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Food & Nationalism: From Foie Gras to Hummus

 

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From the Fall 2015 Issue "Food Fight"

By Ronald Ranta

 

JERUSALEM—When wandering around Israel, one’s first impression is colored by the country’s food—from restaurants and food stalls, to billboards and souvenir shops. In fact, one of Israel’s most recognized postcards, sent by many tourists every year, depicts a pita bread and falafel, topped with an Israeli flag and the caption—“Falafel: Israel’s national snack.” What is particularly interesting about falafel, as well as many other food items depicted as Israeli, is that they are also an integral part of the food culture of the Middle East as well as the local Palestinian culture. While it’s hardly clear whether this food is fundamentally Israeli, Arab, or Palestinian, it is a reality that questions of ownership and authenticity of food items like falafel have become another contentious element in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

From the outside, Izbeh does not look like a typical restaurant. Its parking lot, lined with trees, has the feeling of a rural backyard. The structure itself, with big wide windows and a tiled roof, suggests a rustic, Mediterranean country house; the interior, with mismatched furniture, gives the restaurant a cozy and homey feeling. The restaurant, at the entrance to the village of Al-Ramah in northern Israel, prides itself on serving authentic Arab home cooking. Yet, in an effort not to alienate or antagonize its mostly Jewish clientele, the food is presented as Arab and Galilean (a region bridging northern Israel and Palestine) rather than purely Palestinian. Indeed, the word Palestine is quite consciously avoided when discussing the food. 

Habib Daoud, Izbeh’s head chef, is most welcoming and warm, though it quickly becomes apparent that his wife Minerva runs the kitchen, and his mother’s cooking is the inspiration behind the extraordinary food they serve. His job is mostly to wander around, discussing politics, cooking, and poetry with the guests. In a conversation with a pair of diners, Daoud bristles when the issue of Israeli vs. Palestinian food is raised. “There isn’t such a thing as ‘Israeli food,’” he sniffs, “most of what is presented as Israeli food has been imitated and appropriated!” 

 

FOOD AND IDENTITY

As a former chef, I am constantly asked what kind of food I cooked, as well as the kinds of restaurants where I worked. This is a natural series of questions, given that our first instinct with regard to food—particular ingredients, methods of preparation, distinct dishes—is to think of its perceived national origin.

Walk down any main street or supermarket aisle in any developed country, and increasingly also developing nations, and food will be labelled or marketed as belonging to particular nations. The food we consume, that is being advertised to us, is increasingly shown as national. We have become accustomed to the idea that our coffee is Turkish, the mustard English, the salad dressing French, the beef Argentine. Most restaurants and cafes, increasingly part of global chains, and the cookbooks we read are related to particular nations. The national branding and labelling of food is found everywhere, conveying a particular image of the nation, constructing and reproducing it in our everyday lives. Starbucks highlights the place of origin of its coffees and teas—Kenya, Guatemala, Ethiopia, and the drink culture they belong to—American, Italian, Indian—for the purpose of conveying ideas regarding tastes, value, and quality. It would appear that adding a nationality to food increases its perceived value and appeal. 

The practice of labelling food based on national origins is also a policy of many governments, with the goal of promoting national or local produce or protecting food items seen as part of the nation’s heritage. In the European Union (EU), the Protected Geographical Status framework has been put in place to ensure that only food items that have originated or are produced in a particular region can be identified as such. Currently, over a thousand food items are protected, including vegetables, dairy products, alcoholic beverages, meat, even pastries. For example, balsamic vinegar can only be produced in Emilia Romagna (northern Italy), Jersey Royal potatoes on the isle of Jersey (UK), feta cheese in Greece, and spettekaka (cake baked on a spit) in Sweden. Similar measures have been used in Mexico, where tequila can only be produced from the blue agave plant in specific regions.

Although many such measures have been advanced as supporting the agricultural sector and rural communities against unfair competition, and are based on economic and environmental factors, they can be seen as part of a growing trend of attaching national rights to food, which has been described as “Gastronationalism” and “Culinary Nationalism.”

