Eating is about much more than mere physical need. Food consumption is an important communal activity, and something that forms the basis of many social and cultural interactions. We’re all familiar with the adage “you are what you eat”. Food goes a long way to forming our personal identity. This is why uploading a picture of your dinner to Instagram is basically the same as taking a selfie. But chowing down grub shapes more than our own individual selves. Indeed, the complex social dynamics behind what it means to produce and eat food have endowed cuisine with the capacity to denote distinctive cultural, class and, ultimately, national boundaries: we are what we eat.
Food, then, is a vital and irreplaceable part of a nation’s identity. A quick thought experiment in which two nations swap their associated cuisines neatly illustrates the importance of food in cooking up national characters. Italy doesn’t seem so Italian when slick, tanned, Ferrari-driving men scoff bratwurst and glug steins of frothy beer. Certain foods are intricately attached to geographical areas and populaces. To challenge a dish’s origin or its geographical origin is to challenge a nation’s heritage and its place in the cultural imagination.
This isn’t to say that global disputes over the origins and status of food don’t happen; in fact, international food fights are very common. Much in the same way that neighbouring restaurants argue over whose food is most authentic, entire nations are capable of and prone to asserting authority and historical ownership over cherished culinary treats.
A classic example can be found in the politics surrounding that peculiar enigmatic paste: hummus. Israel, Lebanon, and Greece (among others) all claim the chickpea and tahini based dip as their own. Diplomatic tensions reached new highs in 2008 when Lebanon threatened legal action against Israel, with the president of the Lebanese Industrialist Association claiming that the Jewish State was not only stealing Lebanese land, but “is also stealing our civilisation and our cuisine” after Israel declared the seemingly harmless dip part of its national fare. Falafel has proven similarly contentious, with Israel, Palestine and Egypt all claiming the dish as their own creation. The urban vegetarian’s favourite snack is Israel’s national dish, a stance that has provoked ire among Arab nations – not least because most historians agree that hummus and falafel are Arabic inventions, and, of course, the fact that both foods existed before the state of Israel was declared in 1948.
But it’s not just Mediterranean countries that feud over food. Australia and New Zealand are also embroiled in several disputes, with the most famous being the pavlova palaver. Named after Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, who visited both countries in the 1920s, the meringue/fruit combo has long been employed by both nations to argue for their greater status. In 2010, The Oxford English Dictionary claimed to have settled the war, declaring that pavlova belongs to the Kiwis. Naturally, this will not deter the Aussies from insisting that the delectable dish is theirs.
Across the channel, José Bové, a sheep farmer turned activist, led an anti-globalisation protest against a heavy American import duty on Roquefort cheese that culminated with the dismantling of a McDonald’s restaurant. The Americans had decided to tax the cheese (among other items) after Europe refused to allow imports of hormone-raised beef from the United States. In fact, several varieties of fromage are still banned in the USA – it’s easier to buy a machine gun than a mimolette in most parts of the country.
Protests like Bové’s can be seen as part of a general anti-globalisation tradition, and again reinforce the idea that cuisine is central to the cultural identity of a nation. For Bové and his supporters, McDonalds continues to represent a threat to French culinary values, and, the lines runs, to France itself. “Throw it in the sea!” Bové declared in a speech at the 1999 Seattle WTO protests, in what can be read as a sly, if somewhat hypocritical, reference to America’s own sketchy past of food censorship.
However, such a position is still clearly very nationalist. The two cuisines are not mutually exclusive and, to achieve a balanced diet, should be consumed together – along with a buffet of dishes from around the world. Post-Bové, McDonalds in France has experienced growing success, yet French cuisine is still thriving. Bové’s fears, it seems, have yet to bear fruition.
Rather than treat food as a divisive international political tool, we would do well to restore restorative powers to food, seeing it as something that can unite cultures and transcend arbitrary borders. Comedian Tim Minchin explores this idea in “Peace Anthem for Palestine”, a hilarious Jewish/Muslim anti-pork song, which, despite its simplistic positivism, has a serious underlying message: people should focus on what they have in common rather than what separates them. The shared love of certain dishes like falafel, hummus and pavlova draws attention to the cultural similarities between the countries that vie for food ownership. In other words, disputes over cuisine arise over mythical ideas of the nation rather than the idea of the food itself. Food, then, can and should be used to bridge national borders rather than reinforce them. And this is why José Bové is ultimately wrong.
The French citizens enjoying a Big Mac alongside their croque-monsieur set a necessary precedent that we would all do well to follow. This framework ultimately privileges an inclusive vision of food in which France, America and everyone in between is, so to speak, lovin’ it.