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National Cuisine and National Character


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#1 robert brown

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Posted 30 April 2003 - 07:38 PM

During my graduate Mass Communications studies, we looked at how media portrayed national character. In other words, how did the universal characteristics or cultural stereotypes of a country get reflected in its film, radio, and television productions?

I was recently discussing this idea with various eGullet members, transferred, of course, from media to cuisine. Lissome suggested the following topic:

Whereas the French approach their cuisine with a largely unimpeachable sense of right and wrong*; the Italians distinguish their culinary identity with an almost monomanical sensuality; and an exuberant humor seems to thrive at the heart of much advanced Spanish cuisine (and literature - Cervantes - and painting - Miro, Goya and architecture - Gaudi etc.).

Intellect, sensuality and humor: not exclusively of course, but nationally accentuated.

Adria would seem perfectly in line with such (general, granted) observations. Would you agree?

*and far be it from me to argue with them on this count

Lissome's note treats the subject as I had it in mind: that the stereotypical perceptions of a country, or regions of a country, and its people, carry over into the way we perceive their cuisines. For example, do you think of French food (and by this I am thinking of public, restaurant food as opposed to domestic or homemade food) as formal and elaborate in keeping with the French emphasis on decoration in architecture, applied arts and fashion? Do you experience Italian food as having the naturalness, expansiveness and earthiness of the Italian people? Does you see California cuisine as a reflection of Californians' casual approach to life?

Jonathan Day reminded me that:

The idea of linking cuisine to national character goes back a long way: think, for example, of the French characterisation of the English as "rosbifs" and the English calling the French "frogs", each based on ideas of the food eaten in the other country.

However, he was skeptical about whether these supposed national personality traits would affect more than the ways that people in France, Italy, etc. go about their cooking:

The French, for example, have a tendency to classify and grade everything, starting with quality classifications attached to fruits and vegetables in the market and going up to Michelin and Gault Millau's restaurant rankings. Has this affected the style and nature of their food, or the ways in which they write and talk about it?

But the association of national stereotypes with cuisine seems less than illuminating to me, mostly because the stereotypes themselves seem less than reliable: German cuisine as heavy and phlegmatic, Italian as sensual and joyous, French as intellectualised, Spanish as humorous. What about American cuisine? All mixed up, reflecting America as cultural "melting pot"? Or, as British comedian Jonathan Ross characterised Americans on a UK television series, "Rich, Fat, Dumb"?

Instead, Jonathan focused more on the more external, tangible factors that might influence national cuisines:

One would be the agricultural setting of the country involved. While to some extent this results from choice (e.g. to grow rice or potatoes or wheat) it is unquestionably easier to grow olives in Italy or Greece than in Norway.

Another would be the daily cycle of working, sleeping and eating. Spaniards and many South Americans tend to dine late, and have a tradition of small dishes (tapas) taken in the earlier parts of the evening. The French extended lunch makes more sense under the assumption that it can be followed by a rest, before work begins again at 1600 or even later.

The existence of religious feasts, fasts and proscriptions on certain foods (or requirements to eat them) must make a difference to a national cuisine. Latin countries have a tradition of fasting ("magro" or "maigre") foods, to be eaten at seasons such as Lent and Advent, as well as fattier or more extravagant foods to be eaten either before these fasts begin (Mardi Gras dishes, for example) or once they have ended (roast meats at Easter).

In your view, is it valid to draw comparisons between national character or cultural stereotypes and perceptions of a country's cuisine? Do you agree with Lissome's cultural perspective or, as Jonathan does, would you look for more tangible influences on a nation's cuisine?

#2 ivan

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Posted 30 April 2003 - 08:08 PM

Jonathan Day reminded me that:

The idea of linking cuisine to national character goes back a long way: think, for example, of the French characterisation of the English as "rosbifs" and the English calling the French "frogs", each based on ideas of the food eaten in the other country.