Understanding the link between food and nationalism, however, is not limited to labelling or promoting national produce. Food, including the everyday and mundane acts of cooking and eating, might not appear an important element in our political lives and national identities. Dig a bit deeper and the importance of what and how we eat, the impact on domestic and global politics, as well as their dialectic relationship with nationalism, becomes evident.

By and large we do not eat a random assortment of food items to satisfy our hunger. It is an anthropological truism that what and how we eat, or for that matter, what we don’t eat (or cannot afford to eat), is a clear indication of who we are. French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin pointed this out in the 19th century, when he said, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.” Certainly, what we eat is symbolic of the groups where we belong or hope to join. Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and literary and social theorist Roland Barthes have both gone even further and suggested that particular food habits, manners, diets, and tastes reflect the structure and culture of particular nations.

The recent food crises in 2007-8 and 2010, when prices for staples, including wheat, maize, and rice, more than doubled suggest a disturbing trend. In Egypt, in 2008, the increasing price of wheat and, as a consequence, bread, brought about social unrest and mass protests in what was later termed the “Pita Riots.” In 2010, one of the first slogans of the Egyptian revolution was “bread, freedom, and dignity.” The Egyptian bread, which is the daily subsistence for a majority of the population, is known as aish baladi (local bread). The large-scale protests in 2008 and 2010 were not simply about food security and the price of food (though prices for staple Egyptian food items such as wheat, rice, and cooking oil more than doubled, as did the cost to the Egyptian state in subsidies). They were also about the increase in price of food items, particularly aish baladi, which were seen as central to the Egyptian national identity, food culture, and daily life. 

At the same time the Pita Riots began to gain momentum, similar concerns over national staple foods were occurring elsewhere. In Mexico, there were mass demonstrations over the rising price of maize and tortillas, soon dubbed the “Tortilla Riots.” The demonstrations represented Mexicans’ fears of rising corn prices but also of being inundated with cheap American bread and wheat. As a result, a common slogan during the Tortilla Riots was “tortillas si, pan no!” (“tortillas yes, bread no!”), derived from a common Mexican adage “sin maiz, no hay pais” (“without maize, there is no country”).  

From the Pita Riots to the Tortilla Riots, it is clear that food holds significance beyond the mere fulfilment of physiological needs, and that food builds and sustains a particular relationship between the individual, the nation, and the state. In short, food affects how individuals engage with the state and impacts the way the state and the private sector deal with food security and food policy. 

 

GASTRODIPLOMACY

A recent CNN poll found that Thai food is the world’s most popular cuisine, with pad Thai and Thai green curry becoming the favorite dishes of so many around the world. The Thai food story is a good example of the blending of national identity, food policy, and private enterprise—how a country built and used its national food as a tool in its cultural diplomacy and as way of transforming and rebranding its image abroad, often referred to as gastrodiplomacy.

Thailand’s idea of using food was a product of its unique situation in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was known most widely for sex tourism. During this period, and in response to war in neighboring Indochina, Thailand became a rest and recuperation base for American soldiers. The presence of large numbers of foreign military personnel resulted in the modernization and, to some extent, Westernization of the Thai hospitality and food industry, which profited from catering to U.S. troops. This, in turn, helped promote Thai food globally, as well as establish Thailand as a tourist destination. The first international Thai restaurants mostly date to this period. 

Thailand’s official engagement with gastrodiplomacy began in 2002 with the launch of its Global Thai program under former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Since its launch, the program has aimed to significantly increase the number of Thai restaurants globally by providing loans, supervising the establishment of restaurants, creating business links between Thai restaurants and the Thai food industry, and helping establish Thai cooking schools to train and supply Thai chefs. The program has been astoundingly successful. Thai restaurants have increased from around 5,000 in 2002 to over 15,000 today. London alone, according to TripAdvisor, has over 500. 

