Stop calling it "ethnic food"
July 21, 2015 8:58 AM   Subscribe

Lavanya Ramanathan in the Washington Post on why we need to do away with the "ethnic food" label "It's not the phrase itself, really. It's the way it's applied: selectively, to cuisines that seem the most foreign, often cooked by people with the brownest skin."
posted by nightrecordings (247 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
At Twitty’s perfect dinner table, diners would be aware of the West African and slave influence on barbecue and Southern food, know kalbi from Kobe, and finally recognize there’s no such thing as Indian food but instead Punjabi, Goan, Kashmiri and more. We’d cling tightly to our own food traditions, and respect others’.

I don't know. Lot's of people don't have food traditions.
posted by durandal at 9:08 AM on July 21, 2015


I don't know. Lot's of people don't have food traditions.

Kraft Macaroni and Cheese is a food tradition.
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:12 AM on July 21, 2015 [38 favorites]


Goes great with my favorite American hot sauce.
posted by Drinky Die at 9:14 AM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


From the article:

Immigrants’ identities are deeply tied to the foods we bring with us.
When we hear our cuisine described as exotic, hodgepodge, greasy or cheap, you might as well be remarking disdainfully about our clothes or skin color.


It is definitely gross to call certain foods ethnic, and certain foods non-ethnic.

However, my immediate thoughts about calling food cheap is I don't think it is gross to call certain foods cheap if they actually are cheap. Then my thoughts go to thinking that the onus is on the restaurantiers to charge more money, and asking myself "well, why aren't they charging more money? Is it because the market doesn't support high-end 'ethnic' food as a category?"

Digging into that makes you wonder about the composite societal structure of what makes "ethnic" food cheap, and what makes "non-ethnic" food expensive. I liked engaging in that thought exercise after reading this article, and wonder if others have more well-hashed out thoughts going forward in that direction.
posted by oceanjesse at 9:14 AM on July 21, 2015 [7 favorites]


Considering that looking back at "American" recipes from the 1950s include things like chopped melon and hot dogs in molded aspic, I'm not sure I'd want to eat anything that hasn't somehow been labeled ethnic food at some point in our past.
posted by hippybear at 9:14 AM on July 21, 2015 [22 favorites]


Kraft Mac and Cheese is a food tradition, but one that I do the exact opposite of clinging tightly to.
posted by wotsac at 9:14 AM on July 21, 2015


It’s no longer a foreign concept to lunch at a banh mi carryout and then settle in for a dinner of Filipino sisig and end a night at a gelato shop, splitting an affogato.

I consider myself an "adventurous" eater, and this would be a foreign concept to me. My spouse, who is from the Midwest and grew up in the 50s and 60s, would not entertain any of these options. So, I think, while the author makes great points, they are not really in touch with a lot of what America actually eats. America (not me, but America) goes to Applebee's.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:17 AM on July 21, 2015 [29 favorites]


Yeah, not all food traditions are ~exotic~ and ~spicy~. A food tradition in my family was cut-up hot dogs and canned green beans, and that is culturally significant because of my parents' division of household labor and their own relationships to food and domestic work (etc. etc. etc.). Everyone's food traditions are valid, even if they aren't tasty.
posted by witchen at 9:17 AM on July 21, 2015 [13 favorites]


fusion cuisines are considered haute cuisines

If I never have to see another kimchi burger with scallion aioli and something something gochujang, it will be too soon.
posted by imnotasquirrel at 9:19 AM on July 21, 2015 [13 favorites]


I think fusion cuisine is haute cuisine only when it's white folks doing the fusing. At least in the US.
posted by rmd1023 at 9:23 AM on July 21, 2015 [7 favorites]


It's hard to recognize the food traditions that you are swimming in.

And yes, kill the "ethnic food" category, America, unless you apply it to Italian (northern and southern), French, German, Scandinavian, and bangers & mash.
posted by allthinky at 9:24 AM on July 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


Hell, I can't remember the last time I've used words like "ethnic" or "exotic" in general. I can't think of many applications where they don't sound weird and kinda gross.
posted by naju at 9:24 AM on July 21, 2015 [20 favorites]


SAMPLE CONVERSATION I'VE EXPERIENCED A COUPLE HUNDRED TIMES IN MY LIFE:

PERSON: "I love curry. What type of Indian food do you eat at home?"
ME: "In my home we just call it food."
posted by Fizz at 9:25 AM on July 21, 2015 [68 favorites]


I think fusion cuisine is haute cuisine only when it's white folks doing the fusing. At least in the US.

