FOOD, NATIONALISM, IDENTITY an interview with Jack Turner

Jack Turner is a historian, nonfiction writer, and television documentary host. His most recent work is Spice: The History of a Temptation.

IAN TRUEGER: How do you see cosmopolitanism and cuisine intersecting?

JACK TURNER: I would start by questioning the question. Perhaps another way of stating the premise behind that is the sense that cuisine is tightly bound up in people’s identity, and vice versa. People’s cuisine expresses that, and they become extremely sensitive as soon as you start fiddling with it. If you say you doubt the seriousness of that and start talking about pastrami in New York and say you can get a better pastrami sandwich in San Francisco, people will get extremely pissed.

Clearly food is a profound icon. It’s interesting, this seems to be a universal characteristic, that different groups will always define themselves, as well as the Other, in terms of what they eat. This is not a trivial point. It also seems to be universal that people insult and denigrate other cultures in terms of what they eat. The classic example is that the English call the French ‘the frogs’, which is supposedly an insult. Rosbif, which the French affectionately call the English, seems the exception that proves the rule.

IT: That’s interesting. In many encounters, colonial or otherwise, opposing sides often accuse one another of cannibalism. It segues from denigration to slander…

JT: That’s a very common thing. The Li Chi, the Chinese book of ritual from the Han period, for example, is interesting: China at this point has fluid boundaries, but the sense is that China ends where people stop eating well. You know-outside this region, people don’t wear proper clothes, they don’t cook properly, they eat raw food. This seems to be a universal thing, a constant thing, that people talk about their primitive, barbarian neighbours as people who eat raw food. They don’t cook–they are considered prehuman.

IT: So how one eats is considered a marker of civility.

JT: Absolutely. One of the interesting questions I tackled in my last book was that–I have just gone around saying that these are universal ideas, but it seems to me that certainly in the nineteenth century, in the European imperialist countries, you get a much more developed sense of how our food is, in a sense, what we are. And you see this particularly in the context of European colonialism in East Asia and South Asia: this constant distinction between what an Englishman eats in India, and what a native eats in India. And related to that is how these spices were at first seen as attractive and alluring during the Renaissance, and then suddenly they cease to be attractive. They are seen as being alien. There is no doubt that there is a sort of sanitizing of the food, where it is seen as being…

IT: Overly sensuous-romantic?

JT: Absolutely, and the classic example of that in Romanticism is Keats. He’s always talking about the spicy Orient. But the point is that the spices,and the foods that contained them, become alien, foreign. And that is certainly not how it was a couple of hundred years earlier. King Henry VIII loved his spices–they were the ultimate luxury good, as good as it gets. So that change seems to emerge in the 18th century.

Also, before the nineteenth century, you get this notion of elite cuisines. Wealthy people eat refined cuisines. Elite cuisine had more in common than did cuisines across cultures. The similarities are perhaps more pronounced than the differences: it’s complicated, it’s full of spices, its got expensive ingredients, it’s full of meat, but it doesn’t have any distinctively national quality.

By the nineteenth century, you get the notion of a national cuisine emerging, where French cuisine is expressive of French ingredients. Every country gets this idea of its national cuisine. In a sense this begins with the English. The roast beef of old England. In the context of the more or less unending wars with France in the eighteenth century, they say, you know, we eat roast beef, we eat plain simple food from England, while the French make this fiddly complex stuff with ragoûts and whatnot. And the ultimate expression of that is with Robbie Burns, in his “Ode to a Haggis,” where he spends half the poem insulting Spanish olio and French ragoût and all this nonsense.

IT: So you think this idea of a national cuisine, where food becomes a kind of cultural marker, begins in the England then?

JT: I think it’s most developed there. The classic text is Hogarth–the classic image, “The Roast Beef of Old England.” When Hogarth was kicked out of Calais [what was formerly an English domain], he produces a series of images that are mass-circulated, in the tens of thousands–cartoons, if you like. And the image is of huge side of British Roast Beef being transported into an English Inn, where scrawny French Jacobins, these revolutionaries, who are, you know, emaciated, they are mean little peasants who eat rubbish, look on in jealousy. Now, that’s broadly the period, the eighteenth century through the nineteenth, when these notions sharpen. And again, this makes perfect sense–the age of nationalism.

