The Parable of the Banana Leaf

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20 Responses

  1. That is a fascinating parable, Matthew. Clearly, it proves everything I want it to prove. 😉Report

  2. As an aside, Anthony Bourdain has been one of the loudest advocates for eating peasant food if one wants to understand a country. His mantra is that if you want to really experience a country’s cuisine you first go to the street vendors and you then try to get someone’s mother to cook for you.

    Part of the ‘local food’ movement is also a realization that traditional dishes built around those foods are the best way to use those ingredients.Report

  3. Avatar sidereal says:

    I believe Eames’ point (or at least the one I want to draw from it) is that a great deal of the detail around which foods we eat and how we eat them is not about eating at all, but about signalling. Specifically, signalling wealth and status. A banana leaf may be convenient and even add flavor to the food, but they’re ubiquitous, so you can’t prove anything by using one. If you’re eating off of a silver thali, well. . even if you get blood poisoning, you’re showing that you’re the sort of person who can get a hold of a silver thali. And of course, signalling abounds in western eating as well: wine selection, fine china, beluga caviar, etc.Report

  4. Avatar Sam M says:

    “As an aside, Anthony Bourdain has been one of the loudest advocates for eating peasant food if one wants to understand a country. ”

    This poses some fascinating questions. I lived with a French guy once. He was the real deal, from out in the countryside, no less. The only thing he would eat was hot dogs and Pringles. He liked really cold American beer, too.

    So if I go to France and I want to “understand” the “culture,” which culture counts? Same as if I go to “the South.” If I read fancy food magazines, I will learn that Southern food means very specific things. But if I go to certain parts of Kentucky, I will find that many of the poor people there (the peasants) have a diet that consists of Mountain Dew and Arby’s. So to understand the South, do I eat grits and chicken fried steak? Seems to me that I would be gaining a pretty good understanding of the South in 1932 if I did that. Doesn’t preferring the former privilege a culture that no longer exists, and illustrate that I don’t really care about the culture at all? Rather, it would seem like I would be eating what I like and inventing a cultural reason to justify it.

    By the way, Arby’s is awsesome.Report

    • @Sam M, That does raise an interesting question. Every day food in the US is not always going to be as traditional as is some places overseas, although I can guarantee you that at my house in Louisville grits and country ham are on the menu frequently as is benedictine spread and pimento cheese. I think family gatherings are a pretty good place to see representative food items. That’s when ‘tradition’ seems to flex its muscles a bit more.Report

    • Avatar Simon K in reply to Sam M says:

      @Sam M, Tangentially, I recently read a book by an anthropologist discussing a trip he made with some tourists staying with Inuit in the Canadian Arctic. As you probably know, Inuit these days tend to wear high-tech cold-weather clothing and drive snowmobiles. One of the tourists asked one of the parka-clad Inuit guides whether he ever wore his traditional clothing and the guy just said “this is my traditional clothing”.Report

    • Avatar T. Greer in reply to Sam M says:

      @Sam M,

      Perhaps what you should be looking at is what the Arby’s is selling.

      In the course of my rather short life I have had the privilege of living in a half a dozen different states inside the Union. Upon moving to a new state one of the first things I do is to go to the local McDonalds. Not because I have a particular love for McDonalds (I don’t), but because I have a fascination with the small variants each has on its menu. In New Mexico, they offer a meal I have yet to see in any other state – the Green Chile Cheeseburger. Not only that, but you can order green chilies with any dish you buy, save the ice cream. In Minnesota, you find the opposite: not only do they lack the green chilies, but they lack anything spicier than ketchup altogether. How distraught was I to find that The Spicy Chicken Sandwich, my personal favorite, was not to be found anywhere in the state! If you are living in Utah, McDonalds places a bottle of “Fry Sauce” (basically a mix of mayo and ketchup) next to the usual Ketchup and Mustard dispensers. Hawaii has been the most interesting one so far – Saimin, coconut pies, and spam-egg breakfast platters are hard to find at any other McDonalds!

