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Gastro Essentialism- Herzfield

(Notes from the The Handbook of Food Anthropolgy)

It’s been a while since I wrote down notes and I’ve come to the conclusion that me not writing things up here is making me go through some severe memory problems so we are going to be writing down notes again! FUN!

Gastro Essentialism is what Micheal Herzfield defines as stereotypes present in the culinary world, for example for the French, baguette and forage and for us Indians, curry. In his essay, Culinary Stereotypes: The Gustatory Politics of Gastro-Essentialism Herzfield talks about how stereotypes should be seen beyond correcting them and proving them as false. The writer says that it is important to understand the prejudice itself and understand how different cultures explore and interact with other cultures. He takes the a culinary lens on stereotypes and how politics, sense, appearance of food shapes the way stereotypes work.

There are two types of stereotypes he talks of:

  1. The representation of the “Other”‘s culture

  2. Adherence to one’s own “authentic”

And the way we can read these stereotypes are through a historical culinary lens. For example, the stereotype that Thai people use red chilli is not exactly true since red chilli is a new age vegetable and came from either Iran or Portugal. This questions both the two types of stereotypes. These stereotypes often end up becoming known as common facts even though they might not be true. A common association with Thai people is that they all love spicy food though that is a generalisation. Herzfield mentions that it is not important how inaccurate this is but rather why it is popular. Stereotypes provide both solidarity and prejudice in food for example, people really can’t tell how others perceive taste smell but can can up with 500 synonyms to describe wine. Eating is social and personal and is therefore comes with judgement who is right about food and who is not. When people act like they know more about food it brings on discrimination and an idea of who belongs to the table. Food works on different planes and senses, an ethonographer of a place can cause the success and failure of the food based on his willingness to engage with the local food and environment. An example, can be for example how an outsider who goes into America dislikes chocolate would trigger disbelief (this is itself can be generalising Americans). This exclusion of the outsider causes a self-justifying hostility, like when people associate certain people with bad smells. Japanese people often object to westerners odours because the can smell meat on them.

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