Gastronativism: How the Politics of Food Consumes Us
The author of 'Gastronativism: Food, Identity, Politics' talks to Heidi Cuda, plus a first listen to the Byline Podcast's Year in Politics.
As we gather together for the holidays, Heidi Siegmund Cuda takes a deep dive into the political power of food, in a fascinating interview with Fabio Parasecoli, the author of Gastronativism: Food, Identity, Politics
Growing up in a German-American household, my family’s cultural identity was intrinsically linked to food. Among the Bavarian dishes my mother often served were Kartoffelsuppe, Knödel, Spätzle, Weisswurst, and her famed Weinachtsstolen - a Christmas loaf cake that requires specialised ingredients from a German deli.
Looking back I can see how the food she served had deep connections to her own home land and identity. However, with World War Two still fresh on everyone’s mind, going to school with liverwürscht sandwiches on rye bread marked me out as a “Kraut”, which I did not appreciate at the time.
In his book, Gastronativism: Food, Identity, Politics, author Fabio Parasecoli, who is a Food Studies professor at New York University, captures this complex relationship we all have between our food and our identity and explores how it can often become a gateway into nationalism.
What follows is a conversation I had with Parasecoli about food, famine, and the so-called ‘borscht wars.’
Why is so much of a nation's identity wrapped up in its food?
FP: Food is wrapped up with identity, period. Personal identity, memories, your family identity, but also your community identity. And that expression is especially important for migrant communities, because food becomes one of the anchors to create ‘home’ in a new place. The migrant communities hang on to traditions that they feel should not change, causing tensions among generations.
We are living in a time of the resurgence of fascism. Do you have anecdotes about food and fascism?
FP: Well, the most noteworthy thing is hunger. My grandmother and her sisters always kept on telling us how, especially during the war, and after the Nazi occupation, there was a lot of hunger. Fascism in Italy initially tried to improve nutrition. They tried to produce more wheat and feed young children without families.
But starting with the embargo of 1935 when Italy invaded Ethiopia, it became very difficult for Italy to get many, many staples. And so Mussolini launched a decree that everything had to be made in Italy. So the memories of my grandmother and her generation was hunger. My dad as a child did not have enough to eat - everything had to be bought on the black market. And when the American GIs came, they started throwing chocolate from their Jeeps, and my dad ate so much, and he was not used to eating that much so he ended up in the hospital.
I only learned recently that my father starved during the war. My mom said she was able to steal fruit from a farmer’s garden, but my dad wasn’t so lucky. Looking back, it explains why no trace of food was ever left on our dinner table. So that is a great point about hunger being the main dish during fascism. Of course, we now know about the Holodomor, the Stalin-created “terror famine” that killed millions of Ukrainians in the early 1930s.
FP: Yes, political enterprises caused hunger and starvation. Among the heaviest cases was the famine in China after the Great Leap Forward. When Mao Zedong focused all the energy of the country toward industrialization, he moved farmers out of the fields into small local factories. They had to smelt agricultural tools to create steel or metal that was not good quality - the farmers didn’t know what to do, and they ended up with one of the worst famines in the history of humanity. There were so many cases that ended in disaster. In the case of Holodomor in Ukraine, it was an atrocity that still affects Ukraine today.
As an investigative reporter in a time of memetic warfare, if I believe someone to be an agent of Russia, for shorthand, I imply they smell like borscht as a subliminal way to note they wreak of a Kremlin operative. Invariably, I get someone posting back that borscht is a Ukrainian dish, even though I’m referencing the Russian beet-based version.
FP: Borscht is based all over the place - from Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. And yes, there are variations, but the concept is the same. I was working with a Polish, a Ukrainian and a Lithuanian scholar to write a piece about the ‘Borscht Wars’, because Ukraine was saying, “It originated with us.” And the Russians are saying, “No, absolutely not. It's Russian.” And the Lithuanians are saying, “No, no, no. We invented it!”