      I find these examples illuminating. In essence, they tell us what local tastes and sensibilities will not budge. Everybody knows what McDonalds is supposed to be like, and people go to McDonalds expecting just that. But in these cases, what McDonalds offers would not be commercially viable unless it submitted to the norms of the community. If you start a restaurant in New Mexico, you better make sure you have green chillies in stock, you won’t get any business. Likewise, don’t expect to make a profit if you are selling spicy dishes to Minnesotans.

      This works for much more than just McDonalds. We do this to foods and restaurants that we know are supposed to be foreign. Go to the most “authentic” Chinese restaurant in your town and look at their tables. Do they have salt and pepper shakers there? You will be hard pressed to find many of those in China, where the preferred table top condiments come in bottles.

      In sum: the food that people eat does not reveal near as much about them as the ways it must change before they will eat it.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to T. Greer says:

        @T. Greer,
        This is an excellent contribution T. Greer. I remember reading articles in business class about the dinner modifications McDonalds had to make in order to penetrate the Asian and Indian markets and these are similar if written small.Report

  5. Avatar Jaybird says:

    First you realize that you can’t afford to care what other people think.

    Then you realize that you can afford to care what other people think and so you go out of your way to impress them.

    Then you realize that you want to impress harder and harder and harder to impress people.

    Then you realize that you don’t care what other people think.Report

  6. Avatar Sam M says:

    It would be interesting to test Bourdain’s theory. And to be clear, he is not the only one who thinks that eating the food offers a windo oto the culture. I probably agree myself.

    OK, then. Seriously, does that mean that if I am an economist or a sociologist or anyonne else studying American culture or some subset thereof, that I ought to go all Morgan Spurlock and eat fast food all day? Would that really help me “understand” the people better? If I am studying teenage boys, should I eat a bunch of jerky and drink Gatorade? Is to imitate them to understand them better? I am not so sure.

    And if I go to some third-world country and eat something that I consider gross but they think is a delicacy… does that kind of imitation impart anything, really, other than some false sense of togetherness? I assume I will never quite “get” their preference for roasted dog or braised beetles. So why suffer through the experience? If I am not experiencing it the same way they are, am I understanding at all? Wouldn’t the better plan be to eat soemthing I really like, like a Snickers bar, in order to ENJOY EATING with them, rather than to NOT enjoy eating stuff with them?

    And what to eat of you are studying, say, posers. If I want to understand what it’s like to be an American who acts French, do I eat Pringles or escargot?

    It all gets very complicated, which is why I just stick with Arby’s.Report

  7. Obviously, the wealthy man eating off a banana leaf could be a bobo playing out some fantasy of romantic rusticity. We might be inclined to accuse this fellow of inauthenticity.

    There’s a second and more interesting possibility. The poor man and wealthy man eating off banana leaves may both live according to a shared non-bourgeoisie social ideal that is foreign to the solid, sensible middle-class man that eats from the tali . We shouldn’t be surprised to sometimes see the old aristocracy and the peasantry united in opposition to the middle class.Report

  8. Avatar Paul says:

    Sam – That’s an interesting question about what kind of “peasant food” (to use someone else’s paraphrase of Bourdain) one should eat to “get” a local culture. And while I lament that various regional food cultures have come to be dominated by fast food, I think Bourdain’s suggestion can definitely be applied. If you find most people in Kentucky are eating Arby’s and Mt. Dew, then yeah, eat some. It’ll teach you something about how the local folks live and what they like. The whole fast-food/national brand paradigm kind of diminishes how instructive the experience is, because to a large extent, Americans eat the same fast food everywhere. But the examples you cite actually seem to be extensions of or at least related to regional southern cooking, like barbeque and sweet tea. So there’s something interesting int he fact that Kentuckians like their Arby’s, or even that Bostonians like their Dunkin Doughnuts. I’m not trying to suggest that eating at the most popular of the local chain restaurants is going to provide the kind of authentic insight into a place’s history and culture that eating at the local roadside foodstand or greasy spoon (the Applebee’s vs. the Olive Garden vs. TGIFridays), but it tells you something.Report

  9. Avatar Sam M says:

    “The whole fast-food/national brand paradigm kind of diminishes how instructive the experience is, because to a large extent, Americans eat the same fast food everywhere.”

