Friday, May 9, 2008

Brief Musing on Xenophobia and Food Choices

This piece got me wondering about how often one group's objection to a particular food or food producing practice is influenced as much by that groups' feelings and attitudes about the people producing the food, as it is about the food itself. In the article the author makes the point that South Korean students protesting the recently resumed importation of American beef because it allegedly contains BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy or mad cow disease) are also expressing their dislike/ distrust of Americans in general.

I've long believed that the big scare over MSG in the late 1980's that resulted in what amounted to a national boycott of Chinese restaurants in the US was as much an expression of xenophobia as it was any genuine (if misplaced) concerns over the alleged negative health affects of mono sodium glutamate. And how much of the typical "foodies" rejection of bland, genetically altered and chemically treated factory-farmed produce and meat is a rejection of the food itself and how much is an indictment of the people who produce it?

South Korean internet geeks trigger panic over US 'tainted beef' imports - Times Online


Sean said...

I think you're right that there is more to our acceptance of other cuisines/foods than the food itself. After all cuisine is a cultural manifestation as much as it is a regional one and even if we don't acknowledge it, I think we recognize food as being as indicative of a culture as its social norms or attitudes. In so far as we have preexisting xenophobic views towards a culture, we are more likely to question the integrity of that culture's food. When I read your post I immediately thought of "freedom fries," which seems like a similar situation albeit one that I think has less to do with ethnicity than your example.

Broadening this discussion a little bit, I agree there is more to foodies/locavores rejection of certain foods than the content of the food itself. To exploit a stereotype, I doubt though that these additional factors have an explicit racial/ethnic component or even much to do with who produces the food, as most foodies/locavores seem to be (or think of themselves) as socially progressive. Rather I think there is an unconscious effort to distinguish themselves along socioeconomic lines from those who do consume conventional produce imported from Mexico or meat from factory farms. The implied conclusion (and again I admit these are generalizations) seems to be that the majority's adoption of these foods is a sign of their apathy (ie their CHOICE for whatever reason) and not extenuating circumstances which make food "quality" either less of a priority or less of a possibility. The superiority of the foodies/locavores choices seems to be as much of a function of its rarefied status as any implicit to food itself. The sheer number of news articles, investigative reports, and blogs I've read where foodies have tried to continue their purchases on severely restricted budgets only reinforces for me just how much class/status plays into these distinctions. The blowup over Carlos Petrini's comments on the Ferry Market Plaza are a case in point.

Linda said...

Good points, Sean. Certainly food is situated culturally, which includes political, economic, and socio-cultural factors. So all of those must be taken into account in any analysis of why certain foods are accepted/eaten/consumed and so forth.

And yet another layer to consider is that we all now exist in both a local culture and a global culture, each of which may contain several more layers, e.g., my local culture may be both sustainable and ethnic, or my global culture, in terms of, say, availability, may be both personal (an obsession with pork jowl or grass-fed beef) and public (concern with gmo foods or bovine growth hormone or even carefree, as long as I can acquire chocolate covered ants). Thus, I hesitate to use terms such as foodies or locavores because I think they have to be more specifically defined in terms of sociocultural context.

All of that being said, my "xenophobic" attitude about eating a live cobra heart is certainly due to my own sociocultural upbringing, but my concerns with bovine growth hormone and gmo foods and cloned meat have more to do with my scientific interest in health and concerns about using human beings as guinea pigs without any previous long-term clinical trials than with a personally motivated agenda to get people to follow my own personal ideal of good eats.

wildmom said...

Just for information, I have close family members who have physical bad reactions to MSG ie. migraine headaches. The flavoring is not needed in good food cuisine with quality ingredients, & it makes everything taste the same to me. I'm glad it is not used in every restaurant now, like it used to be. Good riddance, I say...