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“Gastronationalism”

1. The use of gastronomical habits and food to project particular notions of national or racial stereotypes.

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I write crime novels about a foodie who happens to be a private investigator. Normally he’s based around Dublin, but the next novel includes (minor plot spoiler) a trip to the Continent. So during research for the book I started thinking – as you do – about connections between food and national stereotypes.

As stereotypes go, “the Frogs” is probably the ultimate British putdown of the French. Believe it or not (as the BBC points out), the insult “dates back to the 1300s. and originally applied to the Jesuits and the Dutch, long before it referred to the French”.

The French only replaced the Dutch in the early 1800s, when Napoleonic France became Britain’s latest arch enemy.

The “frogs” slur is basically a form of gastronomic chauvinism, such as the idea that French people are peasants “reduced” to eating frogs and snails (and, presumably, puppy-dog tails). Mind you, frogs’ legs are rather tasty.

Other instances of this kind of gastro stereotyping include…

  • “Salmon crunchers” for Alaskans
  • “Goulash-heads” for Hungarians
  • “Limeys” (an American term for the Brits – the Royal Navy would give sailors lime juice to avoid them getting scurvy on long voyages)
  • “Krauts” for Germans (a synonym for sauerkraut)
  • “Les Rosbifs” (a French term for Brits)

A beermat from the Frog & RosbifOver the years some of the slurs have been reappropriated, or defused, or re-used with a dash of postmodern irony (even the word “Brit”; back in the 1970s and 1980s it would have been considered an offensive term, hurled by Irish people at British soldiers in Northern Ireland – yet now it’s so inoffensive that there’s even the Brit Awards).

Or take the rehabilitation of “Frogs” and “Rosbifs”. There’s even an English microbrewery / pub / restaurant chain in France called Frogpubs, and three of its bars in Bordeaux, Toulouse and Paris are called “The Frog & Rosbif”.

The Irish don’t have that many gastro-slurs. Alongside the “bog trotters”, “paddies” and “thick micks” the insults usually seem to involve spuds. We are a nation of potato heads, apparently.

But here’s another definition of Gastro-Nationalism that I came across while doing research for the next novel…

“Gastronationalism”

2. A means of identity demarcation. “Gastronationalism is a new concept that describes the use of food production, distribution, and consumption to create and sustain the emotive power of national attachment. Furthermore, gastronationalism addresses the use and influence of nationalist sentiments in the production and marketing of food. From the standpoint of gastronationalism, food is a fundamental aspect of collective identity. As such, the concept is especially useful in the context of global and transnational markets, as it throws into sharp relief the political dynamics of connecting localized food cultures with nationalist projects” (DeSoucey 2010).
Source here.

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In other words, this is about turning the definition inside out and making it a positive way of thinking and talking about local food and local traditions. So it’s a little ironic, as I mentioned the other day, that the vast bulk of frogs’ legs that are eaten in France today are now imported from… Indonesia.

The pizza effect

You could say that this notion of gastronationlism is the polar opposite of “the pizza effect“, as cuisines and foodstuffs cross regions and borders:

Lack of confidence in one’s own culture, combined with the blind acceptance of all things new and foreign, often results in a phenomenon that social scientists call the ‘Pizza Effect’, a phrase that was coined in as late as 1970 by an anthropologist named Agehananda Bharati.

I stumbled upon that quote on Rachel Laudan’s fascinating blog. She’s the author of Cusine and Empire, and a mine of information about food history and food politics.

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