    But that’s the culture, right? Standardization and corporate consumption? Seeing this is the case, when tourists come to America, isn’t NOT eating at the Olive Garden kind of like going to Paris and eating a cheeseburger, or going to Ireland and having a Budweiser? It’s what we do.

    Maybe tourists regret this and resist. But are tourists “allowed” to do this? For generations, hardy tourists have gone places and suffered all sorts of things to get a real “feel” for the place. You couldn’t say, well, haggis kind of sucks, or boiled guinea pig is kind of gross. That would be cultural bias! So to get a real feel for Rome, we did as the Romans. Even if we found it distasteful.

    To carry this tradition forward, and to further the cause of the upper-middle class traveler interested in suffering, wouldn’t we expect to see a new breed of tourists who goes to suburban Toledo to buy thing at Ikea and put them together. Just to see how the locals feel?

    Pith helmet optional.Report

  10. Avatar Paul says:

    Uh, Sam, Toledoans would *kill* to have an Ikea. It’s so exotic and international. (And I don’t meant to single out Toledo. It’s a fine town, but it doesn’t have an Ikea, and like many smaller cities around the US, it would love to have an Ikea, because it really would be something new and different.)

    I don’t mean to disagree. I think going to Kentucky and having Arby’s and Mt. Dew is a great way to get to know what people are eating, and how they’re living. Foreign tourists should definitely check out a Walmart or a Target, too. These are places where most of us Americans spend time on a regular basis, and being there shapes who we are. I wouldn’t want visitors to do those things *instead* of going to the local dive bar, greasy spoon, barbeque shack or street vendor, but if people want to see how regular people live, it’s good to do both. Scots don’t eat haggis all the time, and the French don’t constantly stuff themselves with foie gras, either. Checking out those culturally emblematic dishes is good for getting a sense of the food culture, but so is trying out the deep-fried Mars bars at a Glasgow sweets shop, or even the random not-McDonald’s fast food outlets in Lyon or Nantes.Report

  11. Avatar Kaleberg says:

    There is also the matter of tradition. People often celebrate their culture by eating old fashioned food. For example, we western folks don’t eat all that much food with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and mace in it, except around Christmas. Those were pretty standard spices in Western Europe some hundreds of years ago. They were even used to flavor meats, as commemorated in mince meat pie. Now, we break them out once a year, like a roast Thanksgiving turkey with stuffing. You can actually learn a fair bit about a culture by the foods people celebrate with and regard as traditional. (My favorite holiday dish is potato pancakes which Jews eat to celebrate Hanukah, and demonstrate their solidarity with the ancient Incans who also had a tough time with the Spanish Inquisition.)

    If nothing else, food is regarded extremely emotionally. There has always been a gap between the wine drinking and beer drinking parts of Europe, each considering the other less civilized. The English consider the French fussy, with their sauces, and weird for eating snails. The French consider the Germans gross, with their fatty roasts and meaty sausages. Look at some of the comments here about eating insects to get a sense of how what we eat defines our culture. As many an anthropologist has noted, we don’t just eat food for nutrition, we eat food for meaning. (I’ll cite “Sugar and Power” for this. It’s a great book on sugar in modern world history.)

    I don’t know the context, but Eames was making a common observation about aspirational societies. As incomes rise and the culture changes, those who can adapt to the new do so, but once a wealthier and more flexible group absorbs the new, there is often a reaction idealizing the old. So, you get American diplomats eating barbeque with their fingers while mid-eastern visitors insist on using forks and knives.Report

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