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Cultural Immersion....


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11 replies to this topic

#1 John Whiting

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Posted 07 February 2004 - 12:59 AM

Robb, you might not like the moniker, but you've functioned in the kitchens of outer Houston as an anthropologist of the best sort, bringing a sophisticated analytic mind to bear on societies and cuisines unaccustomed to self-analysis. In fact, you've applied the principle which Claude Levi-Strauss wisely took with him into the jungle: "Primitive means complex."

Now -- if Santa came down your chimney and you had as much money to play with as Jeffrey Steingarten, is there another country or cuisine in which you'd immerse yourself with the curiosity and patience you've already learned?

Edited by John Whiting, 07 February 2004 - 01:04 AM.

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#2 Robb Walsh

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Posted 07 February 2004 - 03:55 AM

John-

The Bahia region of Brazil is the place I would most like to spend a year or two eating my way to enlightenment. The essay in Are You Really Going to Eat That? titled "Pods of the Gods" explains why. This area of Brazil is the birthplace of the Condomble religion (which in turn begat Santera, voodoo, and the others). And in this religion, which is actually of West African origins, there are many spirits or loas. And each of these loas has a food that brings out his or her personality.

For Catholics, bread and wine are so central to life that the Franciscans had to plant wheat and grapes whereever they went. Likewise, I postulate that okra, known in West Africa as ngombo, was introduced to the Americas not for its nutritional, but for its spiritual importance.

At least one ethnobotanist has joined the Condomble religion just to record the uses of the hundreds of herbs they employ.

I would love to do the same thing to make a study of the use of spiritual use of foods in the Condomble religion.

#3 John Whiting

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Posted 07 February 2004 - 04:34 AM

A great answer. It's the sort of visionary response I'd hoped for.

For Catholics, bread and wine are so central to life that the Franciscans had to plant wheat and grapes whereever they went.

A simple observation, but it makes bells ring.

Edited by John Whiting, 07 February 2004 - 04:42 AM.

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#4 Ellen Shapiro

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Posted 07 February 2004 - 07:12 AM

For me it would have to be wherever the best chocolate comes from! But then of course I'd probably learn that the cocoa beans are picked thanks to slave labor and that nobody locally had ever tasted the fruits of their labors because all the cocoa is shipped to and processed in Europe where one bar is sold for more than a picker makes in a month. Thanks for ruining my day, guys.
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#5 russ parsons

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Posted 07 February 2004 - 11:20 AM

i'd like to point out that--as robb has so ably demonstrated in his writing--culinary exploration doesn't need to involve travel. sometimes the best stuff is in your own backyard. i've got an old friend who's a songwriter who once remarked "some people can go around the world and not see a thing, other people can walk around the block and see a whole world."

i learned this too late, much to my regret. in the early '80s when i was just starting to write about food i was in albuquerque new mexico, which then fit the description of "culinary backwater" about as well as anyplace could. no chefs, no fancy food, nothing.

now i wish i'd paid a lot more attention to what my friends and my friends' moms were cooking. i missed what might have been the last gasp of traditional northern new mexican hispanic cooking, that which had been developed before the influx of tourists (the population of the state basically quadrupled between 1945 and 1955 and has doubled almost every decade since).

in fact, as observers we're much better suited to describe what is going on around us than places we "parachute" into. no amount of reading and research can supply the context that comes from having grown up in a culture. which, i think gives me the topic for my question.

#6 Ellen Shapiro

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Posted 07 February 2004 - 12:27 PM

Agreed on that point, Russ. As an Angelino surely you appreciate Michelle Shocked's lyrics in Come a Long Way:

"I've gone 500 miles today
I've come a long way
And never even left L.A."

At the same time, as a travel writer and avid traveler, I have to speak out against the insularity and isolationism that can result from the extreme view of "I've got everything I need right here in my 'hood." And for me at least, it was through travel to other places that I learned how to look at my home towns through a different lens.
Ellen Shapiro
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#7 John Whiting

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Posted 07 February 2004 - 12:42 PM

It's interesting to consider (well, I think it's interesting) that most of America's major literature in the 20s and 30s was written by expatriates living in Paris.
John Whiting, London
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#8 russ parsons

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Posted 07 February 2004 - 02:04 PM

as a travel writer and avid traveler, I have to speak out against the insularity and isolationism that can result from the extreme view of "I've got everything I need right here in my 'hood." And for me at least, it was through travel to other places that I learned how to look at my home towns through a different lens.

and as a writer, i'd like to point out that words can do the same thing. i remember when huntley dent's "feast of santa fe" came out at the end of my new mexico tenure, it was a real lightning bolt moment, reading about your own home described in the way usually reserved for exotic locales.

#9 Robb Walsh

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Posted 07 February 2004 - 02:09 PM

But of course much depends on where your hood is. New Mexico does indeed have a wonderful old culinary culture. But I can see how you would get tired of the sameness after awhile. And what would you do if you lived in Flint, Michigan, a city where I once searched for hours for ANY non-chain restaurant and couldn't find one.

New York, Los Angeles and Houston, on the other hand, are enormous multicultural cities where you can never cover it all. (John are you in London?)

For example, I went out to get my kids croissants stuffed with Indian curry at an East/West fusion bakery out of Madras called Hot Breads this morning. (My kids call them goat donuts, and they love them.)

While I was there, I noticed that a new Halal Chinese restaurant called Halal Wok has opened in the shopping center. Indo-Chinese food is a fusion style that is popular in India and Pakistan. The style and seasoning is Chinese, but there isn't any pork of beef. Chili chicken is the favorite dish. Then on the drive home, I saw a Honduran restaurant I had never noticed before. It is endless.

It doesn't make me want to stay home though. Now I want to go to India and find out about these Chinese muslims who supposedly invented the halal Chinese style.

#10 John Whiting

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Posted 07 February 2004 - 02:35 PM

(John are you in London?)

Since 1966.
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#11 Robb Walsh

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Posted 07 February 2004 - 02:55 PM

I haven't visited London in awhile. I assume it's as multicultural as ever. And of course when I bought my Indian/French pastries this morning, one of the choices of flavors was Chicken Tikka Masala. Perhaps Britain's greatest contribution to world cuisine? I have read with amusement the political debates which use Chicken Tikka Masala as a metaphor for where Britain is going culturally. What can you add to the legends of CTM?

#12 John Whiting

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Posted 07 February 2004 - 04:10 PM

What can you add to the legends of CTM?

Only that it is gradually becoming popular in India, as are Patak's spices and prepared condiments. There's a fascinating book on the gradual absorption of the various Indian cuisines into British life and their reexportation in altered form to an India which is now beginning to face the same social and economic pressures as Britain. It's Shrabani Basu's Curry in the Crown: The Story of Britain's Favourite Dish, and it's published by HarperCollins in New Delhi (ISBN 81-7223-347-7). The author is an attractive (and very well-informed) young lady who lives in London.
John Whiting, London
Whitings Writings
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