Eat the World

The Age of Culinary Post-Modernism

For me, it was the Great Thai Food Explosion of the 1980s. And here I refer not to what happened to my bowels the first time I ate two entire prik Thai in one bite, but to the urban phenomenon that began sometime around 1986 or 1987 (New Yorkers, your mileage may vary). This was the time at which I recall Thai restaurants popping up everywhere — a development I found somewhat shocking not in itself, but because it was the first time I can recall a cuisine I had theretofore never heard of becoming not only visible, but commonplace.

Today, of course, Thai restaurants have long since transitioned from the exotic to the commonplace. Like sushi restaurants, which were to the 1970s what Thai food was to the 1980s, it is no longer strictly the purview of its originating ethnos; the average urban Thai joint is as likely to be staffed by Chinese-, Vietnamese-, or even Mexican-Americans as it is anyone from the Kra Isthmus. Thai cuisine has become so everyday that it’s sold pre-packaged in the convenience section of supermarkets; it’s so much a part of our everyday life that we’ve just about managed to turn it into junk food. (This is the ultimate fate of all ethnic cuisines in America, it seems; gone are the days when bourgeois tastes wouldn’t tolerate anything spicier than a dill pickle or anything too unusual to fit between two slices of bread. Even the laziest soccer mom and NASCAR dad can order pho with confidence and knows the difference between taramosalata and avgolemono. But we don’t seem to be able to get over the compulsion to make everything faster, cheaper, higher in sodium, and with as few fresh ingredients as possible.)

Indeed, nowadays, a city just isn’t a city unless it can boast a robust variety of ethnic cuisines. Most of our most urbane metropolises — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami — advertise their wide range of world cuisines as a selling point, and hold annual festivals devoted to little more than stuffing as much fancy foreign food down the gullet of tourists as possible. To many young urbanites, ethnic cuisine is ethnic culture; you won’t find many hipsters who can speak the language of their surrounding neighborhoods, or who will attend their church services, or who can move confidently among their subcultures and folkways. But they’ll happily express their profound appreciation of the wonderful “diversity” of the locals based on how many good restaurants are within walking distance of their apartment. A town that can’t cough up a couple of top-shelf Korean restaurants and at least one four-star Ethiopian joint at a moment’s notice risks ridicule as a provincial Podunk; even I myself have made moaning noises upon discovering that wherever I happen to be living at the time offers a mere three or four different varieties of food for delivery. Only Chinese, Thai and Italian can be brought to my door with an hours notice? I’m clearly living among the savages.

We’ve become so used to this that we rarely stop to think of what a truly astonishing development it really is. Cookbooks without international flair barely sell; restaurants without elements of fusion are for unadventurous proles; supermarkets where one can’t purchase any ingredient imaginable are hardly worth visiting. (And before I’m accused of busting on my American homeland, this is hardly a phenomenon limited to the United States; I recently completely a freelance piece on dining trends in Ireland, and the chefs who are being sought out even at more traditional restaurants are ones who have studied on the Continent or in the East, and who can bring a global vision to the food of the auld sod.) But this is an attitude so recent in the making that our parents would have found it ridiculous, and going back much further than that, it would have been literally unthinkable.

It’s not that the quest for the new and different in food is anything new. From the time humans became the dominant life form on Earth, their flexibility and catholic view of what is acceptable to put in your mouth found them eating things that no self-respecting animal would be caught dead near. The first thing we have always done on encountering a new plant or animal species is to see how it tastes; the first thing we have gone after when first meeting — through invasion or exploration — a foreign civilization is their local cuisine. (Well, that’s not strictly true. The first thing we go after is their women. But that’s a whole ’nother essay.) Wars have been fought over food, and not just in a basic survive-or-die sort of way, but over what essentially boils down to access to ingredients. The primary consideration in building an empire in the east was a struggle by Europeans to control the spice trade — in other words, to make sure they could make their food taste better. And the chestnut of the moon being made of green cheese wasn’t randomly chosen; there’s little doubt that if man ever lands on a habitable alien planet, the first thing he’ll do is look for an all-night diner. If we’re going to go to all the trouble of going to the moon, the message couched in the metaphor goes, the least we can expect is that we can eat the goddamn thing.

But up until the last century or so, cultural as well as technological problems prevented the widespread development of easily available “ethnic” cuisines. The reasons that ethnic cuisines developed in the first place, after all, are restriction, deprivation, isolation and limitation: despite the horror a contemporary urbanite evinces when faced with the prospect of eating the same thing two days in a row, let alone two meals in a row, humans are quite biologically adapted to eating the same thing all the time, and can easily survive and even thrive eating a single type of food their entire lives provided it’s nutritionally balanced. The reason everyone in the world doesn’t eat the same thing all the time has nothing to do with taste, diversity or some imaginary imperative towards variety; it’s because people in different parts of the world didn’t all have access to the same foods. They didn’t all live in a climate that allowed the growing of rice, the harvesting of fish, the blending of spice; and so they made due with what they had. That’s how regional cuisine developed. For literally thousands of years of human history, people ate nothing more than what grew around them, because that’s all that was available to them. They ate the exact same meal every day as long as they could, and varied their diets only as the change of the seasons allowed. Variant menus were prepared not around the map, but around the calendar.