IT: What I was thinking in relation to these ideas of authenticity was–especially in a place like France, where cuisine is seen as such a definitive marker of identity–has this changed since large-scale immigration began in the last fifty years? Or is the national cuisine, in a sense, exclusionary?

JT: It may have adopted some influences from North Africa, but not really. It is exclusionary. I think there is a telling contrast between, say, British cuisine and French cuisine. Brit cuisine is very clearly influenced by Indian cooking. You can get a curry and it’s not considered noteworthy. It’s unremarkable to go out for a curry. It’s not trying something ethnic, it’s actually totally normal, and the statistic that is always bandied around is that the most popular meal is chicken tikka massala. There is no comparison in France. People like their couscous, but there is no way that migrant influences have extended into the national cuisine to the same extent.Why is that? I mean that’s probably unanswerable, but probably because they had a more distinctive national cuisine to start with.

IT: So you think French cuisine, like French culture, is less permeable to outside influences…

JT: I think that’s true. People talk about the difference in multicultural models between America and Britain on the one hand, loosely grouped together, and continental Europe. The distinction is there, that the French have a much harder time absorbing these migrants precisely because they have a more…

IT: Distinctive idea of what constitutes Frenchness?

JT: This gives me flashbacks of a conversation I had in New York ten years ago. We were talking about migrant cuisine. I was comparing France and America and saying America does not really have a cuisine. It doesn’t. It’s a migrant country, it has lots of different things, but it doesn’t have a cuisine. And what do I mean by a cuisine? France has several cuisines but it has a set of rules, and a set of traditions which have canonical texts, ways of doing things. If you go to a French restaurant, you know that there are a set of structures, literally in the way it is organized. There’s no analogy in America. What I was struck by was that I didn’t mean that in a remotely critical, derogatory way, and people thought I was insulting American cuisine. And I was saying there is no single cuisine here, or even a canonized set of ingredients, or books or cooks. It doesn’t exist. Everything is up for grabs and you can do what you want. If you want to do a Thai-Mexican restaurant, that’ll be fine and if you do it well enough, people will go. If you look at the modern migrant experience, you’ll find food that is diverse, assimilative, and full of different influences. Compare that with France – as I know to my cost, if I want to go for a Thai meal out here, I don’t eat out, I make it myself. Because it would be disgusting–shockingly bad. Again, if you go back to the very basics, “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are”.

IT: Is the rest of continental Europe the same?

JT: Germany is an exception. This is an unscientific and unkind thing to say, but I think broadly if the local food culture is crap, the better chance you have that something decent might survive. That’s what happened in England–you can get fabulous Thai, or Indonesian, or whatever you want. That’s because there’s not much competition. I don’t think I have ever been to a restaurant that describes itself as English. There’s no place that sells English cuisine, or British food. I think Jamie Oliver tried, and they’ve just gone bust.

IT: So with this idea of authenticity in mind, how do you feel about fusion cooking? Obviously these notions of authenticity are constructed to an extent, where what we perceive as authentic is often the product of quite recent innovation. Do you think the idea of authentic cooking is bullshit?

JT: The existence of the question is what’s interesting. A lot of people will say a priori that fusion cooking is bullshit. I grew up in Australia, and when I left this was so hot. When I was at Uni, there was this great revolution in food, a bit like what happened in America around the same time. There was this influence of migrant food and a belated awareness of this WASP majority that there was some amazing stuff here, and so they started making fusion food that was fabulous. And sort of hot on the heels of this, you get people saying fusion food is BS. What is interesting is why they would necessarily feel that way. Because all cuisine started off as fusion. And I’m always impressed–the two cultures that seem the most entrenched in these reactions are the Italian and the Iranians. The French come in third. If you go to Italy and try doing something that’s a little different, someone will, probably in a friendly way, question it. They’ll say we have these formulas that we do–there are ways of doing things –procedures.

