#6 | other people's food
a note on how we face the exotic
[first of all]
Honestly, November was a bad month in terms of productivity. I devoted less time to the newsletter to spend afternoons sitting on the grass, going to the movies, having drinks and coffees among friends, and enjoying my newborn goddaughter for a few days. For December, I plan to keep walking, wandering, letting the cellphone off, and talking with people face to face, then I might relax my jar and ease my back pain.
Sure of your understanding,
PS: keep fogo baixo/low heat flowing!
this issue was translated by Luciane Maesp 📧 firstname.lastname@example.org
OTHER PEOPLE’S FOOD
a note on how we face the exotic
Every night between midnight and 6 AM, on a U-shaped counter, a cook takes orders and serves his clients. The rectangular room has a kitchen area on the back that occupies half of the space, while the bar area is on the concave side of the counter. It takes a few steps between the front door and the bar stools, where halfway customers take off and place their coats on the wall hangers. As they sit down, they order the usual and look around to check who is there tonight.
These are people on their break from work or ending their journey – some are having dinner after a razzle-dazzle. Between the small talk, gasps of those who take delight in the frying sizzles and bubbling pots, the cook witnesses confidences said only at a bar table.
This place and its habitués are the starting point of the anecdotes of Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories series, available on Netflix, and which I've seen two episodes only. The first one is titled Lamen and begins with the preparation of Tokyo's Kanto regional dish: the tan-men, a sort of noodle soup with pork and vegetables. We watch the recipe from the start when the pan receives slices of what seems to be pork belly. Then comes the vegetables: carrots, Chinese cabbage, bean sprouts, garlic chives. A light broth is added – probably chicken stock – and lastly, the cook pours it all over a cooked noodle in a bowl.
In the following scene, two acquaintances talk about preferring having tan-men at night because it's "lighter than lamen". They stop the conversation when a newcomer taxi driver asks for "a tan-men, no noodles, please". Both the acquaintances look spitefully at each other. "Tan-men without noodles is just a vegetable soup," scoffs one of them later in his radio show.
The broadcaster's estrangement hints at the obvious script that will come ahead – it ends up with the two acquaintances ordering a tan-men-no-noodles. It substantiates that the actual disposal for "I don't know because I don't like it" must be the reversal "I don't like because I don't know it". Watching a dish we love being "disfigured" stirs our pride.
We have our particular rules and measure other people's choices by our metrics, focusing rather on the differences than on similarities that related things have.
Cast the first napkin if you never frown upon other people's culinary idiosyncrasy – ketchup on pizza, grated cheese on yakisoba, slicing spaghetti. We wince at it even if these dishes aren't among our affective memory, as if holy food had been desecrated.
That's it, then. Food is a sign historically constructed by the actions of a community in space and time. This social repertoire includes choosing what to eat according to what is available; preparing it according to the knowledge accumulated through generations; serving it according to the regards and significance that were given to ingredients and preparation methods. If we deviate from this collective code we might disrupt, and it botters the group cohesion (the peeve on vegetarianism comes from it, but I won't talk about it this time).
As the two acquaintances at the Japanese restaurant felt, being at the same table with someone that breaks the rules brings eyes and ostensive curiosity. I may say it would be a light contrast annoyance. Now let's intensify it: what about eating according to your own rules, but among a social group that follows other standards?
To get that, we should step back and see our own food as other people's food – another folk, another culture, another rule. Next, I'll make an example on the utmost contention ingredient: meat – on didact proposes, but the same parallel could be drawn on insects, fruits, different culture techniques to prepare the same ingredient, etc.
Beef is a Brazilian specialty. Known for its land extension and for raising millions of heads of cattle as commodities, Brazil's weekends' churrasco is the ultimate symbol of home leisure.
Churrasco can be made with many different beef cuts, like ribs or hindquarters, seasoned with coarse salt only, or a family marinade recipe. The pieces are roasted in a skewer or directly on a grill over the fire, controlled by the churrasqueiro, a charge usually occupied by men of the house. On the day after, the leftovers are used to prepare a carreteiro1 dish.