Through the Global Thai program, the Thai government sought to use its food to promote Thailand as an attractive and exotic country. This was accomplished through awards given to “successful” restaurants. The ongoing awards are an official recognition of the restaurants’ standards and the quality and authenticity of the food served. To qualify, Thai restaurants have to adhere not only to hygiene, safety, and taste controls, but also to standards dealing with the Thai national image. The restaurants are required to provide and promote specific Thai dishes on their menus like pad Thai and Thai green curry. Moreover, the restaurants are expected to emphasize a particular image of Thai culture through staff dress, and the décor and atmosphere they provide, including paintings, sculptures, and music. The idea is to create an appealing image of Thai people, culture, and geography. 

Restaurant promotion, of course, is just one part of a larger Thai food policy that aims to link the promotion of Thailand and its culture with innovation and expansion in Thai agriculture, food, and tourism. Thailand today is one of the largest food processing countries in the world, as well as the world’s largest exporter of rice, ahead of India and Vietnam. Moreover, in the past decade, tourist numbers have more than doubled. In fact, some 25 million people visited Thailand in 2014. The success of Thailand’s gastrodiplomacy campaign has not gone unnoticed. In recent years, a number of nations have tried to emulate Thailand, among them Taiwan, Malaysia, South Korea, and Peru. 

 

FOIE GRAS

The association and promotion of food and traditions in certain key nations raises several critical issues, particularly when clashes erupt between national and international values regarding food, as has happened over dog meat in several Southeast Asian countries and the killing and consumption of whale meat in Japan, Norway, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands. One of the most interesting food clashes involves France and the eating and production of foie gras, literally fatty liver.

Perhaps no country exemplifies the close relationship between food and national identity as dramatically of France. Not only is French food held in high esteem, but it is also synonymous with French culture, history, and national identity, since gastronomy is seen as French and the French are seen as gastronomes. Much of the classic food terminology is French as are many of the best-known food items and dishes. There’s the baguette, crème brulée, tarte tatin, salad niçoise, soufflé, and foie gras—all quintessentially French. The impact of French cuisine and the reverence it’s held were part of the reason the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) included French gastronomy in its list of intangible cultural heritages of humanity in 2010. The importance of food, its symbolism, and its relationship with national identity are also apparent in many of the debates around globalization in France, including symbolic rejection of fast-food as American and un-French and the perceived threat to French secularism from the sale and spread of halal food.

Among the many food items that have come to be seen as French, foie gras is arguably the most controversial. Foie gras is made from the liver of either ducks or geese that have been intentionally fattened. It is often served as paté, mousse, or parfait, or may be added to many dishes to enhance their flavor. Foie gras holds a special place in French culinary history and tradition, and France is both the biggest producer of foie gras as well as the biggest consumer. Additionally, most of the foie gras produced outside France is for the French market. 

Foie gras, traditionally made from male geese, has increasingly been made from non-migratory male ducks that have been specially fattened, a technique that is known as “gavage,” referring to the force-feeding of the bird over several weeks before its slaughter to ensure an enlarged liver, several times its normal size. In France, a product can only be designated as foie gras if it is produced through gavage. The production and consumption of foie gras in France are protected by law since they are part of the “protected cultural and gastronomical heritage of France.” French governments have also stated they would seek to include foie gras production and consumption as part of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage.  

The international debates over foie gras, and the calls to ban it, are framed as part of a broader campaign for the humane treatment of animals. Force-feeding is deemed inhumane and unethical by international animal rights organizations and, they claim, results in numerous health complication and the unnecessary suffering of the birds involved. The European Union’s (EU) Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare has raised concerns over the treatment of birds. In fact, the committee’s 1998 study of foie gras production concluded “force-feeding, as currently practiced, is detrimental to the welfare of the birds.” The EU has since ruled that the practice should be allowed only in traditional areas of production—in other words, France. As a result of public campaigns and the EU’s own verdict, foie gras production is banned in most other European countries. There have also been calls from within France to ban foie gras, as well as a number of initiatives to introduce what are seen as more humane methods of production in which the animals are allowed to over eat on their own and involve no forced-feeding. However, “ethical” foie gras still only accounts for a small percentage of the market. 