Food-related terms for nationality or ethnicity do not so much link national character to cuisine as underscore the otherness of the target group. It also does the opposite of acknowledging that group's cuisine: it reduces their cuisine to the one unpallatable food referenced in the insult. Thus, Mexicans are reduced to eating only beans, Germans eat nothing but pickled cabage, the French eat mostly frogs, and the English do unspeakable things to their beef. The first three are clearly not true.
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#3 Katherine

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Posted 01 May 2003 - 07:21 AM

I think that in order to properly analyze this, you need to keep in mind that "cuisine" is normally what may be found in only the highest priced restaurants, and may be based only loosely on "cooking", which is what people make and eat when they're not blowing their budget. The two are anything but synonymous.

Cuisine is cooking promoted to an art form. While it gains much from this promotion, also something is lost. If the cuisine represents some aspect of a culture, so also should the cooking represent one, though perhaps a different one, or from a different perspective.

So you need to be clear which you are referring to at any time. Confusing the two may be an issue, especially with French food.

Consider: What is the standard of quality for cooking in a country? In France, it is quite high. My impression about Italian food is that it represents a continuum of quality food, the major difference between the two extremes being only the price, and not the quality. So you don't really have a strong separation between the two. In the US, many people seem to have abandoned any notion of excellence for what they eat everyday. So if you average in people like me, who cook all their meals from scratch using fresh ingredients, with people who subsist on exclusively prepackaged snack food and chain fast food, the standard would be so low as to be nonexistent. How would you factor that in? What would that say about Americans in general, and how would it apply to individuals?


QUOTE
Whereas the French approach their cuisine with a largely unimpeachable sense of right and wrong*; the Italians distinguish their culinary identity with an almost monomanical sensuality; and an exuberant humor seems to thrive at the heart of much advanced Spanish cuisine (and literature - Cervantes - and painting - Miro, Goya and architecture - Gaudi etc.).

Intellect, sensuality and humor: not exclusively of course, but nationally accentuated.

Adria would seem perfectly in line with such (general, granted) observations. Would you agree?

*and far be it from me to argue with them on this count


I've spent some time in Spain, though I never made it to any multi-starred restaurants. It would be a huge stretch to say that there is any humor or playfulness in their cooking, even if they do have some of the best bar food in the world.

I think that at its extreme, cuisine is mostly a function of the artists who create it, and the audience which seeks it out.

#4 =Mark

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Posted 01 May 2003 - 07:52 AM

Aside from some regional specialties I'd have to restate the idea that there is no specific US cuisine. The national culinary character is defined more by it's differences than it's similarities.
=Mark

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#5 Varmint

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Posted 01 May 2003 - 08:25 AM

I would first argue that "cuisine" is not limited to high end cooking. "Cuisine" is defined by Webster's as the "manner of preparing food: style of cooking" and "the food prepared." To accept Katherine's claim that cuisine is only what you'd find in the highest priced restaurants would exclude any discussions of Southern Cuisine, which is recognized as a distinct style of food and preparation. Of course, "Southern Cuisine" varies from state to state, and city to city, but it is clear that it is, indeed, distinct.

As far as the original question about cuisine being tied to character, I think that there is an inexhorable connection between the food of the South and its people, land, and culture. The Southeast has historically been an agricultural society. The influence of African culture and the history of slavery cannot be ignored. Poverty has been, and continues to be, a major influence in southern food. The Southern Foodways Alliance has examined these issues time and time again, and it's clear that the cuisine is representative of the people.

I'll pick up on this in more detail later, but I have a lunch of chicken stew, collards and biscuits calling me.
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#6 Katherine

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Posted 02 May 2003 - 05:58 AM

I would first argue that "cuisine" is not limited to high end cooking. "Cuisine" is defined by Webster's as the "manner of preparing food: style of cooking" and "the food prepared." To accept Katherine's claim that cuisine is only what you'd find in the highest priced restaurants would exclude any discussions of Southern Cuisine, which is recognized as a distinct style of food and preparation. Of course, "Southern Cuisine" varies from state to state, and city to city, but it is clear that it is, indeed, distinct.