This is not scientific, but I’ve heard this from a dozen Iranian friends, that like in Italy, food is properly matriarchal. The women do it, the older women make the stuff, and they make it a particular way, so it’s made by the matriarch of the family, and she’s always made it this way because her mum made it this way. They get very upset about the baked rice dishes. Tah chin and Polo. You have to go through this whole ritual. I remember having this Iranian friend in New York who missed his mum’s cooking and used to try and make it every now and then. It was always a big production because he had to call his mum and get instructions. This thirty something, independent guy, he needs his mum. I was saying–can’t you use a book? And he said, No no no you have to do it this way.

I once made the mistake of making this famous Iranian dish, Fesenjān-duck with pomegranate. It’s one of their four or five classical national dishes, like what roast beef is to the English. I got it from a recipe book and had some Iranian friends over. And I learnt to never do that again. People from these particular cultures will find that you are misquoting Shakespeare.You cannot do it differently. And that’s the same thing behind the criticism of fusion food – you can’t do things differently. And of course thats absurd – there are things that work better than others, but its absurd to limit yourself to one set of rules. So no, I don’t have a position on fusion. But I am continually amazed by the strength of the responses that it evokes.

Try doing this with an American–Oh, so you made your coleslaw like that. It’s up for grabs. That’s the background to the question about fusion. The question is more, how do you feel about rules, and are these rules important because they make a better result, or are they more like a liturgy, where these rules are part of ‘us’?

Maybe in an American context, we would feel that this is a bit absurd. Absurd in the sense that your identity is bound to a set of rules. In a sense the converse applies. If you’re suddenly pro-fusion food in the context of the Catalans, it shows you’re not bound by traditions that you would accept a bit of curry sauce on your paella or whatever . It shows that you’re a broad minded, liberal, flexible person. You are what you eat.

IT: But every culture has its own sort of of symbolic action that reinforce a sense of identity, no?

JT: I remember thinking, way back in the 80s at Uni, I was pretty pleased with myself for making Thai food, which is pretty mainstream now, or Cambodian food. This kind of positions you as someone who’s not like my dickhead uncle who has roast lamb every meal. That’s all he has. That’s what I had for lunch today actually [this interview was conducted on Easter Sunday], but it’s always lamb chops and three veg for him.

IT: So do you think that elite cuisine has manifested itself in a different guise today, in terms of being worldly? Do you think that cosmopolitanism in terms of food is what elite cuisine is today – the whole idea of having options etcetera?

JT: I guess so. I think it’s also about how much more accessible it is today. Knowledge is huge now. I think that’s why there are so many showoffs now. I think this is the currency that so many of these TV shows trade in. You have to be up to speed in the latest organic whatever. Anyone can get this or that ingredient if they are willing to pay – access is there, whereas knowledge is even more sought after, knowing how things are made. And this whole exclusivity thing ties into the theory of the leisure class. As soon as one need is satisfied, as soon as we get buffalo mozzarella into the markets in New York City, the nature of consumer society – or some would say capitalist society – is to create new needs. So suddenly buffalo mozzarella isn’t good enough. It used to be exclusive and sought after, but now we’ve got to get something even better so we get burrata. And then this burrata is better than that burrata and it’s not good enough. And we all know people like this, who need the latest and greatest.

IT: You can probably say the same thing about the arugula to kale in the US. Everyone has gone kale crazy.

JT: Yeah, there are a lots of different kales. See I remember twenty years ago arugula just wasn’t around. You couldn’t get it if you ordered it. The way the social scientist would phrase it is that eating is a strategy of social differentiation. I think we measure these things very crudely. With something like spices you can measure it for the very simple reason that they cost so much that only elite people could get them. In the case of pepper, as the cost of pepper came down, it ceases to be an elite product. You can actually follow its fall from grace, and suddenly wealthy people start scorning it and it’s called a poor man’s spice and it ceases to be anything recherché. This happens very fast, and if you doubt that, look at an 80s cookbook. Most of them look funny to our eyes now. Most cookbooks look terribly dated terribly quickly. This notion of what’s chic or fashionable moves on really fast.

IT: So tell me about your upcoming book.

