Citizen Eater

I happened across a roundup of regionally significant sandwiches on bon appetit the other day and, although I am not a big sandwich eater, I found myself riveted. I wasn’t particularly interested in the sandwiches themselves, but in the idea of making a statement about national belonging, political affiliations, and cultural values by choosing to eat something squashed between pieces of bread.

The criteria for inclusion in this list of 28 “iconic sandwiches of the world” included notions of naturalness or originality, requiring the sandwich “to be either endemic to its homeland or strongly identified (panini, for instance, are everywhere, but they’re clearly Italian).” So, popularity is not the only issue. In order to signify national identity, these foods have to be both regionally important and original to the place. This makes all kinds of assumptions about

Inclusion in the roundup aside, these sandwiches are making me think about what it might mean to eat one of these meals in its “home town.” Is eating the Barros Luco a political signal in Chile? Apparently, it is named for Ramon Barros Luco, who was President from 1910-1915. It’s entirely possible, though, that, for its modern eaters, the sandwich has nothing to do with its political history. But can it be thoroughly torn from its name? Can it be severed from signification?

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Of course, food is never a stable signifier. These sandwiches must collect and discard meanings throughout time and place, resonating according to each eater’s own stories, context, and beliefs. While I, as a visitor, would feel uncertain about what meanings I might be communicating by ordering a Barros Luco, it’s entirely possible that I might not be signaling some specific political message, but only demonstrating my outsider status by asking for an “iconic” national food.

One can often tell a tourist in Virginia (my home state) by how “classic” their order is. There’s something that’s just far too neat about someone ordering ham biscuits with coleslaw or fried chicken with a side of black-eyed peas. Although those are marketed as essential Virginia foods, the very fact of that marketing seems to separates the “reality” of Virginian diets from its representation. Sure, those are things that “real” Virginians eat, but it isn’t meant to signify something clear or definite about their Virginian identity. Remembering my days of eating such foods and recalling conversations I have with current meat eaters (who still scarf down the barbecue at Extra Billy’s), it seems to me that there’s a kind of paradoxical interest in food that doesn’t signify. It’s as though as soon as something becomes representative of a place or is marketed as such, it loses its status as “authentic.”

There’s a kind of irony in eating food that is so bound up in media/commercial representations of a place. When I am an insider to a place, I feel able to consume its goods without necessarily announcing my belonging. However, as soon as those goods become marketed as emblems of place, my relationship to them changes. When I’m at home, drinking Virginia wine feels like a bit of a performance, as it draws up memories of bumper stickers, t-shirts, and urges to support both local commerce and state pride. While I can eat homegrown tomatoes without signaling Virginia pride (although heavily associated with Hanover, Richmond has managed to benefit from the proximity to amazing tomato farms without becoming caught up in the marketing of the crop), I can’t just be drinking this wine because I like it. I always also feel that added layer of my own complex relationship with the state’s government, history, and the stories that give me context.

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This makes me wonder about how I’m perceived when consuming classic regional fare. I don’t eat most of the foods considered to represent Boston, but I almost shrunk underneath the table when my father ordered a bowl of clam chowder the first time he came to visit me here. It seemed so clear that he wasn’t from around here, that he was choosing the food purely because of its place associations.

I suppose issues of outsider/insider status are always being negotiated, but it seems particularly resonant when talking about “national” cuisine. I was struck by bon appetit’s description of “The Cuban” sandwich.

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“There’s some contention over whether or not the Cuban was actually invented in Cuba or Florida, but either way it’s a sandwich made of crusty Cuban bread, mustard, roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, and a layer of pickles.”

The Cuba/Florida line seems incredibly meaningful to me, especially with regards to issues of immigration, national belonging, and cultural permeability. Does it mean something different to eat a Cuban in Florida? What might it mean to insist that it was invented in Florida? And can we read anything into the “Swiss” cheese? (Too far? Is that just because Swiss cheese has become so ubiquitous? Is there some sort of Swiss pride in that kind of global saturation?)

Of course, these questions are not simply about the extent to which an eater feels communicative through their food choices. These are questions about capital, about production (of values, goods, meanings, identities…). 

I’ve been hitting up against this issue for the past several weeks- the question of what happens to food when it becomes a signifier in the capitalist system. In  a world in which my consumer choices are meant to add up to an identity (or to push me ever towards some ideal persona), food is always freighted with intended meanings, networks of production, and complicated perceptions. I’m constantly being urged to, and I think I should, vote with my dollars and, increasingly, do so “three times a day” at my table. But it’s not just that my food purchases can reflect my views on the most appropriate way to manage our food systems, it’s also that I can make statements about who I am, who I want to be, and my relationship to place. I can’t know if this is a necessary outcome of capitalism or even if it would cease to exist outside of such a system, but it seems to me that the foods that seem the most symbolically charged are those that function outside of their materiality and circulate in the market exchange of values and cultural iconography.

This is not just the cultural importance of, say, the classic Southern dish of ham hocks and collard greens to an old South Carolina family. I am talking about what happens when food begins to function in the media representation of a place- how it changes that family’s experience of the ham hock to have it be hung up on a billboard announcing South Carolina’s tradition and authenticity, to have it included in a countdown of regionally specific dishes, to know that its purchase is going to signal something about your relationship to place, to history, to politics.

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