Food for thought: the politics of food and nationalism

by Dr. Elaine Marie


What we eat, how we eat and when we eat tells us about the way we see ourselves and the world around us. The author, Luce Giard argues that eating serves not only to ‘maintain biological machinery of the body, but to make concrete one of the specific modes of relation between a person and the world, thus forming one of the fundamental landmarks in space-time’.

In other words, eating practices are an integral part of one’s body. Moreover, they also mark our body’s relationships to a range of socio-cultural contexts. They could be tied to ethical and political commitments. For example, vegetarianism and veganism could be adopted as a way of ethically engaging with food production and committing to a ‘greener’ lifestyle. Eating practices are also linked to a whole range of histories. Religious reasons for eating certain foods, or killing meat in specific ways, are developed through the history of one’s faith and adherence to it. In this context, food and eating practices are not simply timeless or simply contained in a box that we can name as one specific culture or another.

In contemporary (often middle-class) terms, food is linked to the notion of self-governance. We are continually given advice in popular magazines about how to lose weight, how much to eat, what to eat, what the celebrities are eating in terms of their diet and so on. Much of this advice is also gendered. While we may come across popular women’s magazines that will tell you how bad this continual advice is for young teenage girls, the dominant mode of advice is to tell women that you cannot be beautiful unless you are thin. Such advice, of course, has to be framed within a capitalist mode of selling magazines as well as medicines. In this context, eating practices link us to socially gendered and racialised ways of being. The perfect body in Australian and other western or westernised contexts is often white. And if it isn’t, the shape of the body resembles that of its white counterparts.

Looking at the list of a recent edition of the magazine FHM PHILIPPINES’ Top 100 Beautiful Women showcases this. In this list, all 100 women are light skinned and if they are somewhat brown are not blatantly so. Not all these women are Filipina, but include American actresses such as Angelina Jolie and Megan Fox. There are no dark skinned women on the list. In fact, the woman who came First on the list is described in terms of her glowingly light skin.
Consequently, there is a certain relationship to food and eating practices that is continually constructed in these kinds of advice and with the template of a specific type of woman/person to model oneself after.

Giard suggests that every food practice ‘depends on a network of impulses (likes and dislikes) with respect to smells, colours, and forms as well as to consistency types; this geography is as strongly culturalised as the representations of health and good table manners and thus is just as historicised’. In this context, our likes and dislikes in relation to food depend on a network of impulses which are also organised in relation to our familial or community’s cultural histories. In this sense, if we want to locate and read the politics of food and migration, we have to place it in historical, economic, political, social, and cultural contexts.

In our Australian context, it is important to analyse the politics of food and migration through a discussion of nationalism and whiteness. Suvendrini Perera discusses whiteness as a ‘series of investments and interests also unevenly inflected by factors such as class, ethnicity, gender and sexuality, rather than as a monolithic structure of power, or a self-evident category’. In other words, whiteness is not some natural or monolithic category. It is unevenly produced through categories of class, ethnicity, gender and sexuality. In this sense, white identities also shift, compete and collude. For instance, Pauline Hanson’s status as a white Australian and her popularity was marked by representations of her as a ‘Fish and Chips’ shop lady. Such a status made clear her British Australian ethnicity, but also signified white Australianness through the production of an ethnic food—fish and chips.

However, middle-class white Australian derision of Pauline Hanson as a redneck, fish and chip shop lady also marks another form of whiteness, and this is perhaps a more interesting and complex form of whiteness which is important to analyse in relation to contemporary multiculturalist discourses in Australia.

For instance, the consumption of Italian or Greek or Vietnamese foods becomes a way of marking the cosmopolitanism and sophistication of classed white subjects. In fact, contemporary discourses of food and multiculturalism through cooking shows, recipe books, and narratives of sophisticated eaters construct this notion of cosmopolitanism and sophistication through the practice of consuming non-British foods.

In contemporary television shows about food, this cosmopolitanism is constructed in relation to the consumption of ‘Asian’ foods. In terms of Vietnamese food, Master Chef regularly highlights the Vietnamese restaurant, Red Lantern in Surry Hills and its owner as an example of good ‘Asian’ food.

While the proliferation of different kinds of foods are celebrated, the point from where these cuisines are judged continues to reflect an Anglo-Australian culture as the standard, as ‘nativised’ to the point that it becomes the recognised as the ‘genuinely’ natural Australian taste.

Contestants cover and are inspired by a range of culinary and cultural influences. For instance, there is Jimmy who specialises in ‘Indian’ food (but what kind of Indian food-whether Northern, Southern, is not stated in the show) and Marion whose Thai mother influences her own cooking.

These points of ‘difference’, in that they are different to the dominant Anglo-culture in this country’ are not derided or castigated, but are made to be points of special interest and skill.

For example, in a past Masterchef season, there were a variety of non-Anglo contestants. Two of them were Jimmy and Marion. Both were Australian with Asian heritage and both their ‘Asian’ influences and heritages were continually constructed as ‘other’. More specifically, they were intimated as ‘another kind of Australian’ and not simply Australian. This is to the point that Claire, an Anglo-Australian contestant was brought to tears during a challenge when she bemoaned the fact that, in her words, she did not have the influences the others had. She lamented that she felt ‘simple’ and not cosmopolitan/sophisticated because of this. While this seemed to be favouring a non-white Australian culinary culture, this also served to situate Anglo-Australianness as the norm through which points of exotic, ‘strange’ otherness is measured and defined. Another example of this is during a past challenge that asked the contestants to cook a ‘home style meal’. The celebrity guest judge, Margaret Fulton, (who is a well-known and influential cook and recipe book author, essentially a doyenne of Anglo-Australian cuisine) commented that it was ‘great’ that such a variety of dishes were available to eat now. This is discounting the fact that these ‘variety’ of dishes and cooking styles were eaten and known by citizens of Australia since the time Arab traders and Chinese miners. But, now it has become trendy to eat such food as it has been properly sanctioned and neutralised by the dominant Anglo culture.

This also serves to stereotype and pin contestants to a specific type of cuisine based on their ethnic heritage. For instance, in the first season of Master Chef, the runner up, Poh’s audition to enter the show began with her making a French style meal. After tasting the meal, the judges asked her to come back and make something she ‘was more familiar with’. Here, they made a judgement about what she looked liked and what she was more capable of doing. Poh is Malaysian-Chinese. In comparison, Anglo contestants (and Anglo chefs) are rarely (if at all) told to stick with what they are ‘familiar’ with if they cook dishes that do not stick to their cultural background.

How do we then rethink the politics of food in regards to multiculturalism? How do we begin to see multiculturalism beyond the standardised prism of Anglo-Australian whiteness? Importantly, how do we consume, produce and ‘taste’ our food as a celebration of all our differences? Not just dishes that are different to an Anglo-norm? Just some food for thought.


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