There are several dimensions to the French foie gras case. On the one hand, this is about the tension of European integration, the requirements this carries in terms of laws and values, and French cultural heritage and national identity. Foie gras production and consumption have been historical parts of French rural life and traditions for centuries. It is also an important element in French cuisine and adds to French claims of cultural significance. The debate over foie gras in France, and the backlash against efforts to ban it, therefore, is framed not only as part of the animal rights discourse but also as attacks against French culture and national identity. As a result, the French state is expected to intervene to protect the nation’s cultural heritage. 

The debate is further complicated by the fact that foie gras production is also an important part of the French rural economy. Calls to ban foie gras are seen not only as attacks on French culture and identity but also on French rural economy and food manufacturers. According to sociologist Michaela DeSoucey, who has extensively researched the subject, the foie gras industry directly employs around 30,000 workers and indirectly affects the livelihood of another 100,000.  

In this respect, the impact of globalization and international efforts to regulate food, including standards and norms, has a direct effect on national industries and brands. Securing and protecting national food brands is seen as part of protecting and securing the nation and its economy. This tension between national and international priorities, overlaid by food’s role as a marker of national identity and a global commodity, can also be seen in many of the current global food debates, particularly the use of genetically modified (GM) food. In several European countries, GM food is framed as part of a larger national debate over Americanization and the impact of globalization on national sovereignty and culture. 

In France, for example, opposition to GM food is extensive and widely held. The French government has been at the forefront of European opposition to GM food, citing environmental, health, and regulatory concerns. French opposition to GM food, however, is often framed, in a similar manner to the foie gras debate, as defending French food traditions and national sovereignty. For French anti-globalization campaigners, led by farmer-turned-activist José Bové, GM food is seen as part of an unholy American trinity of global corporate politics, neoliberal economic policies, and unhealthy food (or malbouffe, often translated as junk food). This view is not limited to the anti-globalization movement. Leading French newspapers, such as Le Monde, often equate GM food with neoliberalism, malbouffe, and Americanization. GM food is thus seen as a direct threat to French health as well as the French way of life. 

 

FOOD WARS

The association and promotion of food as individualized national objects in these days of an increasingly globalized economy raises further questions regarding food rights and food authenticity. Indeed, there are many cases where the authenticity of a nation’s food is challenged and contested. However, the contest over food brought about by globalization produces food clashes that are not only about the nation’s cultural heritage and the authenticity of particular food items, but also a struggle between national and international food manufacturers and producers. 

A gripping news story emerged five years ago of a battle between Israel and Lebanon. Dubbed the “Hummus Wars,” it tied the promotion of food in the Middle East to wider debates regarding national pride, sovereignty, cultural appropriation, and claims of nativeness. In Israel, hummus—cooked chickpeas puréed with olive oil, lemon juice, sesame, salt, and garlic—is widely portrayed as a national dish, and the hummus industry is a serious business. Though the origins of hummus may be a millennium into the history of the Levant, it has been eaten across the Middle East for centuries. Nevertheless, Jewish-Israeli writers have described Israel as the land of hummus and the dish as the embodiment of the nation. In Israel, almost any conversation regarding food invariably triggers a lively debate over where and how to eat hummus. Beyond its importance as a food that is consumed regularly and viewed as belonging to the nation, Israeli-owned companies are among the leading producers and exporters of hummus globally. 

