Favorite foods and identity

During my visit to Portland (Maine) I enjoyed the chance to eat many of the foods that are hard to find in my little Central Valley city. I had sushi, Indian food, organic pizza and of course lobster, plus lots of different microbrew beers. Of course, Portland isn’t as diverse as some cities; it’s relatively small and for a long time has been rather homogenous, though that is changing. This got me thinking about my own collection of favorites foods; those associated with places I’ve lived or visited, and those that I’ve loved so well that I search them out or learn to make them wherever I go.

Food is one of the most popular identity markers; it can identify very easily and precisely an ethnic and/or geographic affiliation, but it’s generally “harmless” and unlikely to draw fire the way physical description or linguistic characteristics often do. I think this is because even though it often signals a certain background, it’s also a matter of taste. Anyone could develop a taste for durian (at least theoretically) or haggis, or salty licorice; or more readily perhaps, for mooncakes, dolma, pierogies… well I could go on and on and on.

And this is where (one place) identity becomes interesting. Because you can run right into the fact that on some level, people believe in the biology, even if intellectually they know race is a construct. On the one hand, people will proffer food preferences as evidence of belonging to a certain group and agree that it is some kind of evidence, but try saying that someone blonde and blue-eyed is Chinese because he/she love duck’s tongue, speak both Shanghahua and Putonghua (Mandarin) and even was raised in China. Then forget it.

Or, by contrast, European countries. I could learn a language, love the food, and adopt the appropriate name and I’d blend right in, at least in many places. Apart from the legal definitions, how many years until I can call myself Dutch or Italian or Polish or whatever? Some people might say now amount of time is enough to erase the difference. Then of course you have the US and Canada (not sure about Australia or the UK) Where theoretically anyone can become Canadian (if you don’t mind a process that takes years) and at least officially no one can say they aren’t real Americans or Canadians no matter what they look like, like to eat or language they are able to speak. So where does that leave definitions based on physical characteristics or geographical background?

I got into this tangle with students at MIT once where they were talking about the assumption that most students there are Asian. This led to the following exchange:

I asked “Asian, or Asian American?”
“Well, not American. I mean, look at this class, there are actually only a few Asians. Most are American”
“But Derek is from California, not Asia. And Alex, George, Maria, and Christian are all from from Europe. How are you defining American? Do you mean white?”

And here we would have had an uncomfortable silence except the European students were insulted that they had been mistaken for Americans and were only too happy to clear that up. 🙂

So what does it really mean to be from a culture or country? How many years does it take and which ones? At MLA a few years ago, everyone was arguing over who got to claim Ang Lee; Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, or the US. On a more serious note, what about Israel? What definition of that state will really hold up? What definition of any state is more than an arbitrary legal code, these days?

And here I thought I was just going to write about how settlement patterns are reflected in food and how I missed the Northeast and the wide variety of European food available there. (and Asian, but that being absent here hasn’t as much to do with settlement patterns as with class, I think). But I think academics often end up in the position of not feeling really firmly bound to any single locale or identity, because we go where the graduate program or the fellowship or the job takes us. And we go to conferences all over as well. I at least have ended up with a hodgepodge accent and a similarly disparate taste in food.

–I also was quite spoiled as a grad student in Amherst, Ma. Within a 5 mile radius (all covered by bus routes) I could eat decent, and often really good, Korean, Thai, Malaysian, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Italian, Mexican, Moroccan, Indian, German, Greek, Polish… I think I most miss the Moroccan and Polish food because I’ve had less luck finding it elsewhere than the other cuisines. Sigh. In Ma. I could get freshly made pierogies any time and now I can’t even find them frozen!

Well this post is going nowhere, but I guess it had to go somewhere so I could stop thinking about it. –Assuming that writing it here acts as a form of exorcism! 😉

I don’t know if this bothers other academics(or others who move a lot) but I’ve always kind of liked it. I’ve never minded, and now might even say I enjoy being a little (or a lot) alien.

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