National Cuisines, Idea of
NATIONAL CUISINES, IDEA OF
NATIONAL CUISINES, IDEA OF. Cuisines and nations are artifacts of human enterprise, will, and imagination. They refer ostensibly to material things: to the earth, to the natural world, to particular geographical locales and the products of these places. In this sense, cuisines tell one something about food, and nations tell one something about places. Cuisines, too, are made up of earthly products, such as butter, beef, saffron, and garlic, much as nations inhabit physical localities, whether protruding landmasses, landlocked mountains, or chains of islands. In the modern period, however, foods have become associated with cuisines and places with nations to such an extent that one does not perceive any difference between them. National cuisines are a product of the modern emphasis on nationalism and the nation-state.
In fact, the coining of "national cuisines" has become an almost exclusive means of organizing the link between food and place. One talks with ease of Germany and German cuisine and India and Indian cuisine, as if German cuisine and Indian cuisine have existed as long as the mountains, valleys, and lakes that define their namesakes' topographies. If the history of the subcontinent, and the food practices of people there, are reviewed, the limits of the term "Indian cuisine" will be fast apparent. The food habits of the Punjabi Sikh and the Kerala Christian, for instance, have little in common, though both groups occupy India and eat its food products. While a handy moniker to grasp onto the food habits of a group of people, "Indian cuisine" is not a product of nature. Classifying a cuisine helps mark a geographical locale as a nation; it allows people to imagine national unity and to create convenient categories for understanding food practices. The convenient shorthand of "German cuisine" and "Indian cuisine" belies the complex historical formation of national cuisines, and their link to nationalism, a way of speaking about place, identity, and sovereignty.
Because of the tangible and visceral nature of food, nationalists have long used food to help solidify claims and gain legitimacy. This can clearly be seen in the shift from food to cuisine as a way to mark ownership over ingredients and practices understood to come from a certain place. For at least two hundred years, France has been a geographical region where arguments have been made for the authenticity of national cuisines by citizens, the state, and culinary professionals. The arguments concern the natural, authentic nature of "French cuisine" as a national cuisine. The French also often argue for the superiority of French cuisine in general. A historical examination of cookbooks from this region reveals a shift in the assumptions about audience and organization away from noble patrons toward fellow citizens. This shift occurred from the sixteenth century to the early part of the nineteenth century. By the 1880s, almost all cookbooks were aimed toward national citizens.
More recently, newer nation-states such as Mexico and Israel have promoted their national cuisines as a means of legitimizing their claims to nationhood. But, according to anthropologist Sidney Mintz, "a national cuisine is a contradiction in terms. . . . for the most part, a national cuisine is simply a holistic artifice based on the foods of the people who live inside some political system, such as France or Spain" (Mintz, p. 104) Yet this "holistic artifice" has become a very successful enterprise. All manner of food ways, now packaged as "national cuisines," are promoted in restaurants, cookbooks, tourist guides, and television shows. In particular, cookbooks have been very effective at creating and promoting such assumptions; contemporary cookbooks include such titles as A Taste of India, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and The Art of Mexican Cooking. The discourse of food writing has largely become bounded by the notion of national cuisines: National cuisines are seen as natural occurrences and the culinary discourse reflects that very assumption.
To really comprehend the tremendous complexity and diversity of human food practices, it is necessary to move beyond the discourse of national cuisines. Food—the raw ingredients, the cooking techniques, the ritual practices, the social significance—is ultimately more fluid, varied, meaningful, and powerful than the reliance on national cuisine as a category of explanation allows for in exploring it. Perhaps the twenty-first century, if significant in demonstrating the limited control of any sovereign nation-state, will be the period when food is removed from the nationalist agenda.
See also Foodways; France: Tradition and Change in French Cuisine; Fusion Cuisine; Geography; United States: Ethnic Cuisines.
Mintz, Sidney. Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions into Eating, Culture and the Past. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.
Trubek, Amy. Haute Cuisine: How the French Invented the Culinary Profession. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.
Zubaida, Sami, and Richard Tapper, eds. Culinary Cultures of the Middle East. London: I. B. Tauris, 1994.
Amy B. Trubek