José Andrés is one of a number of examples that this isn't the case.
posted by ryanshepard at 9:26 AM on July 21, 2015 [5 favorites]


Is it short for something?
Is it short for... I guess, "Non-American Ethnic" Food?

I don't get it.
(Sorry to be obtuse, I'm not from the US and have not really heard the term before. It doesn't make sense to me)
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 9:29 AM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


Considering that looking back at "American" recipes from the 1950s include things like chopped melon and hot dogs in molded aspic, I'm not sure I'd want to eat anything that hasn't somehow been labeled ethnic food at some point in our past.

This stuff is on its way back, mark my words. Combining guilty-pleasure umami- or sugar-overload (steak Diane, cheese straws, cherries jubilee) with something to test the adventurers (sweet-and savory combinations, meat jelly)? In a few years it'll be the hottest reservation in town.
posted by ostro at 9:31 AM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


Shouldn't we just pull the plug on the whole ethnic/ethnicity complex? Nobody ever asks WASPs about their ethnicity. They just say "What yacht club do you sail out of?" (Power boats being déclassé, of course; looking at you, Paul Allen.)
posted by jfuller at 9:32 AM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


Interestingly enough, the "International Food" aisle at Giant Eagle grocery stores in Pittsburgh is where you find dried pasta and canned pasta sauces, right next to the Goya brand products and fish sauce that one might expect. It's refreshingly consistent.
posted by muddgirl at 9:34 AM on July 21, 2015 [18 favorites]


My huge neighbourhood Asian grocery store when I lived in Toronto had an aisle simply labelled "Western Food" where you could find everything from bagels to Fruit Loops to salsa verde to gnocchi all just crammed together on the shelves.

That anecdote aside, yes, "ethnic food" is worse than useless and I've always thought it sounded xenophobic or, at best, xenophilic. Like referring to women with certain skin tones as "exotic."
posted by 256 at 9:34 AM on July 21, 2015 [23 favorites]


Actually, the 'Ethnic' aisle at my supermarket has a British section, FWIW.
posted by jonmc at 9:35 AM on July 21, 2015 [25 favorites]


"ethnic food" tends to have certain connotations for Americans, like foods that will likely cause severe gastrointestinal discomfort and are mostly eaten on unusual occasions or when really drunk or stoned, but are not really foods that you would normally want to eat. they have a special status as not real food, food that's greasy, cheap, and probably contains some strange ingredients considered unpalatable, unsanitary, and indigestible.
posted by ChuckRamone at 9:38 AM on July 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


I understand the author's point; I mean, people trip over themselves to find or define "authentic" ethnic food, but mostly without actually being from whatever country the food hails from. I can see why POC would be bothered by it. (My maternal family side are Mexican so to me, what I grew up eating shouldn't be seen as solely that.)
posted by Kitteh at 9:38 AM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


Actually, the 'Ethnic' aisle at my supermarket has a British section

Mine as well, also a small Dutch section. Which is great when I want some salted licorice. It's labelled the "International Foods" aisle though, which I think is a much better term.
posted by papercrane at 9:38 AM on July 21, 2015 [10 favorites]


YES THIS IS MY FAVORITE.

I have been trying to tell people this forever, but I'm inarticulate about it, so I'm grateful someone else is saying it.

I live in Colorado. I raised my son here. We are pale skinned and non-Hispanic, but we live in an area that was Mexico not long ago. And yet, when my son was little, other white people would give me all kinds of crap because I fed my child spicy foods growing up. I wasn't forcing him or anything. We just ate the types of food that are indigenous to our region, and other types of food available to us.

Nobody seemed to much notice when Hispanic kids would eat spicy foods, but there was this notion that my little apple-cheeked white boy was too delicate or something to eat a tamale. No shit, I have had people casually raise the spectre of CPS for giving my son Mexican food. In Colorado.

I just get sick of usually middle class, middle brow white people thinking they're the default. Their dress, their foods, their ethos, their everything. If everyone you know does something a certain way, it doesn't mean that is the only normal way to do that thing. It means you're sheltered and incurious and probably really really boring.

