Food For Thought

Hard day on Karl-Marx-Straße. Berlin, August 2015.

When most people think of history, they still focus on the material they were forced to learn in school. Until a few decades ago, that meant memorizing the dates of major events and the personages deemed responsible for them. More recently, curricula have expanded to include broader social and cultural trends. But there are still subjects rarely considered to be properly “historical.” Food, for example.

Even though it is an inescapable part of everyone’s life and one of the world’s few universal sources of pleasure, food tends to be an after-thought for mainstream historiography. Certainly, there are histories of food, focusing on how culinary practices have changed as a result of increasing commercial contact and the migration of populations. Those are the source of those slack-jawed moments when we realize that Italy didn’t always have tomatoes to work with and that India didn’t fully assimilate chile peppers into its regional cuisines until the British had already arrived.

What’s strange about this approach to food, though, is how much it stands alone, isolated from the consideration of political and economic developments that still constitute the backbone of “real” history. To be sure, there are scholars who see how much we stand to gain from recognizing that the transformation of what and how people eat isn’t some delayed superstructural effect, but often represents the leading edge of social change. Unfortunately, though, we still have a long way to go before their contributions are properly acknowledged.

Part of the problem is that food is such a tricky subject. On the one hand, it is the principal repository of tradition and therefore inextricably bound up with collective identities antithetical to what Jürgen Habermas famously called the “unfinished project of enlightenment.” If the goal of the latter is to get people to brush aside their masters and think freely for themselves, food is often at the root of the desire not to take that risk. There’s a reason why political campaigns make it a point to feed potential voters and also why candidates feel compelled to demonstrate their fitness to speak for a particular region or minority by consuming its best-known dishes in a public spectacle.

On the other hand, it has been proven over and over that people are more likely to open their hearts and minds to strangers if they have had a taste of their food first. The fact that immigrants often become entrepreneurs who sell their native cuisine in a new land testifies less to the restrictions on employment they must contend with than a powerful desire even xenophobic individuals to try new things with their senses of taste and smell. Where there’s demand, the supply will follow.

Sac Kavurma. Turkish restaurant, Brussels.
Sac Kavurma. Turkish restaurant, Brussels.

It is worth pondering, as Europe suffers another year of massive crisis, whether part of the problem with the quest for economic and, to a lesser extent, political unity isn’t that this effort discourages this mode of entrepreneurialism. Before the euro, it made more sense to move from Greece, or Italy or Spain to better-off nations to the north, because the difference in currencies enabled restauranteurs to send significant remittances back home.

Nowadays, it’s primarily immigrants from countries that are not part of Greater Europe who are able to benefit from such differentials. As much as Turkish leaders have pushed for their nation to be admitted to the Union, their people are probably better off for not suffering under the yoke of the euro.

This is not to say that the fluidity of borders in post-Cold War Europe hasn’t had positive effects. In general, whatever anxieties its inhabitants may have about immigration and the potential loss of their homelands’ distinctive character, they are still more attuned to diversity in tastes and beliefs than was the case thirty or forty years ago. But the knowledge that the bearers of this cultural difference are fellow Europeans has a way of desensitizing people to its deeper implications.

In a way, there’s no more hopeful statement than “you are what you eat,” because it suggests that where the mouth goes the mind will follow. That’s frequently not the case, because the conservative dimension to taste has a way of disabling its progressive potential. People eagerly eat the cuisine of cultures radically different from their own, but still fall back on the “comfort food” they grew up with when they are worried about losing their identities. It’s one of the central conflicts of contemporary existence.

And that’s why, if we care about understanding this period historically, we should start trying to see it, not as a distraction from “serious” political and economic matters, but a wonderful way to make sense of them.

Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit

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