The Brazilian herd is one of the greatest in the world, surprisingly larger than the Brazilian population: There are 218.2 million heads of cattle and 212.6 million people in the same country. The domestic market consumes a large part of the beef production, and between 20 and 30% is exported, mainly to China.
Beef can also be prepared as picadinho, a kind of chopped braised beef stew, served with rice or mashed potatoes; as steak with caramelized onions; as a base for soups; or as a pot roast. Not all the beef cuts are eaten: Brazilians prefer to leave aside giblets and look for tender cuts, such as tenderloin and picanha2, or the fatty ones as ribs. Chuck and foreshanks, if possible, won't be on the shopping list.
The text above is a general overview, and if you know the Brazilian culture a little deeper, you may think that many parentheses and phrases should be included to better explain the complexity of these cultural and social habits, recipes, regional particularities, and points of view. Nonetheless, for those who live under a different food system, this briefing might be a satisfactory introduction to Brazil's food culture.
As an imaginative exercise, I wonder if a reader who doesn't know the Brazilian context would pop up with a few questions: why are there more heads of cattle than people in the country if most of the production is for domestic consumption? If an ox is a large-enough animal to yield several family meals, why is the herd so bulky? Why is the handling of the fire and meat an almost exclusive men's task? Which dishes are made with giblets, and why aren't them prized? Why do Brazilians prefer beef rather than other meats?
I believe I listed genuine doubts so far, questions that would open discussions and magnify/broaden the understanding of beef meaning to Brazilians. However, along with the query could come, indirectly, value judgments. Another imagination exercise here: Why cook meat over the fire when there are so many ways to use this noble ingredient? Why season it just with coarse salt?
At a certain place and time, it could be considered primitive and even clumsy to prepare the meat, for example, in a fogo de chão3 with coarse salt only. One could even say it demonstrates poor hygiene, lack of advanced cooking techniques knowledge, and an uncivilized way to serve meat.
Food is context, and the outsiders' judgments weigh differently, depending on who points and who is pointed out. In cultures that have been portrayed as uncivilized and incapable for centuries, the understanding of its food as unfinished, transitory, and primitive endorses the stereotype that there is no socially constructed knowledge in the dietary choices of those people. Who stands for such discourse tries to hold off the observed, emphasizing the differences and acting as a spokesman of a culture that overcame such behaviors.
(As if there was a human being group that would opt to pass to their descendants the least efficient strategies for survival and reproduction! As if it was possible to rank civilizations' evolution degrees in a colorful infographic!)
Perhaps you, like me, just started to notice your blind spots when thinking and talking about other people's food recently: along with the increase of decolonial studies and publications; the discussion on natives, yellows, and blacks peoples whitening; or even on how the colonizers' food culture perpetuates structural racism.
There was the Bon Appétit case, in which non-white editors had lower wages (even if more experienced and specialized than whites), asked for duties outside of their contract function, and used in videos as a display of diversity. In 2021, articles and academic debates around colonization, ethnic and racial identities occupied the pages of specialized media; then also emerged more essays ready to promote a public debate on xenophobia and food prejudice.
But as you can see by the links, it was all published in English. In Brazil, where this discussion would be very fruitful, we face other highly urgent issues such as the deterioration of public policies for food matters, suchlike the Bolsonaro government's disregard on information treat. In this interview with Lourence Alves, she shares ways to break the spell of the addicted gaze of whiteness.
We whites are not the standard. It is not out of what we know that other knowledges are structured and differentiated. In this ideological blindness that penetrates our whited minds, we end up daily reproducing and perpetuating inequities that, besides other effects, strip down the meanings and character of other people's food. This inequity perpetuates when we present recipes we didn't know as "typical" or "ethnic"; it perpetuates when we make jokes about yellow people eating insects or dogs; it perpetuates when we say all Indian food tastes the same; it perpetuates when we arrogantly look down indigenous people food strategies. This list can be even longer, but I think I made my point clear.