I have just about zero tolerance anymore for "picky eaters" who turn their noses up and make eww faces and stupid assumptions about people who eat something that falls outside of their super-limited frame of reference. Those exotic, spicy, weird 'ethnic' foods aren't some hipster affectation or fodder for macho dares. They're foods that provide basic sustenance to a whole bunch of people you've apparently never met.

You don't have to love foods you're unfamiliar with, or even try them. That's your loss. Just check yourself when you normalize your boring frame of reference and treat everything else as some sort of novelty.
posted by ernielundquist at 9:38 AM on July 21, 2015 [88 favorites]


Actually, the 'Ethnic' aisle at my supermarket has a British section, FWIW

Mine too. I think I'm allowed to say this because my Dad is English but you guys have some fucked up food, England.
posted by Hoopo at 9:38 AM on July 21, 2015 [13 favorites]


I do agree with this. There was a trend (still is? I dunno) where I saw a porn category listed as "ethnic"... Really? So anything lighter than shade X is "ethnic"? This is pretty much the "So... where are you from?" in categorization.

"You look... ethnic..." (The fuck does that even mean?)

Every food is ethnic, just like everyone has a fucking accent.
posted by symbioid at 9:39 AM on July 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


My local grocery store has an "Asian Specialties" aisle and a "Latin Specialties" aisle. At least that sort of gives you some geographical reference.

It still reminds me of how every small town on the Prairies had a "Chinese and Canadian" restaurant, because of some obscure laws that wouldn't allow Chinese restaurants to have a burger on the menu for the picky eater in the family unless they added "and Canadian" to it. Which is odd, because Ginger Beef is pretty much the most western Canadian cuisine you can get.
posted by Kurichina at 9:39 AM on July 21, 2015 [9 favorites]


Is it short for something?
Is it short for... I guess, "Non-American Ethnic" Food?


In general usage in North America, it is used to mean any food that doesn't originate from a Western European culinary tradition. Sometimes Latin American food is also given a pass as "non-ethnic."
posted by 256 at 9:41 AM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm not really sure where Ramanathan is going with this.

Don't call it "ethnic" because it's really as American as all the other American cuisines and kind of insulting or at least lazy. That's good; I'll try to do that. Oh, and also look at all the mash-ups of World Cuisines that are happening, but note that the good ones don't mash it up too fine, like that stale fusion food from the 90s, which we know was actually appropriation and theft. We want to preserve the identities we're clinging to in our authentic dishes.

Meanwhile, "It’s no longer a foreign concept to lunch at a banh mi carryout and then settle in for a dinner of Filipino sisig and end a night at a gelato shop, splitting an affogato. And that’s true whether we’re in Los Angeles, Minneapolis or Washington."

It's a foreign concept across most of the nation, DC Metro area food writer person, where the local Olive Garden is the closest thing going to "New American Creole."
posted by notyou at 9:48 AM on July 21, 2015 [24 favorites]


I haven't heard anyone refer to "ethnic food" in a long time, and I live in a place where people are happy to share their deep thoughts on immigration with total strangers. I can't imagine anyone who lives in DC, with more diverse food options than almost any American city, generalizing this much.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:49 AM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


Last year at Thanksgiving time, I took a trip to Germany with my fiancee to visit her parents, who were living there for a year for a work assignment. We went to the grocery store to get ingredients for Thanksgiving dinner. There's plenty of overlap in the usual inventory of German and US grocery stores, so this was not much of a problem, except for one thing, Baking Soda, which is apparently rarely used in German recipes. Fortunately, we stumbled across the "International Foods" aisle, which had an American section stocked with America's unique contribution to the planet's culinary landscape: canned whipped cream, easy-cheese, marshmallows, chocolate milk syrup, pop tarts, and yes, baking soda.
posted by rustcrumb at 9:49 AM on July 21, 2015 [17 favorites]


I've probably mentioned this before, but I want to start an Ethnic Food restaurant and not in any way specify the ethnicity. It'll have mostly dumplings stuffed with offal and rice side-dishes and you can get everything in two varieties: boiled flavorless or inedibly spicy.

The wait staff will all be in 'ethnic dress' but no one will have any idea what that ethnicity is. Once in a while, some guy I hire to play the definitely-ethnic-but-not-in-any-way-you-can-bring-up-in-conversation-without-sounding-racist owner will come out to talk to the customers in his very thick, jovial but completely unplaceable accent. He'll mention that the dishes were just like grandmother used to make back home but will be called back into the kitchen in a foreign language before he can say where that was.

