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Food: a Cultural and Political Reflection

May 21, 2019

Who doesn't love to dig into a savory taco, meticulously roll spaghetti around their forks, or finally close their mouths around a steaming dumpling? The global cuisine is composed of delicacies from all around the world, and food has always had its way of globe-trotting from one mouth to another. Since the times of the Silk Route between the Roman Empire and Asia, humans have been in search of new ingredients and plates to fill their hungry stomachs. Wether we speak of Columbus searching for spices in what he believed to be India or an American driving to a pizza place, we can be sure that the conquest and spread of new flavors has always been an important characteristic of human civilization.

When one stops to ponder the origins of the great variety of dishes we have at our fingertips today, one fact emerges: the creation of different plates, like scientific discoveries, is a manifestation of human development. In fact, stopping to delight our tasting buds can only be permitted when we have an abundance of food and do not necessitate to worry about basic survival. Food can also be developed from practical needs, such as the availability of certain materials, animals, or plants as opposed to others. Either way, food is developed from human ingenuity, and its globalization derives from our instinctive curiosity. Food is, furthermore, a manifestation of the diversity in human beings. All one needs to think of are the various types of bread that have developed around the world to prove this: from baguettes to nan to tortillas. Every human and every culture has its own way of cooking. Many remember their father's special ingredient or their grandmother's secret recipe, the love their cousin put in his every cake or the way their sister's dishes reflected her strong personality. Each dish is unique, but that singularity has spread to every corner of the Earth, and it has encompassed and shaped our daily lives.
Food, an essential part of everyone's survival, has its own way of inserting itself into traditions. We, as humans, give an enormous importance to food, and rightfully so.
As food makes its way from one country to another, we are exposed to the various cultures that have developed, and we learn to appreciate them.

Often, however, human hatred is far more powerful than human logic and we reject other cultures, considering our own customs, traditions, and habits as the only "right" ones. We loose sight of everything that we have adopted from other cultures. A simple example: the hamburger which is by now commonly attributed to american cuisine is from the German world (the first beef hamburgers, in fact, were cooked in the city of Hamburg). U.S. inhabitants greedily fill their hot dogs (originally from Austria and Germany) with pickles (first created in Mesopotamia), often without knowing the origin of the foods that they love and have always considered theirs. Crispy fried chicken, with a golden-brown covering and a tender white inside, wasn't always considered an American treasure, but originated as a Chinese, Middle Eastern, and West African one. We owe the peanut butter that many adore to the ancient Aztec civilization, and the doughnuts we taste before quite touching them to our tongue were first introduced by colonists from the Netherlands in New Amsterdam (before it became New York).
By now any food can be found about anywhere, but perhaps that is one of the reasons we forget how precious other cultures have been to the development of our daily life. Food can't speak for the population that developed it, but perhaps we can stop to think about the way the world's cultures have, at least in some aspects, all merged together before labeling others with prejudice and imposing strict divides between our small bubble and others'.

Not only do we borrow traditional dishes from other cultures, we also rely on other countries to receive the basic ingredients for our daily meals. In this way, we become interdependent.
Interdependence can be a key part of political strategy, as it can be used to boost certain government systems and enhance democracy.
Boycotting products from a country who relies on the exportation of certain crops can bring to the end of some form of injustice sustained there. Boycotting from other countries played a key role in ending apartheid in South Africa, as its economy would have fallen into shambles had something not been done about the segregation system that lasted for decades in this now economically prosperous country.

Food played a role in the civil rights movement in the U.S., when the money raised from bake sales was used to support the bus boycott that would lead to great progress in ending segregation in the United States. The so-called Club from Nowhere sold cakes and pies to raise money to fund the station wagons that would bring passengers from one place to another when they were boycotting segregated buses in Alabama.

Several authoritarian dictatorships have adopted a system of autarky, in an attempt to bring their country to self-sufficiency in the production of various goods. One such example is fascist Italy. Mussolini attempted to mass-produce grain in an attempt to establish autarchy as the economic system of the country. He also attempted to replace foreign products with Italian ones (for example, chicory was used to replace coffee).
Today, thanks to globalization, such a system would never be able to work (though even in the past it was unable to reach the goals the dictators hoped it would). Interdependence allows trade to be used as a possible deterrent against oppressive actions that certain countries take.

Though we often see food as simply something that maintains us alive or that we taste before touching it to our tongue, but it much more. It is an essential part of our world and it often has a key role in the social and political world. It is symbolic for all the wonderful cultures that populate the Earth and demonstrates the great diversity that we should all celebrate. Food, since ancient times, has been one of the center points of civilization and it seems to continue to be so today.
I have recently been learning about globalization in school, and I thought it would be interesting to explore the food perspective of this phenomenon further. I hope you like it!

Sources
- A passage on food globalization I read (I cannot find the author, I apologize) for the example of the kebab having been developed from the need to adapt to certain environmental restrictions and the origins of the hamburger (though I had already read about that years ago elsewhere).
- Textbooks
- A Huffington Post article by Julie R. Thomson on the origins of many foods we consider American:
https://www.huffpost.com/entry/american-foods_n_5953b426e4b02734df2eef30?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAIi-asaUEbt0s2PfE3DA-B6AFSgdtpDFA1pTxPnDFFCv8PBlcBiK8XUiSEdZqu9m-8Kqiq9dQvjzhyzLHFnb-83luKHNdRndVLq7Wh63q14B1L2IQGFL37qLgi0ZmIog1wbvuW7ljmhcTwTZcFmUv3KoWk9lt788hjIi23oDJ_fV.
- From the Council of Foreign Relations: https://www.cfr.org/excerpt-failure-adjust.
- NPR pieces: https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2012/01/16/145179885/cooking-up-change-how-food-helped-fuel-the-civil-rights-movement?t=1558272312498 and https://www.npr.org/2005/03/04/4509998/the-club-from-nowhere-cooking-for-civil-rights.

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