Culinary Ethnic Cleansing: White Euro-American Writing about Food

Hear me people: We have now to deal with another race – small and feeble when our fathers first met them, but now great and overbearing. Strangely enough they have a mind to till the soil and the love of possessions is a disease with them. These people have made many rules that the rich may break but the poor may not. They take their tithes from the poor and weak to support the rich and those who rule.

Tatanka Iyotake (Sitting Bull) on the White Euro-Americans

People often ask why I’m writing about food, and eating and drinking. It makes me feel like Groundhog Day and I’m tempted to quote MFK Fisher as an answer: when I’m writing about food and wine it’s about „deeper needs for love and happiness… other nourishment, and tolerance and compassion for it“. But then I’m afraid her honest answer in the foreword of The Gastronomical Me might sound too sentimental, and I say something more sober and sensible, in a Michael Pollan way, like food being central to our life, being crucial in a social, political, and economical dimension. The next question mostly is how I came to write about food, to which again there are several possible answers, depending on my mood and the occasion: because that’s what I feel I know most about, because it reaches out to everybody, because I started my career as a chef… But that last point of course leads to how I started to cook before I could even write – it seemed the natural thing, how could you not, my mum did it, and my grandmothers did it, and you had to do in order to eat, and I’ve always loved eating… so to cut this short, in the end I’m saying „thank you mum“, and that feels sentimental too for a Prussian Berliner.

To tell the truth, the US of A are to blame for it, and that includes MFK’s books, a meal at Charlie Trotter’s back in 1994, a bottle of Randall Grahm’s Cigare Volant, many bottles of Russian River Pinot Noir and a tasting of American goat and sheep cheeses held by Rob Kaufelt of Murray’s fame at the Slow Food Cheese show in Piemont, only days after 9/11. Together with the enthusiasm many of our American friends showed for life in general, all these things opened my eyes to how much more there was to discover in food and drink. When I travelled to California in 2003 to meet some of the relevant cheesemakers and admitted to them how heavily prejudiced I had been towards American cheese prior to that tasting, I gradually started to see things back home differently as well, and in 2009 my book on the new German cheese was published.

My (English winewriting) husband and I kept travelling to the US all through the W era to see our friends and make new ones, and we still keep refuting stoically people’s prejudices about American wine (supposedly all heavy and jammy) and food (all junky and mcdonaldised). I’m looking forward to every single copy of magazines like Gastronomica, The Art of Eating, Culture, Meatpaper and Saveur. This last one however has recently started to give me much more food for thought than I’d wish for. I’ve noticed how reading it – once an inspiring experience that would send me almost automatically to my desk – makes me feel itchy, even angry. It took me quite a while to work out why. Only after I reread Tom Wolfe’s piece about the New Yorker and found out more about the Smithsonian controversy about the dispute of the the Enola Gay display on the fiftieth anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, did I realize that I strongly dislike the politics showing behind what Saveur claims is an authentic world of food.

Anybody who is familiar with Saveur magazine will undoubtedly object now that there doesn’t seem to be a political side to it. Exactly. And on the other hand, ah well and ho hum, as MFK would have said – we all know food is political. Let me explain why I feel like the good folks at Saveur are trying to forcefeed me their version of the food world. Of course, none of us writers can claim objectivity, especially with food. The mere idea of it is wrong, an illusion. However, that’s not my point. No, I get the horrible impression that in that wonderful test kitchen with its surrounding offices staffed by all those immensely hard working, „insanely busy“ people, the food world is being reinvented and reshaped to a cosy, warm-glowing nostalgic cloud-cuckoo-land. American food (of almost any kind) according to Saveur is of heroical meaningfulness. Don’t get me wrong – of course it is, at least some of it, and of course, Saveur also gives us plenty of stories about the rest of „a world of authentic cuisine“. But politics, the economy or social problems are completely invisible in those glossy pages.

It is as if somehow somebody in that office in the midst of Manhattan has drunk an awful lot of Boston tea recently: I counted two black persons in the last three issues (and that is including some in ads that were obviously concerned about PC), a search for „native american“ on came up with only four results of which three were not what I had in mind, and perhaps worst of all, sentimental, often nostalgic goo drips out of it all. It sticks to the excellent technical explanations, and it covers the honest excitement with which most writers present their stories. It allows a whole string of undoubtedly well-meant, but otherwise horribly ordinary to downright horrible „home“-recipes to be presented like wonderful new recipes worth of exploration at my own stove.

It’s probably neither wise nor diplomatic of me to object to a sentence like the following: „Watching as folks line up to ladle out lamb stew or help themselves to another serving of baked delicata squash, listening as everyone catches up on news about kids and grandparents and work, I feel thankful to have discovered this way to fit into my community.“ But I do, strongly, and with all my senses. When I’m invited to dinner at somebody’s home and presented with a… well, just about edible dish which in a restaurant I’d probably return to the kitchen, but my host has been cooking for me with love and honesty, I’m trying to enjoy it. It’s the spirit that counts. But that doesn’t mean that I’ll be asking for the recipe and publish it in my next article or book. We all know that we can unite and talk and fall in love over a big chain’s burger and a soft drink, just like dinner in a Parisian bistro might be completely void of romance. But that doesn’t turn the burger into fantastic food. And it doesn’t justify writing about it without mentioning the severe problems the current structure of the food industry causes of which it is part. You can call it ignorance, deliberately wearing blinkers or Palinisation – whatever it is, it makes me feel sad, because it does food in general as well as the American spirit, a disservice they don’t neither need or deserve.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I could come up with similar quarrels in the case of some European food and wine publications. Glorification of the supposedly buolic countryside is rampant, and often a romanticised idea of Nature is worshipped as if the very notion of culture had never crossed our lips. But then the standards over here never seemed as rigorous, the enthusiasm and consistency never as infectuous, the intellectual independance not equally important than in the USA. That’s why my disappointment almost feels like anger whenever I now look at a current issue of Saveur magazine.

by Ursula Heinzelmann

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