On Culinary California

While working at Heyday, intern Daniel Wikey often took pause and ruminated upon food, narrative, politics, and California — concepts at the foundation of Heyday’s diverse themes. This essay combines these topics and subversively discusses the paradoxical nature of California and its cuisine(s).

When I think of “California”—not as a place, but as a the abstract entity it connotes—I think of “California cuisine.” Without a doubt, California is the birthplace for several different schools of culinary thought (in the popular imagination if not in actuality), of which I think three loom largely in the consciousness of food and eating.

The first, fusion, good-naturedly appropriates traditional cuisines—in the way post-colonial America is wont to do—and combines them into something that both evokes nostalgia and subverts one’s expectations. Sometimes this is pulled off effortlessly (the addition of California’s condiment poster-child, the avocado, to almost any dish, is surely genius); sometimes this fails tragically (chipotle, cream, and pasta are three words that should never occur in the same sentence).

Credit: Jaanus Silla, Flickr (Creative Commons)

The second, and perhaps most important—especially during this time of nutritional renaissance and the potentially revolutionary Farm Bill—is the philosophy preaching the values of local, sustainable, and organic foodways. California is a state that boasts housing Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters and The Omnivore’s Dilemma’s Michael Pollan, and thus symptomatically was at the foundation of the demonization of terms like “high fructose corn syrup” and “processed foods.”

The third philosophy, and somewhat in response to the oft-“holier than thou” approach of this previous philosophy, is more hedonistic; while the former is interested in food’s substance, this point of view is more concerned with food’s style. For every Alice Waters, there exists an Anthony Bourdain. A land of drive-ins, In-N-Out Burger, and haute cuisine, California is not ignorant of the hedonistic pleasure that the joyous consumption of food can bring.

Food is thus inherently political. Although an apple is, on one level, just a piece of autumn fruit, imploding the factors which went into growing and preparing it (Who planted it? Who grew it? Is it genetically-modified? Organic? Local? What are its nutritional benefits? How is it being cooked?) shows that, like any inanimate substance, it takes on the characteristics of the human factors involved with it.

Author and chef Gabrielle Hamilton responded to the political message that seems to be permanently attached to contemporary food at the Whole Food Speaker Series in Portland, Oregon earlier this year:

Sometimes I think, ‘poor little food.’ I mean just think about what’s being asked of food these days. Food is going to save the planet, we’re going to cure obesity, we’re going to save the dysfunctional family because if you just eat a meal together at the dining room table every day all your eff’ed up family problems will go away, it will create memories. And I think, ‘the poor madeleine.’ The little f**king madeleine carries so much freight these days.[i]

Hamilton, who cooks and writes in New York, nevertheless grasps the complex interplay of the food movement, which is so central to the psyche of the agricultural state of California. “Poor little food”: Fusion appropriates it, Eco-tarianism politicizes it, and culinary hedonism wastes it.

***

Theorist Donna Haraway has shown how scientific statements and other “truth claims” asserting themselves as so-called objective “fact” are often rooted in biased or subjective histories. She advocates having an “account of radical historical contingency for all knowledge claims and knowing subjects, a critical practice for recognizing our own ‘semiotic technologies’ for making meanings.”[ii] The stories we tell about food are no different from other types of “knowledge claims”—they, too, are rooted in the assumptions and ideologies of the individuals who construct these narratives. The three characteristics of “California cuisine” I argued the existence of earlier exemplify how the stories we tell about food illuminate other factors at play beneath the surface.

California rolls and bulgogi burritos may be delicious, but as objects in history they are also a reflection of cultural interaction and conflict. The combining of cuisines and flavors so integral to fusion can occur only due to the spatial proximity of culturally different individuals, especially in an increasingly globalized world. While this interplay may not always be fraught with conflict, the existence of dishes like chicken tikka masala—born out of British colonialism in India—and bahn mi—invented after the French introduced the baguette to their colonies in Vietnam—shows how cultural imperialism still dominates the inner workings and interplays of our food system and culture.

The move towards local and sustainable farming asks us to see food as a benevolent technology that teaches us to reject the factory food system and live more independently, healthily, and happily. But although understanding the capitalistic interests at play behind our industrialized food system allows us to take back control of what we are nourishing our bodies with—literally, to put our money where our mouths are—this ideology is often touted as the superior moral option to all other types of nutrition and consumption. The elite organic, local, and sustainable restaurants are most often the ones that charge a fee too exorbitant for the malnutrition-stricken or the lower-class—the ones that arguably really need this food—to afford.

Finally, there is the “hedonistic” appreciation of food—seeing food as pleasure. Relishing the sheer act of eating, drinking, and swallowing comes from celebrating the routine steps we take to keep ourselves alive. If the body is a temple, food is our daily offering and obeisance to it. Of course, in the modern world, such a conception of consumption is problematic in that the ability to eat for pleasure instead of necessity—like fusion—often involves unequal power dynamics in comparison with other nations. Is it fair or even ethical that some societies have the economic and political abilities to engage in hedonistic conspicuous consumption, while others may be suffering from starvation or malnutrition?

***

I packed a lunch almost every day I spent at Heyday. Sometimes it was an ascetic and boring “snack-lunch” of carrots and hummus, a few handfuls of granola, or a tortilla with some almond butter hastily smeared across it. Sometimes it was leftovers from a dinner painstakingly and lovingly nurtured the night before—whole grain salads with obscurely-named roasted vegetables or braised meat simmered with fruit-based sauces. And sometimes it was greasy leftover pizza, or a trifecta of ginger cookies baked the night before and eaten before lunch hour had even arrived.

Okay, one might say. Where have I been going with this?

Potrero Nuevo Farm, Credit: NRCS California, Flickr (Creative Commons)

I’m a Californian, and I eat food. My packed lunches may be mundane, but as meals made up of food, I am complicit in perpetuating each of these three aspects of California cuisine as discussed above. However, in exemplifying each of these problematic characteristics often assigned to food, I have attempted to give “poor little food” a voice of its own. Sometimes, my food choices might unknowingly appropriate some sort of cultural tradition. Other times, at restaurants, my wallet may inadvertently support a pretentious ideology in which, for the ethical purity of food, cost is no object. Or, in times of celebration, I may have over-filled my plate; while, on the other side of the globe, someone went hungry.

While each of these problematic aspects of American food consumption may exist, in acknowledging their validity, one can nevertheless also take a step back and recognize that each view of food was invented somewhere, somehow, by someone. No idea comes from nowhere. Although in certain contexts the ideologies we attach to food serve particular purposes which can influence health, legislation, or pop culture for the better or worse, sometimes I think food needs a break; it needs to stand on its own and not be attached to the anthropocentric needs of its human overseers. “Poor little food.” It works hard for us, it toils without end—sprouting its seeds, magically growing taller and wider, pushing its roots into the soil and its branches toward the sun—sometimes, isn’t that enough?

Daniel Wikey was a Marketing, Publicity, Events, and Outreach intern in the Fall of 2012.


[i] Matt Duckor, “Chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s Food Politics Metaphor Involves One Little Madeleine,” Bon Appétit Daily, September 23, 2012, http://www.bonappetit.com/blogsandforums/blogs/badaily/2012/09/prune-chef-gabrielle-hamilton.html.

 

[ii] Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges,” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women (New York: Routledge, 1991), 187.