Xenophilia in the Kitchen: The Great British Book of Baking, and the Celebration of Otherness.

July 1, 2012

Linda Collister and Mark Read, The Great British Book of Baking, London: Penguin, 2010.  (To accompany The Great British Bake Off, Broadcast ABC mid-2011).

Chad Robertson, Tartine, San Francisco: Chronicle, 2010.

Reviewed by Katherine Firth

At least in the cafés and classrooms on campus where I tend to hang out and hold forth, I spend a lot of time talking about our cultural tendencies to racism or xenophobia (literally, fear of the stranger), to fear, loathing and oppression of those who are ‘other’. Yet this misses another, probably stronger, presence in our culture: the yearning of so many young people to travel, to go to that magical land ‘overseas’, or simply to wander down Lygon Street or Sydney Road to satisfy a craving for pho or falafel or fregola gelato.

That nations, or regions, or religious or cultural groups have food cultures that are distinct seems to be a fact that is as old as the written record, and perhaps more surprisingly, something that the written record thinks it worth recording. We know what the ancient Greeks ate, what the ancient Jews ate, what the ancient Persians ate. And there has long been a sense that some peoples ate better than others: the primacy of French haute cuisine can be traced back to at least the High Middle Ages.  And for at least that long, other cultures have borrowed foreign recipes when they were the best recipes.

These two impetuses have been visible in cookery writing since Vinidarius the Goth made a copy of Apicius’ Roman cook book.  But it seems to be a significant aspect of our current gastrononomic zeitgeist that the excitement about foreign food is actually about a love of foreignness, rather than as a way to improve our own cooking.  It’s not Julia Child writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1983, suggesting that ‘the book could well be titled ‘French Cooking from the Supermarket’”; seeing the techniques of French cuisine suitable for being translated back into the American vernacular food culture, while enlarging and improving it.

It’s not really about promoting the food of another nation as a way of excoriating the home food culture: the culinary dystopia of England in the 1950s and 1960s, with ersatz food given a foreign name to disguise the fact that it was barely food at all, as described by the doyen of the foreign food book, Elizabeth David.  Not only in the post-war years when rationing made getting butter, cream and eggs difficult, but even in the more affluent 1960s, she still found ‘in a respected monthly magazine, a recipe for a risotto made with twice-cooked Patna [Indian long-grain] rice and a tin of tomato soup’ or minestrone made with ‘a bouillon cube, a tin of chicken noodle soup, and a few frozen french beans’, which frankly sounds disgusting (Italian Food, xxiv).

Instead, I want to focus on a new crop of books whose value, whose authenticity, whose place on my already crowded kitchen shelves is earned by their very foreignness.  Not because that cuisine is necessarily of a higher quality than our own, but for its exotic, beautiful, glorious difference, its otherness.  Not marginalised, feared or shunned, but celebrated, desired, prized.  Xenophilia in the Kitchen.[1]

The book that set this all in motion is a Christmas present given to me this year by my sister-in-law, The Great British Book of Baking.  Now if I had been in England and given this present by an English friend, it might mean something quite different; and this awareness of that difference is precisely what prompted this train of thought.  And this train of thought become so complex and stayed with me so long that it has required an entire essay to fully explore.

Now I think it’s easy for us to see how a book, half travel documentary, half record of a remote and forbidden country’s complex food culture, like Greg and Lucy Malouf’s Saraban (2010) opening up culinary Iran, or Luke Ngueyn’s Indochine (2011) as being a record of our gastronomic xenophilia.  But Britain is no longer ‘Home’ as it was to Australians in the 1950s, and the Britain of this cook book is twice removed: once to the other side of the world, and once to another time, for ‘the past is another country, they do things differently there’.[2]  The taste of nostalgia is nearly as rich and sweet as the butter icing that graces the Fairy Cakes on page 266.

The sylisation and language of the book is directed at a British audience, using the language of ‘we’ as the opening tag line of the inner cover: “We are a nation of bakers”. The book is based on a BBC television program ‘The Great British Bake Off’, yet another of those reality cooking programmes remixed as a travelogue and celebration of British regional cooking. What that show and book might mean in Britain, though, is less relevant than what it means in Australia. Bought here, given here, from one Australian to another; after being broadcast on Australian television.

The book is unashamedly nationalistic.  The front cover is an enormous Union Jack, the navy blue background replaced with a Cath Kidson-esque floral motif. ‘Great’ is used not simply to designate Greater Brittany from the French dukedom, nor to suggest the full British Isles rather than just the mainland. It is also used in its modern colloquial sense of something excellent. So why would we want to purchase something that is full of Union Jack bunting (visual code for ‘the values of community Britain 1945-72’), battered Scottish shortbread tins, and picturesque fishing villages? Because of its vision of a beautiful other country, because we want to buy that otherness.

I am focusing on the visual and cultural currency of the book, rather than its recipes because, shamefully, I have yet to cook from it.  All my cooking energy has been spent on American celebrations of French bakery culture–most notably Tartine by Chad Robertson and an unforgettable (not in a good way) 48 hours tied to the kitchen, turning the dough every 30 minutes.  Yes it was the most amazing bread I’ve ever baked, and I’ve been baking seriously for about a decade now. But I what sucked me in–even though I’d read the recipe and I knew what I was signing up for–what ensorcelled me was the rhapsodic evocation of the magic crust and the ‘loaf with an old soul’ at the end of Robertson’s pilgrimage to “the awesome baker” in the Médoc (p.23).

I have come to suspect that our xenophilia in food is on a par with our volumes of poems by Rumi and our pilgrimages to the Himalayas or Jerusalem the Navel of the World.[3] A sense not only of appreciation for their uniqueness, a delight in their crystal blue and gold leaf (or old stone and heirloom rose gardens), but a hunger (literal and metaphorical) for their view of the world that, being so different from our own, can give us new insights, new pathways to our own self understanding, our own concepts of place, community, togetherness.  In our celebration of foreign food, we celebrate our home life.  We break bread with our companions (etymologically, our with-bread-ers), we invite our friends around for dinner, we give cook books as gifts to reaffirm family ties built on affection and custom. And often we go to the ends of the earth to reassert that which is closest to us, the food that enters our body, and those we sit with to eat it.


[1] Footnote: I am drawing on Nicholas Temperley’s seminal work on British love for foreign music in the 19th century for the term Xenophilia, as well as the undstanding of cultural consumption through purchasing goods–Nicholas Temperley, “Xenophilia in British musical history‟, in Nineteenth-Century British Music Studies, Vol. I, ed.
Bennett Zon (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999): 11-12.

[2] as The Go Between opens, L.P. Hartley, 1953

[3] And if you haven’t been to the State Library’s exhibition of Persian and Mughal illuminations and paintings, Love and Devotion, run don’t walk. Much of what I wanted to say crystallised as I poured over Fitzgerald’s translations of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám and the maps of the world

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One Response to “Xenophilia in the Kitchen: The Great British Book of Baking, and the Celebration of Otherness.”

  1. […]  And of course I’m ignoring the time I was told by the editor of the online review journal Steep Stairs, ’You write really well, we always love your contributions’, or my long relationship […]

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