I'll either go bankrupt in a week or end up with a franchise chain of thousands of restaurant across the nation.
posted by griphus at 9:49 AM on July 21, 2015 [90 favorites]


My spouse, who is from the Midwest and grew up in the 50s and 60s, would not entertain any of these options.

Speaking of stereotypes.

America goes to Applebee's.

Applebees locations near you
New York City: 45 locations
Washington DC: 20 locations
Los Angeles  : 20 locations
Seattle      : 20 locations
Boston       : 19 locations
San Francisco: 19 locations
Portland, OR : 12 locations
Chicago      : 15 locations
St Louis     :  4 locations


Where exactly is this 'midwest' of which you speak?
 
posted by Herodios at 9:52 AM on July 21, 2015 [9 favorites]


Does anyone actually describe restaurants as "ethnic" anymore? This looks like ill-defined outrage looking for a place to hang it's hat.
posted by Keith Talent at 9:54 AM on July 21, 2015 [13 favorites]


I think that Goodness Gracious Me got this one: Go For an English.

The biggest surprise in Missouri white cuisine to me (a very traditional Scottish diner) was cream of cheddar cheese soup. Yes, it's used as a sauce, but I've been served it as plain soup more than once. Steak soup almost makes up for it.
posted by scruss at 9:55 AM on July 21, 2015 [8 favorites]


Speaking of stereotypes.


I only mentioned it because he always, always talks about his "bland Midwestern tastes from the 60s." Obviously, there are plenty of folks from the Midwest who eat a variety of foods. He just doesn't. And Applebee's is a East Coast thing. I don't know what the Midwestern equivalent is.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:55 AM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


you guys have some fucked up food, England.

No, no - we have DELICIOUS Food. Marmite on toast is wicked awesome.

(Although Marmite in my Canadian Supermarket is typically found not in the International Aisle, but the Baking Aisle... since it's a Yeast Extract! ha-ha!)
posted by JenThePro at 9:56 AM on July 21, 2015 [6 favorites]


I want to start an Ethnic Food restaurant and not in any way specify the ethnicity

Please call it "Manĝaĵo" (Esperanto for "food", from the Romance manger/mangiare). And have the wait staff pronounce it perfectly as "mahn-JAH-zho" and look funny at anybody who can't pronounce it correctly.
posted by graymouser at 9:57 AM on July 21, 2015 [47 favorites]


And yes, kill the "ethnic food" category, America, unless you apply it to Italian (northern and southern), French, German, Scandinavian, and bangers & mash.

Maybe your own biases are showing? I've known some rural Canadians for whom Italian and german food are very definitely ethnic food.
posted by GuyZero at 9:57 AM on July 21, 2015 [9 favorites]


Applebee's is a East Coast thing. I don't know what the Midwestern equivalent is.

There are Applebees all over the Mid-Waste. Next to the shopping mall, usually.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 9:59 AM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


Well, here's some data to back up my claim. Its use is on the decline, but I'm surprised to see that DC is #1 in searches for "ethnic food", as often as Indiana or Minnesota. What the heck is wrong with you people?!?
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 10:00 AM on July 21, 2015 [5 favorites]


Please call it "Manĝaĵo"

I was thinking "The Old Country"
posted by RogerB at 10:01 AM on July 21, 2015 [8 favorites]


FWIW, when I usually see things like this, the owner and chef of the restaurant is Korean, at least in Chicago. And you can get stuff like that in Korea, too, so.

I'm aware that not everyone making these burgers is white. I'm Korean, FWIW. And hell, I'm not necessarily against Korean fusion food in general, although to me Korean cuisine counts as comfort food and therefore not something that I'm inclined to seek out "trendy" versions of. But I'd like it if people put a bit more effort into their fusion than slapping kimchi on something and calling it a day.
posted by imnotasquirrel at 10:01 AM on July 21, 2015 [5 favorites]


There are Applebees all over the Mid-Waste.

Please don't do this.
posted by hippybear at 10:02 AM on July 21, 2015 [69 favorites]


Reading this thread has really made me appreciate living in Parkdale (Toronto). Here, "ethnic food" would be a simply incoherent term. Grocery stores are as likely to cater to Caribbean, Tibetan, Indian, Polish, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Somali etc. tastes as "Standard North American", whatever that would mean here.