UNESCO just added borscht to the list of intangible cultural heritage as Ukrainian, which apparently created a lot of waves in Russia. Russia accused Ukraine of robbing them of their culinary legacy. And that's just one of the cases in which there are wars about deciding what food originates from where. The Hummus Wars are well known between Israel and Syria.
Italy had an advantage in staking culinary identity because of Pellegrino Artusi, who wrote Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, which gave Italy both a literary and culinary classic.
FP: Yes! In Italy, we had tons of local cuisines and local cookbooks. Italy was unified in 1861 during the Civil War in the United States. At that point, there was the need for a book that actually expressed Italian cuisine, not regional cuisine, something that could be considered Italian. And so this guy called Pellegrino wrote this wonderful book in 1891. It's like listening to your chatty aunt telling stories, but what he did was create a vocabulary for Italian food. So there is a glossary where he said, “Okay, this object in Italian is called this so people speaking different dialects in Italy could understand what the heck that we're talking about.” The way he explains the recipes is clear that he's doing this in the effort to create a national cuisine.
The French, the British, and the Italians became the central players in the 19th century, as national cuisines gained relevance. Today, many states are trying to figure out what their national cuisine is, which is always problematic. In Nigeria, for example, where there are dozens of different languages and traditions and religions, how do you define a national cuisine? Who assumes the authority to do that? And what sort of negotiations go into deciding who has power and who doesn't have power? It becomes quite complex. Whereas, Thailand and South Korea have invested heavily in promoting their native cuisines globally as part of an economic exporting strategy.
For our American and UK readers, can you offer a few words on the national cuisine of each country?
FP: Regarding the British identity, there was a resurgence of discourse about roast beef - Sunday roast - and Shepherd's Pie. But at the same time, a few years ago, you had a minister from England saying that Chicken Tikka Masala is the national dish of Britain.
It sounds like a political power struggle.
FP: It's not just a power struggle - this is how people project themselves in periods of political turmoil, like Brexit. There was the need for the Brexiters to cling to this British identity, while the cosmopolitan ‘elites’ were ready to embrace Britain as a multicultural country, where you have curries that came from the interaction with India, not from India because the curries we have are not what the Indians eat.
In the US it's a little more complicated, because the identity that is usually projected onto the US is steak and burgers, which, curiously enough, has been embraced by parts of America as quintessentially American. There was a brouhaha about Biden wanting to limit meat consumption due to climate change, and it became weaponised that everyone would have to grill brussels sprouts on Fourth of July. ‘Trumpers’ bought into the narrative, which automatically puts people who don't eat meat in the category of being unAmerican. Or not fully American, you know - the vegetarian. “The vegans, the sort of weird people that eat weirdly. Are they really Americans?”
Food outrage is not uncommon. The Italian political right is outraged by halal tortellini and a pork-free lasagna served at the Vatican. In India, Hindu fundamentalists attack Muslims who sell beef. European anti-immigrant politicians denounce couscous and kebabs. In Poland, a Christian magazine had a cover that said that the EU was planning to force Poles to eat insect protein, instead of meat protein, which is an attack on vegans.
Why is the ‘strongman’ image associated with meat eaters?
FP: You know, that's something that feminist scholars have been discussing for maybe the past 40 years. There is this sense of connection between meat consumption and power. Probably because until recently, meat was the food of the rich, so it was identified with power.
This conversation has made me very hungry.
FP: I have that effect on people.
The Year in Politics: Adrian Goldberg, Heidi Cuda and Adam Bienkov
In this exclusive preview for readers of byinesupplement.com here's The Year In Politics 2022 from the Byline Times podcast.
From Truss to Trump to Twitter, we've got it covered as host Adrian Goldberg surveys the last 12 months in the company of Byline Times Political Editor Adam Bienkov and, from the US, political commentator and writer Heidi Siegmund Cuda.
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