In fact, even some of what we consider old and well-established ethnic cuisines reflect relatively recent developments; the introduction of spices from the East, meats and grains from Europe, and fruits and vegetables from the New World allowed “ethnic” cuisines to expand and diversify in ways that they never had before. It’s easily argued that anything we recognize today as ethnic cuisine — no matter the ethnos in question — must necessarily date no earlier than the colonial era. Before that, before the importation of tomatoes and potatoes from the New World, the exportation of beef and dairy products from the Old World, and the journey of spices and citrus from the East, most of the food eaten by people in all parts of the world bore virtually no resemblance to what we think of as their regional cuisines today. And even then — even after the huge colonial and imperial cross-pollination that took place from the 16th to the 18th centuries — the ability of even the most dedicated gourmands to truly experience anything approaching global cuisine was limited by two major factors that would not truly come into play until the mid-19th and early 20th centuries.

Just as they made possible so much cultural upheaval in other areas (the modern and postmodern development of music, for example, as well as literature, film, dance, the visual arts, and even post-colonial politics), the massive influx of global immigration starting around the middle of the 1800s and the widespread availability of electricity in the early part of the 1900s made possible what is rarely referred to as, but can scarcely be though of realistically as anything but, postmodern cuisine. It was the gradual, and then unstoppable, appearance of immigrants from the four corners of the Earth to a rapidly expanding America that brought first the knowledge of and then the demand for (and, of course, the capacity to provide) ethnic cuisine to a non-ethnic population. Swedes, Poles, Chinese, Mexicans, Italians and Eastern European Jews, among many others, strove to re-create favorite recipes they’d left behind, using the techniques and ingredients available to them in the U.S., and the first fusion cuisine was born; later, Europe would undergo a similar culinary renaissance when their own wave of immigrants, a legacy of the decline of colonialism, began to appear. Electricity made possible widespread refrigeration, which did more to change the face of eating than anything before or since; when it became feasible to move ingredients long distances without spoilage and to keep them edible out of season, the world of global cuisine truly opened up. Just as electricity had brought news, entertainment and art to a popular global audience, so it did with food.

Even with all that, it took a while for ethnic cuisine to catch on. Slow development, global upheaval, gaps in technological development, and (perhaps above all) social and class prejudice conspired to keep many types of regional cuisines marginalized for many decades; it wasn’t until the 1950s or so that it was thought decent for an American family of taste and character to eat anything spicy. Garlic was thought for much of the century to be a class signifier, a sign of “low” cultures and not fit for consumption in a decent, tasteful meal. Class snobbery and Anglophilia allowed for the more rapid acceptance of foods from Northern Europe, but food from the Mediterranean was far too exotic and, well, swarthy to serve at a table of quality. (France, which favored garlic and was borderline Southern European, got a free pass by virtue of its own self-promoting snobbery in affairs d’cuisine.) Eastern European and Slavic foods were unspeakably lower-class, and anything from nonwhite cultures — with the exception of Chinese takeout, if you happened to live in a big city — was right out. It’s nothing short of astonishing to read, today, cookbooks written in the 1950s and 1960s and have them describe such banal ingredients as Chinese noodles, Italian hard cheeses, and East Indian spices as so exotic that the only way they might possibly be acquired was by writing to some mysterious post-office box in New York or San Francisco.

After that, though, the dominoes began to fall as if they were countries adjacent to communism. The end of the Second World War brought tiki culture home from veterans of the Pacific campaign, and exotic fruits and vegetables became easier to find in the States, as did Chinese and Japanese foods. European campaigners brought back pizza and, eventually, other types of Italian cuisine, as the word “noodles” gave way to “spaghetti” and, eventually, the evocative “pasta.” War, in fact, as it has always been, was a great facilitator of the dispersal of regional cuisines; wars against communism in the East spawned G.I.s who missed the native flavors they encountered on tour, as well as endless waves of refugees who brought those flavors with them. And again, immigration, electricity, and prosperity created the supply and the demand for tastes that had never before been seen in these quarters: East Asian, South Asian, North African, Central and South American, Middle Eastern, all in their turn and all in their day, brought around by economic and social upheavals. At a certain point, marketing-driven consumerism entered the picture, and people began seeking the exotic for its own sake (witness the current mania for dragonfruit), but whatever the relative position of cart and horse, we arrived at the present day, where it’s hard to think of a corner of the globe that isn’t well-represented in a typical big city restaurant guide. (Off the top of my head, I can think only of Canada and Iceland, Americans having never really developed a taste for hakarl or rotted shark meat. Maybe they just can’t decide which they hate more.)

The time may yet come where economic shifts, global markets, or a lack of fuel makes it once again difficult for people to get any kind of food they want just by making a phone call; it’s even conceivable that a day will come where people aren’t outraged if their local supermarket is out of jicama. For all the rightful praise we give to a system that lets us enjoy the products of cultures thousands of miles away from our own, there's something to be said for the argument that we're becoming ever more alienated from the means of production for what we eat. But for now, we should recognize ethnic cooking as a truly postmodern art, and be excited about the fact that it too does things that postmodernism does extremely well: cast a healthy aspersion on bogus claims of “authenticity” and make every work of art, to some degree, a comment on every other work of art. Like a great postmodern novel, a great meal is inescapably a product of its time and place, but it is also part of a conversation that's been going on for thousands of years.