Nonfiction | Edible

High/Low Cuisine and Orientalism

Elevation should only happen to people in elevators

I don’t think I’ve ever liked anything that has been described as ‘quirky’. Perhaps it’s my steadfast Taurus personality, but I really dislike anything (or indeed, anyone) that prides itself on separating itself from everything else for the sake of a difference that, let’s be real, probably doesn’t exist. Or maybe because anything or anyone I’ve ever come across that did call itself or themselves as ‘quirky’ weren’t actually quirky. It has always been something forceful.

When you are ‘the Other’ then the need to be different or weird is lost on you, I guess.

I also don’t think Edward Saïd ever thought his masterpiece, ‘Orientalism’, would ever apply to the niche-needy food industry but it makes sense. The legend that is Edward Saïd primarily focused on the Middle Eastern region, but his theory that Anglo-Americans promoted the stereotype of Arabs as barbaric and uncontrollable as a justification for colonialist motives, can be applied all over the world. With the separation of the Other as barbaric and weak, the West declared itself the civilised and dominant. This particular binary set the tone for the make up of international – and national – society as we know it today. Whether it’s the police state, civil war or everyday microaggressive racism, the Other serves to both establish a status quo, and allow the status quo to conduct domination with impunity.

What does this have to do with high/low cuisine and the Orientalism of food, say you? Saïd wrote “In a quite constant way, Orientalism depends for it’s strategy on this flexible positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand”. Whether they show enough respect or not, whether they have justified training or not, this is what Anglo Western restaurateurs engage in when they open a restaurant cooking and serving food from a non-Western country. By adding themselves into the equation as a Westerner, they take part in Orientalism, ergo, have the upper hand. The cuisine becomes their pawn to dominate.

This has been more stark a difference, more unabashed in its techniques, over recent years. The unapologetic existence ofBirds and Bubbles, is one example. This trend of high/low cuisine is nothing new, it is merely Orientalism for Dummies. Place one thing that can be found from one world that you consider low and place it next to another thing from the world you consider high and have a good hoot over the hilarity of it all. Such innovation! Nothing like contrast to truly depict your notion of superiority, right? By placing things from the ‘Orient’ in the world of the West, it serves to elevate not the former, but the latter. The food industry mogul thinks that s/he is doing the Orient a favour by taking it out of the styrofoam box and placing it on the china plate next to a glass of champagne. The history of fried chicken, the cultural significance of Soul Food, would never have existed if not for the the barbaric economic strategy of slavery. They know this but want to be the ones to dictate the new narrative, because knowledge of the Other is merely a party trick for the West to showcase its unquenchable thirst for grandeur that is mutually dependent on its need to belittle. The pungency of the white saviour rhetoric is thick in the air.

This is what elevation cuisine is. Le Bab – a new restaurant by three white owners – will be serving “kebab renaissance”. Even more comprehensive in its methods, they throw language into the mix by hacking off half the Turkish word and cushioning it with French to fluff up the pomposity of it all. Eastern words make themselves malleable enough to accommodate the Western tongue and for the folks at Le Bab, this just isn’t enough. Places like here and Black Axe Mangal may serve great food, and may conduct research into the cultural significance of the lokanta but the fact that their very existence is insensitive never once crosses their mind. If it does…they don’t care.

More and more establishments serve “upscale” or “modern” versions of foods and introducing ’street food’ in an effort to implement this stark difference. Sometimes it’s the difference between class. They will serve ‘upscale’ Big Mac dupes, throw parmesan cheese on top of tater tots and have artisanal mustard on hot dogs. Sometimes it’s placing African American culture outside of black neighbourhoods; like Soul food in a soulless business venture. There will be taco trucks awkwardly placed inside of restaurants and items served in street food wrapping. They claim they are trying to give you an ‘authentic feel’ but why there? The authentic is a mere subway ride away. It’s as if they have found a way to financially cross the street when they see a black or brown person walking towards them. This isn’t merely a passive experience that it claims it is. This is the Orient/West binary, and any large Western city is rife with it. What with gentrification continuing this narrative of ‘elevating’ entire neighbourhoods, so we continue to begrudgingly put up with the existence of indignant entrepreneurs that say that what they’re doing is fun and – you guessed it – a fresh take.

We seem so easily amused by these juxtapositions that we forget how they came about and what they signify. There is a power play whether we like it or not, and it never works in the favour of the Other. Stereotypes used to justify colonialist mindsets are so very deeply embedded in Western society that it is inescapable. No matter how many years it has been since Western colonialist rule (please note: not that long), when the Other is placed into the hands of the Westerner, it is subdued. The greatest trick of all? It is passed off as a compliment. Backhanded at best, it serves as a meagre justification for acceptance that is seemingly reserved solely to the West. Of course, with this acceptance comes a haemorrhage of the Other’s stability.

“Your food tastes great. I love your food! I can make money off of it! I just don’t like your people or your culture. So, thank you, but I’ll take it from here” This is what you need to hear next time you see one of those tired juxtapositions from a place that has played into this high/“low” binary.

Dabbling with the Exotic doesn’t start and end with the need for fun. I’m not sure if you know this about our world today but nothing occurs in silos. It’s rooted in far more than a forced marketing ploy for the niche, because for too long, the West’s need to be different and ‘quirky’ has resulted in economic violence towards the Other. This is so much so that even restaurateurs of colour are engaging in this violence as some kind of cultural self flagellation to remedy their imposter syndrome. They make themselves malleable to the white gaze and unfortunately, in an industry as controlled and as fickle as this, it is completely understandable that they do. What is there to be done about this? If entering these kinds of establishments creates a discomfort in the pit of your stomach, remind yourself that as a consumer you have every right to spend your money as you wish. It really is that simple.

For those that don’t see a problem; there is nothing more harmful than a bored Westerner, and history bears all the receipts. This goes far beyond food, and affects the livelihoods of so many restaurateurs of colour so perhaps we need to start thinking about food trends and what they really imply. More often than not, there is an ulterior motive behind the need to be quirky. And yeah, it really is that deep.