Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Reading Recipes Critically

You can start pretty much anywhere if you want to explore how the world works and find politically interesting things.

Take recipes, for example.

You could probably write an entire book looking at what can be learned about the world from recipes. For one thing, there is the fact that they even exist as they do: in written form, widely distributed in books and magazines and on television. There is, in fact, an entire industry focused around selling us recipes. This is one specific example of the ways in which, in twenty-first century North America, at least some of the skills to navigate our everyday lives are no longer primarily passed from person to person as an organic part of living. They are conveyed in a way that disconnects them from direct interpersonal relationships by making them written or broadcast text and disseminating them through a complex of Official ExpertsTM that are deeply embedded in the capitalist marketplace. This is an indictment of the state of our human communities, though there are up-sides as well -- being able to access information and resources beyond your immediate human environment can be important, at least in some areas of life. However, one result of the integration of this method of conveying food-skills and food-knowledge is that such knowledge is almost invariably in harmony with the social relations by which food is produced. In other words, the recipes that we are most likely to encounter are ones which help us navigate rather than challenge existing industrial food systems, which, though open to vegetarianism and organics, still predominantly involve inhumane industrial processing of animals and the use of environmetnally unsustainable chemicals, often employ highly exploited labour, and almost universally depend upon the input of cheap, global warming-causing, non-renewable, hydrocarbon-based energy.

I should add that, though I have been a vegetarian for some time, I am just as much a part of that as anyone else.

Another interesting aspect of recipes that can be explored is the relationships they demonstrate between white North Americans and the cultures of the rest of the world. I try to be cognizant of cultural appropriation, but -- and I welcome comments that challenge this -- I don't generally have the sense that cooking in the metropole with recipes that come from the so-called periphery, so-called Third World, the formerly colonized regions, is really that big a problem. Nor, I think, is experimenting, blending, changing, adapting. Those are certainly connected to problems -- it would not be a longstanding white British tradition to go for a curry after downing several pints if it wasn't for empire, for example -- but it is not necessarily a problem per se. Admittedly, I may feel this way because so much of what you find in vegetarian cookbooks in North America is in some way derived from the cultural practices of people in the rest of the world, particularly various regions in Asia.

That said, it can still be problematic. For example, a fetishization of a particular nation's cuisine can be fed by and feed into the kind of exoticizing Othering that is particularly characteristic of the racist construction of many Asian cultures in the white North American imagination. It can also help create the facade of equitable, multicultural harmony that helps distract so many putatively progressive white North Americans from seeing the actual state of relations between themselves and racialized people on this continent and racialized nations around the world. It can also help create a delusion of actually having any knowledge whatsoever about those cultures and those relations. And I have also seen an openness to or facility with non-European cuisines used by middle-class white North Americans as a way to mark (or even actively reinforce) their class status, vis-a-vis white working-class people. To be honest, I've probably engaged in the more passive version of that myself, in earlier years.

So there is a great extent to which I think being politically mindful and respectful can more or less make it a reasonable thing to cook and eat whatever food you happen to enjoy. (At least in this respect -- the more fundamental problems of our food system require much more than individual change to address.)

But I think one thing that such mindfulness and respect should include is a critical reading of cookbooks, cooking magazines, and cooking shows. To that end, I present the pre-ingedient chit-chat of the dish that I cooked for dinner last night, taken from a cookbook that focuses on recpies that are both vegetarian and low in carbohydrates:


A classic Moroccan dish, tagine is the name of both the stew and the clay pot in which the stew is cooked. Traditionally, tagine contains a variety of dried fruits (which are not low carb) and meats (which are not vegetarian) and is often served over couscouse (which is not a whole grain). This version, containing no meat and only a miniscule amount of dried fruit, is delicious served over freshly cooked brown rice, quinoa, or other whole grains.

First of all, I should say that the food you get out the other end is quite yummy -- I had made it once before, quite awhile ago, and been ambivalent about it, but I was very happy with last night's version.

But come on.

First of all, "virtuous"? Did no editorial staff pick up at all on the vibe that this implies that original version, cooked by "them" -- those racialized Others "over there" -- is not virtuous, but don't worry because we have cleansed the recipe and made it suitably virtuous for you, the mostly white, mostly middle-class North American reader.

And it is just so ridiculous. Why on earth is it called "tagine" at all??? You are naming a dish with no meat, almost no dried fruit, cooked in a metal sauce pan, and served on a whole grain after a dish that is basically meat and dried fruit cooked in a clay pot and served on couscous. You might as well make a lentil salad, throw in a handful of oatmeal, and call it haggis*. Presumably, it was called this rather than "North African-spiced Vegetable Stew" -- which I think (though I don't know anything about North African cooking, so I cannot be sure) would be both an honest nod to the dish's culinary genealogy and an accurate description -- so that white North American vegetarians flipping through it in a bookstore would stop on this page and say, "Ooooh. Tagine...I've never heard of that! How exotic!" rather than "Ah. Yet another vegetable stew."

Anyway. This whole post started as an excuse to share that paragraph. And to put to good use some of the too-many thoughts going through my head as I actually cooked the Supposedly Virtuous Vegetable Supposed Tagine.

I say again: You can start pretty much anywhere if you want to explore how the world works and find politically interesting things.

[[* -- Actual vegetarian haggis is, in fact, available in some places. Why this is considered to be a positive addition to the universe of vegetarian consumables, I have no idea.]]

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