On Local Food

By Deane Barker tags: food

When I travel, I have this romantic notion of eating “local food.” I like the idea of eating food that the locals eat, like I could vicariously become a part of that culture or something.

I do this at home too, when I visit an ethnic restaurant, and I have a server who is clearly of a matching ethnicity, I’ll sometimes ask them what menu option is as close to “what you would have eaten as a child.” (Yes, an absurd generalization. Read on for more on that.)

But I’ve found there are two problems with this –

First –

Sometimes it’s hard for a person to identify what food is “local” and unique to them. If someone asked me for “local American food,” what would I tell them? It would depend on where you were in America. Could I identify a universal? I don’t know … a hamburger? A hot dog? Maybe BBQ?

These foods … might … be … local? I don’t even know. And even if they are, American food has been exported so far and wide that they certainly aren’t unique. Any European could likely find them in a dozen places within a mile of their house.

In Stockholm, I asked a native Swede for “local Swedish food.” They wrestled with the question for a long time, and eventually took me somewhere to get fish with potatoes and – I think – some type of fish eggs. The food didn’t feel Swedish to me, but what did I know?

(A valid point: I travel mainly in Europe, which is mostly Caucasian. Food differences between Europe and America are clearly more subtle than other places in the world.)

Think about it: what do Swedes eat more than anyone else? I have no idea, and a couple minutes of web searching didn’t help. (I did find this article that purports to identify “the best thing to eat in every country.” Sweden isn’t in there, but for the USA, it’s apparently a hamburger.)

Second –

People often don’t want to eat their local food because it’s boring to them.

I was in Denmark and asked someone if we could get some “local Danish food.” Their response: “I’ve been eating that my whole life. Let’s get pizza!”

We (I?) have a romanticized notion that just because a food is native to a location, everyone there likes to eat it. Part of me assumes that everyone in Norway sits around eating lutefisk all day long.

I’ve since come to learn about “heritage commodification,” or “the tourist gaze.” This is a phenomenon where a culture plays up their culture and history in exchange for tourist dollars. No one in [insert country here] might care about the history of their food or culture, but they know that tourists want to see this because they think it matters to the locals, so the local get foreign money in exchange for an “authentic” experience which is ironically non-authentic. Put another way: there are a lot of historical or cultural things that only matter to tourists.

Does this happen in America? When was the last time you had a hamburger? Within the week? Now, when was the last time you had Mexican or Italian? Same frequency? I can’t even remember the last time I ate BBQ. And when I did, I certainly didn’t luxuriate in the idea that this was an American heritage food.

(I remember an episode of Seinfeld where Elaine complained that she wasn’t in the mood for Chinese food. Jerry responded, “Do you think anyone in China ever says that?”)

Local people don’t put any cognitive thought into eating local food. We eat whatever we want, and me pushing my expectations onto people in other countries is a little silly. A lot of Swedes probably love Mexican and hate … fish eggs, or whatever those things were.

What do we call the idea that a region’s people are inextricably bound to their local food? Cuisine-centrism?

A final thought along these lines –

I was at a breakfast buffet at a Stockholm hotel once, and I opened the container labeled “Pancakes.” In it were some very thin, crepe-like things. I said to myself, “Those aren’t pancakes. Those are Swedish pancakes.”

Right then, I looked at the next container: it was helpfully labeled “American Pancakes.”

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