By Jackie Dever
The melting pot and the salad bowl. Does it come as any surprise that two chief metaphors employed to describe patterns of diversity in American society use food-related imagery?
Food is "probably the most fundamental part of human society and daily life," said Assistant Anthropology professor Melissa Caldwell, who teaches a Culture Through Food course next spring. "That’s basically where daily life happens: through and around food."
For many Santa Cruzans, daily life happens over vegetarian-burritos, organic Indian food and numerous other internationally inspired fare. Some seek authenticity of flavor, others seek dishes that cross cultures, blending and adapting multiple flavors. In a country where ethnic* food has never been more popular, it attracts a variety of cultural meanings and personal opinions.
In cities where ethnic foods are diverse and widely available, "you see a society that is adventurous, creative, oriented toward a more global awareness," Caldwell said. "People can connect to this sense of something bigger than they are."
Health Consciousness and Mingled Flavors Since the 1990s, ethnic eateries have proliferated. Historically found around the enclaves of particular cultural groups, ethnic dining establishments now cater to a mainstream palate.
According to the American Restaurant Association, Mexican, Italian and Chinese (Cantonese) food is so prevalent in American culture that many people regard these cuisines as "no longer ethnic."
Assistant Politics professor Megan Thomas teaches Orientalism, a course that explores Western perceptions of the "Orient," including the tendency to define large, diverse regions as a coherent whole.
"These may or may not be actual foods from places, but rather what we understand them to be," Thomas said of American interpretations of ethnic food.
Corrina Chang, a Chinese-Canadian transfer student graduating this winter, said American interpretations of different countries’ foods void them of cultural value.
"There’s a big difference between authentic and not authentic," said Chang, who enjoys treating friends to Dim Sum at her favorite Chinese restaurants. "If you want to eat Chinese food, don’t you want to eat authentic? It’s just a logic thing for me. You can put American stuff into it, but it’s altering what the food should be."
Caldwell believes that the mingling of flavors from different cultures and the normalization of ethnic foods can be a positive development for adventurous diners, but acknowledges a "sense that globalization, in general, is eliminating… the really sophisticated taste palates."
"My sense is that for many folks, they often feel that something is being lost," Caldwell said of the fusion process. "But for other consumers who aren’t invested emotionally in the same way, [the mainstreaming of ethnic foods] is a good thing."
As foods previously considered ethnic become a standard in the American cultural blanket, they acquire the character of the regions in which they are served.
Studying in Ghana has given third-year UCSC student Thea Bosselmann a new perspective on Santa Cruz’s ethnic food offerings.
"I don’t think that Santa Cruz ethnic dining is terribly unique compared to the rest of California, but compared to Ghana it is quite special," Bosselmann wrote via email.
On a brisk Sunday afternoon, customers at Planet Fresh Burritos considered a menu of burritos and tacos, including options of whole wheat or flour tortillas and Mexican, white, or brown rice.
"We do an American and Mexican combination," said Angel Amado Ortiz, a cashier at Planet Fresh. "That’s why we have combinations in the food. Some people like the sweet flavors. Some people like the Mexican spicy. We don’t think only Latinos like Mexican-style foods."Planet Fresh reflects the health-conscious culture of the central coast. Amado emphasized its fresh, healthful ingredients. "We don’t use any canned foods here," he said. "We make all or own food."
Bosselmann said that in Ghana she has less opportunity for healthy, socially- conscious dining.
"There aren’t as many vegetables in Ghanian cuisine as I might enjoy back home," she wrote. "I can’t be concerned with whether my meat is free-range or organic; I’m just hoping all the E. coli is cooked out."
At the Jumping Monkey in Santa Cruz, which serves "pretty much Indian street fast-food," according to restaurant-manager Dino, fresh and organic produce play a role in the restaurant’s philosophy.
"It’s both by demand of the customers and by the availability of produce here in Santa Cruz," Dino said.
Of the establishment’s health-conscious attitude, he added, "everybody appreciates it. No one will come in and say, ‘oh, no, it’s organic. It’s too healthy for me.’"
Charity Price, a fourth-year psychology student of Mexican-Italian heritage, is well-versed in her family’s culinary traditions. She rarely dines out at Italian or Mexican restaurants, preferring to cook Mexican and Italian foods for herself. Stirring fideo pasta into a pan of onions, garlic, bell peppers, and chilies, she discussed her flavor preferences.
"I just personally prefer the taste of it," Price said of traditional Mexican food. "I’m certainly not opposed to bridging boundaries. I see great benefit in learning to blend, to mix, to combine various things, as someone who is herself mixed."
Price enjoys "a nice Italian aioli with tacos" and loves to add lime juice, "which is a very Italian ingredient," to her Mexican fare.
In an overarching sense, food is a way to connect to her cultures.
"It’s very hard for some people to understand these things are more than just food," Price said, tending a pot of frijoles de olla on the stove in her tiny kitchen. "When I cook, I’m doing something my grandmother did, I’m doing something my great-grandmother did, I’m doing something my mother still does." Seeking Authenticity The social and cultural experience that attends preparing one’s own food, selecting ingredients, and engaging with preparation techniques, cannot be replicated in a restaurant setting, but a desire for authenticity of cuisine leads some patrons to search out the most apparently exotic dining locations they can find.
In Consuming Geographies: We are Where We Eat, authors David Bell and Gill Valentine explore notions of authenticity. "The taste for exotic and ethnic foods reflects a certain kind of attitude… A true cosmopolitan would, of course, pour scorn on corporate chains peddling ‘inauthentic’ cuisines, and search for out-of-the-way places where the genuine article is still available, untouched by hegemonizing forces."
Politics professor Thomas believes the search for more authentic food can indicate broader cultural attitudes and stereotypes. "If you’re looking around for a place to eat, you look around to see who’s there," she said, discussing qualifications of Caucasian diners in ethnic restaurants. "As a white person, you’ll be pleased if you’re the only white person in there," she added, admitting that she sometimes uses the same logic.
Many restaurants employ other forms of sensory stimulation to impart a sense of authenticity and cultural awareness.
"It’s not just the food. It’s music. It’s history," Caldwell said. "Consumers are participating in a more interactive experience."
Chang commented on the use of atmosphere in ethnic restaurants.
"I have been to restaurants where the food may not be authentic, but they try to create authenticity with surroundings and artifacts," Chang said. "They can make a mock-culture."
Price agrees that the trappings of dining-out provide scanty cultural immersion. "There’s nothing more cheesy than a Mexican restaurant Mariachi band."Food That Tastes Good Food choices often prove illustrative of social and cultural attitudes, whether infusing the melting pot of Santa Cruz with a Mexican flair, or attempting to preserve ethnic foods in a salad bowl of distinct, un-meddled flavors. But perceptions of what makes for tasty grub are, at one level, much more basic.
In spite of "moments of critical distance," Thomas wishes Santa Cruz offered more interesting varieties of food.
"It feeds into bigger questions of power dynamics and politics of exoticization," she said, but "at some level, people like food that tastes good. British food hasn’t ever been a big sell in the ethnic food market for fairly obvious reasons."