Navneet Alang’s recent essay for Eater dot com on “exotic” ingredients and whiteness in food media has earned a rapturous response, which it deserves.
One focus of Nav’s piece is the process by which the “global pantry” expands:
… We are living in the age of the global pantry, when a succession of food media-approved, often white figures have made an array of international ingredients approachable and even desirable to the North American mainstream—the same mainstream that, a decade ago, would have labeled these foods as obscure at best and off-putting at worst. This phenomenon is why you now see dukkah on avocado toast, kimchi in grain bowls, and sambal served with fried Brussels sprouts.
I think Nav’s treatment of this process is smart and useful, and it made me think about one of my favorite subjects of all time, which is the introduction of tomatoes and chile peppers to Europe and Asia from the Americas as part of the Columbian Exchange.
Knowledge of this event forces you to imagine an Italy without tomatoes, an India without chiles. And, I don’t know—maybe 500 years is a long time. It doesn’t seem that long to me. I’ve watched too many lectures about rocks and stars.
Now, I don’t think this event weighs against Nav’s argument at all; I don’t think the first white brunch impresario to sprinkle za’atar on avocado toast is really analogous to the first Indian chef (or whoever they were, circa 1500) to swap a chile into a recipe. (Thereafter, chiles spread quickly in India. In most cases, chile occupied a “slot” previously inhabited by black pepper. It’s possible it wasn’t as transformative then—and isn’t as essential now—as I’m imagining. But… I imagine it to be quite transformative and essential!)
The thing is, Nav is writing about power, and I’ll confess I’ve never quite been able to make sense of the power dynamics in the introduction of tomatoes and chiles. The colonizers had the power, of course; so, sure, the transportation of tomato plants from the Andes to Europe feels like it must be a “we’ll take THAT, thank you very much” moment. But in a wildly counterfactual exchange—an Aztec fleet appearing on the horizon west of Lisbon—don’t tomatoes still make that same leap and, probaby, end up in the same sauces?
Next, I think: okay, but what about profit? It’s not clear to me that anybody got rich off the introduction of tomato plants; this was all before you could like, engineer an expiration date into your seeds. But of course I’m not sure.
Can we make any sense of this at all in a time period that lacked a thick overlay of media, which today provides most (all?) of the aspiration Nav writes about?
(I’m now imagining a 16th-century “food influencer” with a recipe so viral it travels to a new town almost every month. “Sailors, you are going to love this hearty tomato sauce!”)
What about chiles? They traveled from the Andes to India by way of the Portuguese, who obviously had the power on both ends of that supply chain… but what should we make of the power relationship at that moment between traditional Peruvian cooking and new-fangled Indian cooking? Was this another “we’ll take THAT, thank you very much,” or something different? I honestly don’t know. What are the conditions under which the migration and/or mutation of an ingredient and/or a cuisine defies WTT, TYVM? Maybe we can imagine that, in this case, both ends of the supply chain were so beholden to the Portuguese leviathan that their exchange was, in effect, that rarest thing: equal.
As befits a blog post, I have no conclusion. I loved Nav’s piece, and I recommend it to you. It made me think about tomatoes and chiles, and about how food culture changes not just over weeks or years but centuries and longer.
At the end of his piece, Nav makes a simple plea for more:
Aspiration is about wanting, and what I want from food media isn’t a bone thrown in my direction, but simply more: more representation, more diversity, more sense that the mainstream isn’t just accommodating me, but instead making room for me.
This made me think of my all-time favorite YouTube host, Elijah Quashie, the Chicken Connoisseur, who reviews Greater London’s chicken-and-chips offerings with the precision and panache of Anton Ego. In his long-running series The Pengest Munch, the Chicken Connoisseur pulls an “I’ll take THAT, thank you very much” of his own, and it’s a total delight:
And, per Nav, it’s telling that I first encountered the Chicken Connoisseur on YouTube rather than the website of Bon Appetit.
But, wait. Did I first encounter him on YouTube?
Sitting here just now, I felt the stirring of dim memory, googled to confirm it, and, sure enough: I found the Pengest Munch on Eater dot com, thanks to an essay written in 2017… by Navneet Alang :)
May 2020, Oakland
Really, the main thing to do here is sign up for my email newsletter. I try to make it feel like a note from a friend, and it’s easy to unsubscribe. Plus, there are occasionally … S E C R E T S