2am tirade inspired by the Engrish on a chopsticks sleeve

Gastronaut 10

Welcome to Chinese Restaurant.
Please try your Nice Chinese Food with Chopsticks
The traditional and typical of Chinese glonous history and cultual
–the bamboo chopsticks used at commons.

Forgive me for this, dear readers, but much of the essence of ethnic food, any ethnic food, is lost in translation. Feeding oneself and one’s family is a radically different process from continent to continent and culture to culture; beyond quelling the necessity of sustenance, there are few cultural universals from which we can compare and understand the cultures of food outside of our own (which ever that may be). Food is individual as well as communal; there is great difficulty in transmitting the cultural baggage of a set of flavors, or an ingredient, or a technique. I think this baggage is vital information, for when we divorce a food from its roots we end up with less desirable products and lose the cultural exchange. When we dine out at restaurants promising cuisine from a culture not our own, we are essentially committing ourselves to a cultural experience that, for many, will constitute their only contact with that culture.

Tuk under and held firmly
–step 1 from the same chopsticks

The passionate diners, us (right?), are typically eager to heighten the cultural experience for ourselves; we use the proffered chopsticks in good faith, often to great disadvantage. We (maybe this isn’t a common practice) try to get the menu in the native language, determined to find the most faithful, honest representation of the cuisine. Is that enough? I have developed friendships with restaurants and the people who run them, and I have learned a great deal about what it means to be Chinese in the American restaurant business. For instance, I learned that a side benefit of restaurant ownership is that you can secure a green-card for anyone from your home country, because you can guarantee the US government of their employment. I know I’m in the minority on this one, otherwise the Quest would be full of amateur food writers on crack.

Add second chcostick
Hold it as you hold a pencil
–step 2

Where does the exchange stop? When your meal is over? After the last of the meal has left you? After you throw out the leftovers? Food is not the most effective cultural exchange, but it is pervasive in America today. We should consider the opportunities and dangers carefully, not only when we are dining but when we are cooking as well. Next time you make pasta, take a moment to contemplate the status of pasta in Italian cultures. Italians are famous for being passionate about their food, as I’m sure you are all aware, but think of the consequences and unintended side effects of Pasta. It has been argued that Italy’s factionalized political tradition stems from deep-seeded disagreements about pasta. When was the last time you witnessed a grudge match between Denny’s and IHOP over their flapjacks?

Hold tirst chopstick in originai position
Move the second one up and down
Now you can pick up anything!
–step 3

Food can also act as proxy for embattled peoples. An article published in Gastronomica (the coolest food magazine ever) a year ago detailed the tremendous argument between Israel and the rest of the Middle east about who had the right to call falafel ‘their’ National Snack; Egypt, Jordan and Israel all claim it as their own. In the article, a Palestinian woman is quoted “You’ve taken everything else from us, and now you want out snack food?” Is there a snack food that is indicative of American culture? Is there a snack food that you’d get into a shouting match to defend? For an example closer to home, there is long standing tension over the roots of southern food, which has exploded into a highly charged racial issue in some instances. They’re not your grits, they’re our grits.
This column makes no sense and I know it. If you made it this far, I’m impressed. I wanted to stoke the roaring intellectual fire that is Reed and chuck some embers towards a new pile of kindling. Think about what you eat more. It will be good for you.