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Best Translators of Food and Culture?

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#1 russ parsons

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Posted 07 February 2004 - 11:24 AM

something i posted in response to one of john's questions triggered something that has bugged me for a long time: the preponderance in food writing of cultures being translated by people who live outside of them. this does fit into the general journalistic model of a good reporter being able to do his homework, visit a place and make sense of it, but i think a lot of nuance can be lost that way. if i have to pose that statement in the form of a question, i guess it would be:

are the best translators those who come from outside a culture but who might be better able to address the interests of the "general public", or are they those who come from within the culture and can more fully explain it?

#2 Robb Walsh

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Posted 07 February 2004 - 02:42 PM

I think it cuts both ways Russ.

The book Barbecue America was written by a New Yorker and photographed by a Pacific Northwesterner and they seemed to go out of their way to play up the white trash weirdness of Southerners. Lots of confederate flags and women wearing pig noses. The text has a Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom feeling to it: "Watch out for that angry redneck, Roger!! Wow that was a close call."

But that doesn't mean Northerners shouldn't write about the South. Calvin Trillin does a pretty good job of it. John Egerton and John T. Edge are both friends and both wonderful writers. But I know both of them would also tell you that some of the best things they're read about the South were written by visiting Northerners. Just as many of the best writers in New York have traditionally been transplanted Southerners.

Here's a passage from the essay in Are You Really Going to Eat That? titled, "One Night in Trinidad."

"What am I doing here? How can a foreigner pretend to be an expert on Trinidad's cuisine based on the fleeting impressions of a five-day visit?
Later on, back at my hotel, I am comforted by another book by V.S. Naipaul. In A Way in the World, Naipaul writes about the foreign travel writers who have come to Trinidad on cruise ships over the years and written accounts of the place based on their overnight stays. I expected Naipaul to lambaste this sort of instamatic expertise as an insult to Trinidadians, but instead he welcomes it.
He compares the travel writers to Columbus, who named this island Trinidad (Spanish for "Trinity"), because of three low hills that he spotted while still far out at sea. In the book, Naipaul's character sits on a cliff Columbus named "the galley." From the sea, this cliff evidently resembles a sailing ship, but Naipaul's character can't see the resemblance from his vantage point. He realizes that Columbus saw the island in a way that people who live here can't see it for themselves. Naipaul's point is that sometimes it takes an outsider to see the whole instead of getting lost in the tiny details of everyday life."

Diana Kennedy was able to write about Mexican food as a unifed whole, rather than get caught up in the ugly class divisions that forever distort that country's view of itself. She was able to do that only because she was an outsider. Patricia Quintana, a native, still rails against peasant food like burritos and enchiladas and insists that pasta and French cheese are Mexican. She promises that her Mexican food is just as good as European food. That's valid. And God bless her insecure little heart. But I am more interested in the "peasant food" so I don't buy her cookbooks.

As for me, I write a lot about Texas food. And although three generations of my family now live in Texas, I graduated from UT, and I have lived here some 25 years, my fellow Texans still consider me an outsider. (As you know, you have to be born here to be a Texan.) The review of Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook in the Austin Chronicle began with the words: "Transplanted Yankee, Robb Walsh..."
But unlike native Texans, I don't take barbecue and Tex-Mex for granted. I am still awed by it all.

#3 John Whiting

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Posted 07 February 2004 - 03:01 PM

Two of the best books about rural France are by transplanted Englishmen: James Bentley's Life and Food in the Dordogne and Peter Graham's Mourjou: The Life and Food of an Auvergne Village. Both lived in the center of their respective villages (Graham still does, Bentley died last year), intimately involved in local life and speaking French as fluently as their neighbors. They knew from older natives the poverty that prevailed before WWII and described in detail the gradual breakup of tradition now taking place through semi-urbanization. Their books were addressed to intelligent readers seeking information and enlightenment rather than titillation. They could hardly be improved on.
John Whiting, London
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