Friday, December 14, 2007

Culinary orientalism

"Tell me what you eat,” wrote the 19th-century French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, “and I shall tell you what you are.” In other words, an understanding of a community’s cuisine entails an understanding of the community itself. Of late, the cookbook industry seems to have made — perhaps unwittingly — a case that understanding Middle Eastern cuisine is the path to resolving the world’s geopolitical crises.

Consider Claudia Roden’s “Arabesque,” a cookbook that takes in the variant cuisines of Turkey, Morocco and Lebanon. In a review in Slate, Michael Lukas, an American living in Turkey, points out that “Arabesque” is not just — is not even primarily — an excellent cookbook: by socially, politically and historically contextualizing the three cuisines, he argues, Roden has also written an effective primer on the diversity of the Middle East. Lukas even goes so far as to suggest that the late scholar and activist Edward Said (the author of “Orientalism,” an influential critique of traditional scholarship about the Middle East) might have recommended Roden’s book as a reliable guide to the region."

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