The Hummus Wars started with a marketing stunt by the U.S.-based food company Sabra, then jointly owned by PepsiCo and Strauss—one of Israel’s largest food companies—to produce the world largest hummus plate, designed to increase the sales of its salads and dips in the United States. Osem, another Israeli food company and a competitor of Strauss, then set the Guinness World Record for the biggest hummus plate, producing an 880-pound hummus plate that was eaten publically in Mahaneh Yehuda, the main food market in Jerusalem. The two marketing stunts were described by Israeli press as the opening shots in the Hummus War between the two companies. The competition helped both companies increase their share of the lucrative American hummus market, and today, Sabra, which controls over half of it, is considered the largest hummus producer in the world. 

But this competition took on a regional twist when, in response to the Israeli hummus plate world record, a group of Lebanese chefs broke the record and produced a hummus plate of over two tons. The Lebanese hummus plate was part of a campaign by the association of Lebanese industrialists, dubbed “Hands off Our Dishes,” which was “intended to stop Israel from marketing hummus and other dishes as Israeli.” Fadi Abboud, the then head of the Association of Lebanese Industries (ALI) and later Lebanon’s tourism minister, claimed that Lebanon was ready to take legal action against Israel over the marketing of Lebanese food products as Israeli. He stated that Lebanon’s claim of ownership was based on its historical association with the product. ALI based its claim on the precedent created by Greece’s successful litigation over the use of feta cheese. In 2002, the EU ruled that only Greece is allowed to market cheese as feta because of the long history of the production of the cheese in Greece. 

After the Lebanese world record, a tit-for-tat breaking of the hummus record erupted. First, in 2009, Miki Salads, an Israeli food company trying to make a name for itself, in collaboration with Palestinian chefs from the renowned culinary village of Abu Ghosh, broke the record once again, displacing the Lebanese from first place. Jawadat Ibrahim, a local businessman and restaurant owner who was part of the record attempt, stated at the time that “the Lebanese can claim whatever they want, but the hummus is ours, Israel’s. We, in any case, prepare it better.” The Israeli record did not hold for long and was broken in the following year by 300 Lebanese chefs who claimed to “stand together against this industrial and cultural violation and defend our economy, civilization, and Lebanese heritage,” and poured hummus into a giant vat so that now, the Lebanese hummus plate weighed over 10 tons. In mid-summer of 2015, Israeli media was reporting that a bid to produce a 15-ton hummus plate had been “foiled” by Guinness World Records’ unwillingness to send judges to Israel, citing security concerns. And, as of yet, Lebanon has not taken any legal action to assert its ownership of hummus. 

It is clear that marketing and promoting food as national in a globalized world can lead to tension. Abboud explained that the Hummus Wars were not only about hummus, but also about “the organized theft carried out by Israel, not just of land, but history, traditions, architecture, poetry, singing, music, and everything that is Arab in this region.” Abboud’s thoughts suggest how critical popular food items, such as hummus, can be to the image projected by modern nations. Nevertheless, Israeli sociologist Dafna Hirsch, who has studied Israel’s relationship with hummus, points out that the Hummus Wars were not only about the close association between food and national identity, but also about how private companies use national elements to sell food. 

 

FOOD IS POLITICAL

Is hummus Israeli or Lebanese? Is it Palestinian or even Middle Eastern? Despite its seeming ordinary nature, food holds an important place in how we view our national identities. It is therefore not a surprise that certain food items are fought over and contested. For many, food represents the nation’s attachment to its land, history, and culture. As a result, in the case of hummus, the debate over its ownership is part of a wider dispute over borders, refugees, appropriation, and occupation. 

For Izbeh’s head chef, Habib Daoud, the discussion over national ownership of food is complicated and multifaceted. Food, according to him, does not always fit into clear national boundaries. “Food belongs, more than anything else, to those who cook it and to those who eat it,” he says solemnly. 

When asked if his food was Palestinian, he solemnly replied, “My food is, of course, Palestinian, but it is also part of the food culture of the wider region. But this still does not preclude the fact that food is part of our identity and related to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and is, as a result, political.” 

*****

*****

 

Ronald Ranta, a former chef and current lecturer in politics at London’s Kingston University College, has eaten his way across the world.

[Photo courtesy of Yonat Sharon] 

 

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