Traditional Food

Do you like food? This is a blog about food. Do you like a strong cup of coffee, which you haven’t made yourself? This is a blog about coffee. Do you like travelling and experiencing different types of food and drink in different countries? This is a blog where travel and culture are very much central.

Don’t you just hate people who put pineapple on pizza? Aren’t they just the worst sub-human scum bags? The lowest of the low with their non-traditional pizza toppings and their rape of a beautiful and ancient food culture? Yes? No? Personally I couldn’t care less, because I like pineapple on pizza, and I genuinely couldn’t care less what all of the fuss is about. Does that surprise you? Who knows?

There are so many traditions of pizza now (at least three of them are Italian, there is a generically American style, Chicago deep pan, Chicago thin, the ancient French/Niçoise precursor to pizza, the Pissaladière, etc, etc, etc): how can anyone get snippy, except when expressing their own particular preference? And yet people do. It’s as if, because we associate pizza with Italy, pizza must always only ever by what we mentally associate with Italian pizza. Mental associations are not logical, OK?

The concept I think I am referring to here is that of cultural appropriation, and it is one which has many facets. I first came upon the term when I heard about white people dressing up as Native Americans for a dressing up party or some such. It caused a furore as people doing things without thought will so often do, needlessly or otherwise. Essentially, don’t dress like a group of people we tried very hard to wipe off the face of the earth: it’s monumentally insensitive. Now move on.

Have “we” ever tried to wipe the Italians off the face of the earth? No, so let’s have a pizza. In fact, has the pizza taken over the entire planet as a go-to convenient food (not a convenience food; that would be sacrilege), almost wiping every other convenient food off the face of the earth? A bit, yes.

It’s all about power, and pizza has the power. We have stripped Native Americans of power, so we have no right to dress up like them. Pizza has a power over us, so we can collectively do what we like with it. Just as the Roman Empire conquered Europe and put their language everywhere, they put their food and wine there too. Food and drink culture can easily be as a shared global possession.

We don’t object when the new world produces great wines, using the techniques of the old world. Partly because the old world holds all of the power; partly because we want to get pissed cheaply.

Coffee is another area which has caused some concern. Not quite as much as pineapple on pizza, but nearly. There have been concerns that the prevalence of shitty, cheap coffee everywhere takes away from the cultural power of a really good cup of espresso, standing at a bar, in Italy. The theory is that the seemingly derivative deserts of Starbucks and the like water down the concept of true coffee.

This is a selective understanding of the concept of coffee. Coffee originated in one set of places, was adopted by another, flourished there and was spread to another set of places, where it grew in to its own myriad forms. From each of those places it was taken on and poured in to a great melting pot of consumerism and exported back around the world. Turkish coffee is different to Italian coffee, which is different to the coffee favoured in Scandinavia, which is dramatically different from Vietnamese coffee. No one can say that any one of these coffee cultures is superior to any of the others.

Superiority of culture is such an obscene notion. The inference that one set of disparate ideas and tropes could ever be “better” than another seems childish and naïve: as if “I know where I come from, and you are different to me, so I am better than you”; as if “You coming here and being part of my world will mean that there is less room for me”. It’s all so much logical fallacy, and I despair at it.

Just because there is American pizza doesn’t mean that people no longer want a traditional pizza from Naples. Just because instant coffee exists does not mean that people no longer want espresso. Just because some people innovate does not mean that the things which we did before will be wiped forever from the history books. Just because we now know of more than one way of doing any given thing does not mean that any one of them is better than the rest. No one is coming for you, OK?

Fear strikes at the heart of so many things, and protectionism follows. The more we have, the more we want to protect. The more we value something the more we want to keep it safe. I just think we are choosing to value quite the wrong things at times. Has it always been like this? I’m not sure.

But the idea of opening a Starbucks in Italy is derided as an intrusion in to the heart of coffee. I don’t think so. Coffee is as Italian as Algebra and geometric designs. It started in one place – not Italy – but it belongs to all of us now. Coffee has more power than anyone, and it will alter its form to anything it sees fit in order to maintain its hold over the entire human race. Italian about coffee my hairy hole.

Everywhere I look there are machines pumping out generically flavoured coffee. I have never tried a cup from one of them, but I have been assured that they fill a need. Excellent. If I need a caffeine hit when I am on the go I choose energy drink, but that’s just me. If I want a coffee I want it to be a huge desert-style edifice, because I cannot get such a thing at home. At home I can get really good quality.

I suppose what I am saying here is that there is room for all tastes and types in this world, and that we should all stop getting so hung up on it. Look at the way restaurants and cafés looked and worked a few decades ago and see that while the more things change, the more things stay the same. There will always be coffee, there will always be pizza, and there will always be conflict.