fast food industry, how it homogenizes our culinary experience, how it stifles change and culture in favor of expediency and mass productivity. Yet he praises the fast food of other nations—such as the Spanish tapas bar, where eaters grab only what they like, taking a little snack as they move to the next location of food. This process, this interaction between consumer and consumed, between peoples, is the culinary equivalent of philosophizing. It is a process by which people accept the many without blending them into the one. It highlights all the ingredients yet combines them into one meal, just as the kitchen does not homogenize the meals. “Who the hell is America if not everybody else? We are—and should be—a big, messy, anarchistic polygot of dialects and accents and different skin tones. Like our kitchens.” (Bourdain 45)

Indeed. Bon appétit.

  • Sagoyewatha. “The Speeches of Sagoyewatha.” The Life and Times of Sa-Go-Ye-Wat-Ha, or Red Jacket. Ed. William L. Stone. Albany, NY: J. Munsell, 1866. 272-76
  • Outlaw, Lucius T. “On Race and Philosophy.” Racism and Philosophy. Ed. Susan E. Babbitt and Sue Campbell. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999. 50-75.
  • Bourdain, Anthony. “Viva Mexico! Viva Ecuador!” The Nasty Bits. New York: Bloomsbury, 2006. 42-46.
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A Chef’s Culinary Critique of Assimilation and Affirmation by Christian Mecham is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

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