JT: It’s a history of cooking. It’s actually a history of who’s cooking, it’s a history of the division of labor. It’s not a history of cooking, or food as such, but how the labor is parcelled out. I look at how humans cook and why women always end up cooking. We talked about elites, but in this context I explore how elite cooks emerge at very early times, and how different elites use cooks as markers of their social distinction or wealth. What you often find is that in a courtly context, the cook has a big role to play in terms of projecting an image of royal taste, sophistication etcetera. But also invariably you find a sort of dietetic context too, where the cook and the ruler make a good fit, keeping the ruler in good shape with healthy food. The book also focuses on the outsourcing of cooking . For most of history, women have done 99 percent of the cooking, but suddenly in the last couple of decades, this has changed. Thanks to this belated last wave of technological progress, cooking has been outsourced comprehensively for a lot of people. You don’t need to cook at home. If you live in certain parts of the world you can get someone to cook or pre-prepare the food or process the food elsewhere. It’s outsourced, and this is a colossal change, in terms of the social dynamics in terms of the house, but also in terms of public health.

IT: That’s interesting – how the domestic relations change, the setup of the family.

JT: If you look at the proportion of women in the workforce in the 1950 versus the proportion of women in it now, obviously it’s gone up hugely. One of the big reasons is the outsourcing of domestic chores, of which cooking was probably the most onerous, along with child rearing and laundry. These things have been simplified, outsourced, or delegated. And that’s how this social revolution has been able to occur.

IT: Do you think that’s sad?

JT: I think it’s an immensely complex question. You would have to be a pretty conservative and luddite person to argue that getting women out of the house is a bad thing at all. But what’s a far more complex and fraught question is – what are the implications of that? And the implications are that, to put it very crudely, when cooking is outsourced, cooking is processed. When cooking is processed, it is broadly not as good, broadly not as healthy, and broadly it comes with a set of social and economic consequences, so that food tends to be produced by particular companies, or a limited amount of companies, and that has big implications for the diet. If everyone is eating the same stuff, you’ve got a whole raft of implications there that are health-based, cultural etcetera. And one of those implications is how people interact over food. how people eat together, or not together. And this is a significant change. So it’s complex, yeah. The point is that the liberation of women could not have occurred without previous strides forward in technology, but its also increasingly clear that some of those strides have come with a cost attached, and with food that is quite evident.

IT: What comes into my head is Habermas’s idea of the public sphere coming as a result of the coffee houses of the 18th century, where food and its produce creates a space where discourse happens.

IT: I think this is indisputable. I think from a very early, evolutionary sense, this holds. We are the only animal who eats cooperatively. If you get other primates together with food, the alpha male, the strongest, toughest one, will have his food. He will not share it. If you put a group of hungry chimps together and a certain amount of food, you will have a fight, and the strongest chimp will get the food, and then a hierarchy will emerge. Almost all animals would do that. We don’t. In certain contexts that will happen, but broadly, that’s not the way humans behave over food. So this is part of our nature, if you like. The flip side is that a chimp when it eats, will be fearful of being robbed, so he eats on the run, whereas we don’t. We are the only animal that cooperates over food, that eats food together. Why are we able to do that? What is the evolutionary power of that? What is the environmental constraint that imposed that adaptation upon us? And the answer seems to be that food production was more efficient. The production of cooked food required cooperation, and the evolutionary payoff was so great that it became the only way of behaving. And thats not far off from saying that what makes us cooperative beings, social beings, is in fact the need to cooperate over food production. It was the first division of labor. And these are fairly hot ideas in paleoanthropology. As you know, people like Adam Smith say that this cooperative function arose from a human need for trade, exchange. But in fact this notion that it’s about food, I think, is a far more cogent one.

Thats an interesting idea, isn’t it – if we are social beings not because of tools, or hunting, or language, but if we’re social beings because of the way we produce our food, that is to say cooking it, then what are the implications of abandoning that? It is in a sense pre-human behavior to eat alone.

Jack Turner is a historian, nonfiction writer, and television docu- mentary host. His most recent work is Spice: The History of a Temptation.