Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Appetite for Culture: Food as Identity

Check out this feature about yours truly in Louisiana Cultural Vistas!

Appetite for Culture: Food as Identity
Editor's Column from Louisiana Cultural Vistas, Spring 2009

Here in Louisiana while our cultural identity is characterized by our uniqueness, we inevitably begin to take it for granted and develop contempt for the familiar, sometimes to the point of succumbing to alien cultural influences, in other words Americanization. One of the most distinct markers of culture is cuisine, and with good reason Louisiana cuisine is widely bruited as the best and most distinctive in the country. Yet, with so extraordinary a cuisine native to our own state and family traditions (81 percent of Louisiana residents were born here), how does one account for the proliferation of McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Shoney’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut and other such American atrocities to good taste, which far outnumber the local gastronomic options?It wasn’t until my friend, the children’s musician and author Johnette Downing, was contracted to expand her book about Louisiana cuisine, Today is Monday in Louisiana, into a series featuring other states such as New York, North Carolina, and Texas that I fully realized how sadly limited are the rest of the states in having distinctly defined foods. Johnette’s book, written for children, is structured simply around assigning a distinctive food for each of the days of a week, commencing with the classic red beans and rice for Monday. For Louisiana, finding seven distinctive dishes is literally child’s play, because there is such a plethora of options that could be only specific to Louisiana and no other state. By way of illustration, here is a quick two dozen: jambalaya, blackened redfish, beignets, shrimp creole, crawfish pie, red beans and rice, chicory coffee, chicken etouffee, fried softshell crabs, ersters Rockefeller, ersters Bienville, pralines, roux, gumbo, crawfish bisque, barbeque shrimp, corn maque choux, calas, redfish courtbouillon, cochon de lait, boudin, alligator sausage, andouille, and tasso. Once one gets momentum, even more start to tumble from memory of great meals and common foods: po’boys, dirty rice, bananas foster, creole tomatoes, satsumas, Natchitoches meat pies, king cake, turtle soup, Tabasco sauce, alligator sauce piquant, cafĂ© au lait, cracklins, creole cream cheese, mirlitons, not to mention all the inventive variations on a theme: crawfish etouffee, crawfish sacks, fried crawfish ... a week would hardly be enough to encompass a catalogue; we would need a month.

Identity Crisis
Trying to employ the same principle of selection — i.e. a food that was not only widely consumed in a particular state, but could not equally be claimed by another state — leads to an exercise in futility for any other state, even ones such as New York or North Carolina which are more populous and longer-settled. For New York, for example, a few items come quickly to mind: bagels, NY cheesecake, Manhattan clam chowder, pastrami, buffalo chicken wings, Long Island duckling (apparently now all raised in the Midwest as suburbia chewed up the chicken farms), but the list of dishes unique to New York quickly comes up short. The state fruit, the apple, is hardly unique to New York, any more than is wine or cheddar cheese, and while there is some debate as to the origin of pizza (Trenton, New Haven, and Chicago all seem to have competing claims), it is now so ubiquitous that the connection to New York seems tenuous at best. One could make a case for an occasional esoteric item such as “beef on weck” a roast beef on a caraway roll (kummelweck) sandwich unique to Buffalo, but virtually unheard of in the rest of the state. One consultant in all seriousness actually suggested Chinese take-out as an option, which only serves to illustrate the point about how limited is cuisine as a definer of culture in the five boroughs.

Regional versus Local
North Carolina serves as an interesting case of how regional influences supercede local identity. Surveying locals as to regional dishes one learned of a few truly esoteric dishes, some with good reason, such as “liver mush” — a concoction of pig’s liver and cornmeal highly touted in the town of Shelby. While there are a few other foods or culinary traditions that might be distinctive to the state, such as the scuppernong grape, and the Sunday “pig pickin’”, most of its other claims actually originate in other states: Brunswick stew, which hails from Virginia, and shrimp and grits, which originates in South Carolina. Of its other most common food markers — barbeque ribs, fried chicken, and pecan pie — all are clearly regional dishes common to virtually every southern state and not unique to North Carolina, any more than was the suggestion of one informant who proposed spaghetti and meat balls for the state’s list.The evidence of regional and nationalizing influence on cuisine and its encroachment on our own communities should both give us pause, and spur us to cherish even more fiercely our distinctive cuisine and its centrality in defining who we are. Louisiana may not lead the nation in many markers of civilization, but in cuisine we stand unchallenged.

—Michael Sartisky, Editor-In-Chief

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