There is an abysmal difference between approaching due to curiosity or fetish. The avid interest that many of us show in other people's food can be predatory and sentenced two ways: the exotic is either disgusting or a trophy.
While the first verdict is easy to identify on the examples I listed above, the second one slips in a messy road.
In tourism studies, promoting local gastronomy is understood as a way to create an authentic aura for the destination. This consumption of local food and products goes beyond the physiological function to work as a social and cultural marker for the tourist. The food tourist, then, perceives it more intensely because it creates symbolism layers.
One of the authors I included in my Master's dissertation was Kevin Fields, who presents four types of tourists' gastronomic motivations: physical; cultural; interpersonal; and status and privilege. I'll introduce the two that dialogue with this article's theme: cultural motivation and status and privilege motivation.
The cultural motivation is the interest in local food, seen by the tourist as a tool and a means for understanding the history, practices, and reality of someplace. It's how we see ourselves traveling: authentically interested in local culture and open to the unlike. Maybe we won't take the path of thinking about the exotic as a trophy, but it could happen.
The status and privilege motivation is a step further. I'd say it can be understood with an intersectional view, including social status. This tourist is motivated by discovering something unique, rare, experiencing the exclusive. Accessing these experiences doesn't always require financial capital – social and cultural capital can also be involved. Also, this type of tourism has a symbolic value that's given not only by the consumption itself but also by being seen consuming it. The book chapter in which these categories were first published is from 2004; now, when social media posts replace face-to-face interactions, this consumption exhibition becomes even more performative.
We can't always notice how big are the chances that we are gathering records of dishes and pictorial situations as a trophy, that we are looking for a unique experience on exotic gastronomy, and that we are interested in what other people can teach us so we can take ownership.
I don't have the answers, either a good-manners guide on approaching other people's food or on how to behave when traveling to countries whose food culture is heavily different from yours. Actually, this article is part of a self-criticism process because sometimes I'm one of these food tourists with cultural, status, and privilege motivations. I'm the one that judges eating sushi with a fork and knife. It was (is) the way I found to tone my behavior and demonstrate curiosity and respect for other people's food as a food journalist, instead of exercising pure informational extractivism. It's not easy to get it, but I keep going.
I want to thank Jasmin Endo Tran, a student of my open course called How To Write About Food, who deepened the discussion we had in class and brought a lot of references. Also, I want to thank Bia Nunes de Souza, who is always in about the food editorial world events, and generously shares them with me.
Two reports I mentioned in this article were found on July's newsletters of food journalist Rafael Tonon's Ao Ponto, and writer Dianne Jacob's Will Write For Food (author of an even-titled book).
Lastly, I suggest reading a report series on coronavirus and the impact of the pandemic on food culture, signed by my friend Mariana Ceccon and published on April 2020 [Portuguese only]:
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NT: Carreteiro in Portuguese means carter or carman. Also known as arroz de carreteiro, the carreteiro is a dish created by workmen that due to the lack of resources and time, had to cook practical one-pot dishes on their way. A carreteiro is traditionally made in an iron pan over the fire with meat (churrasco leftovers, sausages, or charque which is a sort of jerked beef – if there was fresh meat available, it would always be prepared as churrasco); rice, onion, garlic, tomatoes, parsley, and spring onion.
NT: Picanha is a Brazilian favorite for its noticeable flavor and tenderness, and culturally it’s a beef cut that symbolizes abundance especially among the poorer. It's a triangular-shaped cut with a dense layer of fat on top, extracted from the sirloin. Sometimes named rump cap, rump cover, or top sirloin cap.
NT: Fogo de chão means ground fire, and it is an outdoor cooking technique taught by indigenous to the colonizers to prepare large and/or tough pieces of meat, such as an entire lamb or an entire beef rib. Some lines of fire are drawn in the ground and in between skewers are placed sustaining the meat piece, that will be cooking for more than 6 hours.