Myself, I do not believe that "cuisine" and "cooking" are separate things, either, but Robert Brown started this discussion using "cuisine" to mean "the food that is served at multistarred/cutting edge restaurants, exclusive of the food that most people eat." This definition has often been used on these boards.

I personally feel that a more valid comparison (if you believe in national stereotypes, which I do not) would be to compare the food most people eat with that "national character". I don't think that the number of high class restaurants can be significant enough to reliably reflect anything, other than the artistry and business acumen of their creators, the taste in food of the people who can afford to eat in them, and their desire for an occasional blowout no-holds-barred experience. Given the difficulty of getting a reservation at El Bulli, how many people eat there to say that that type of food is representative of what they usually eat? If Ferran Adria had gone into architecture instead of cooking, would we be describing the "cuisine" of Spain differently? His is the restaurant which is always cited as an example, yet it is atypical, at the end of the extreme.

Even if you were able to come up with some sort of an "average" diet profile, it might be that few people actually fit that profile, due to individual differences. Think Americans. If data showed that 40% of Americans ate yogurt for breakfast, what would that say about the 60% that did not, and ate instead a variety of things? Probably nothing.

When I read this this morning, I had biscuits in the oven. Now I've eaten them.

#7 herbacidal

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Posted 02 May 2003 - 07:35 AM

that the stereotypical perceptions of a country, or regions of a country, and its people, carry over into the way we perceive their cuisines. For example, do you think of French food (and by this I am thinking of public, restaurant food as opposed to domestic or homemade food) as formal and elaborate in keeping with the French emphasis on decoration in architecture, applied arts and fashion? Do you experience Italian food as having the naturalness, expansiveness and earthiness of the Italian people? Does you see California cuisine as a reflection of Californians' casual approach to life?



In your view, is it valid to draw comparisons between national character or cultural stereotypes and perceptions of a country's cuisine? Do you agree with Lissome's cultural perspective or, as Jonathan does, would you look for more tangible influences on a nation's cuisine?

most definitely yes, our perceptions of a country, region, and people carry over into how we view their cuisine.


in most cases these perceptions are significantly overblown and exaggerated.

even so, stereotypes do usually have a hint of truth. the degree to which they apply to a people and especially to an individual are not as accurate as played out.
Herb aka "herbacidal"

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#8 vserna

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Posted 03 May 2003 - 04:49 AM

A 20th-century author described Spain's food as "a mix of garlic and religious prejudice", which I think is a more accurate, if less joyous, description of my country's cooking history than the "humorous" tag lissome so kindly offered. Sorry, lissome: the humor is only a product of Ferran Adrià's pervasive influence over the past five or six years, and Ferran is fortunately a funny guy with a quirky irreverent outlook on food and life. But a few years isn't much yet when compared with many centuries of deprivations - because much of Spain is by nature a poor, arid country, and it grew increasingly impoverished between the 17th century and the middle of the 20th century - and of an overwhelming presence of the Catholic church in daily life.

So obviously we had pork (after the Muslims and Jews were expelled from nascent imperial Spain five centuries ago, eating pork was the way to show that one followed the 'right' faith...), we had Lent, and all those things. We had olives and bread because that's what the land would give, and the meager basis of sustenance for at least the southernmost two-thirds of the country. We didn't have much culinary sophistication because for so long Spain was strictly on a survival diet.

Probably, the exhuberance and playfulness of modern Spanish cuisine and/or Adrià's sweeping success and influence do reflect a healthy reaction to such a long history of poverty, boredom and religious diktats. In that sense, the lissome theory would imply that a sweeping change is now occurring in Spain's national character. Thinking it over, and even though it's only been such a short number of years, maybe she is onto something here... :hmmm:
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