I like knowing two or more places I can go less than a block away that are likely to have soursop, or taro, or aloe, or fresh methi, or lupini beans, or miso, or chevdo.

As far as restaurants go, the most 'exotic ethnic' food nearby is probably Electric Mud BBQ, with their chipboard walls full of deer trophies and bass wearing trucker hats and the neon cross outside. Otherwise it's just the normal Indian take out, roti shops, Tibetan momo-parlors, and pho joints. Nice that a Korean place just opened up, so I don't always need to go all the way up to Bloor.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 10:02 AM on July 21, 2015 [6 favorites]


What I can't stand is when I am with other white people and suggest going to a Chinese or Vietnamese or similar restaurant, it seems inevitable that someone will say they don't go to restaurants like that because they are worried that the restaurant would secretly serve them dog or something.

I just don't understand this.
posted by Quonab at 10:02 AM on July 21, 2015 [10 favorites]


I've known some rural Canadians for whom Italian and german food are very definitely ethnic food.

Actually, let me reply to myself with a family anecdote:

The first time my Hungarian-immigrant mother went to meet my rural-Ontario father's parents she said she'd help cook dinner. She made rice (I guess among other things). Just plain boiled rice.

My grandparents were surprised when it came out because they had never eaten rice except as rice pudding and did not realize that you could serve it as a side dish in the main meal.

Anyway, I loved my grandparents but this story never fails to elicit a chuckle from my sister and me.
posted by GuyZero at 10:02 AM on July 21, 2015 [11 favorites]


Grocery stores are as likely to cater to Caribbean, Tibetan, Indian, Polish, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Somali etc. tastes as "Standard North American", whatever that would mean here.

I never could quite figure if the Polish dry goods sold in Granoskawa's on Roncesvalles were actually legal to sell in Canada considering that had no labelling in either French or English... we would buy dry soup packets and look for numbers and hope for the best.
posted by GuyZero at 10:04 AM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


I just don't understand this.

The dog heightens their MSG sensitivity.
posted by Drinky Die at 10:04 AM on July 21, 2015 [10 favorites]


Inevitably . . . .

Metafilter: ill-defined outrage looking for a place to hang it's hat.
 
posted by Herodios at 10:05 AM on July 21, 2015 [13 favorites]


Well, here's some data to back up my claim. Its use is on the decline, but I'm surprised to see that DC searches for "ethnic food" as often as Indiana or Minnesota. What the heck is wrong with you people?!?

There's a local "ethnic dining guide" that may be driving some of that traffic. For what it's worth where I live (in DC proper, where, for the record, there aren't actually any Applebee's), I can't remember hearing the term any time recently, except when my parents visit.

The article's points are all totally valid for anyone that's still using the term, though, obviously.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:06 AM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


I'm used to "ethnic" being a catch all for "cuisines that weren't routinely served in U.S restaurants before the turn of the century." So while Italian isn't ethnic any more than hamburgers, Chinese and Mexican food isn't ethnic either, while Korean and Salvadorean is.

It doesn't really make that much sense, but it's clear to me what people are talking about when they use it.
posted by layceepee at 10:06 AM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


Actually, the 'Ethnic' aisle at my supermarket has a British section, FWIW.

I worked briefly in a supermarket when I was a teenager. I chanced to notice one day that some foodstuffs got stocked in two different aisles; if the tomato paste (for example) was packaged by Heinz, it was in the "baking needs" aisle; if it were packaged by a company whose name ended in a vowel, it was in the "Italian Foods" aisle (about as international as it got in the eighties in my very white city) . Out of some nascent sense of justice, whenever I was assigned to restock the shelves in the "Italian food" aisle I put all the tomato paste there. Not long thereafter I was called in for a talk with the grocery manager.

I worked briefly in a supermarket when I was a teenager.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:07 AM on July 21, 2015 [37 favorites]


Well, here's some data to back up my claim. Its use is on the decline, but I'm surprised to see that DC searches for "ethnic food" as often as Indiana or Minnesota. What the heck is wrong with you people?!?

DC is currently both a hub for people from all over the country (many of them previously unexposed to varieties of cuisine influenced from non-western european countries) and the expansive food scene tends to be it's first exposure for a lot of folks to a "cosmopolitan" town.

There also seems to be a ton of white folks fetishizing "authenticity in ethnic cuisine" here, which I think is more of a general trend at large, not just DC. How these two groups cross over I'm not entirely certain.
posted by Karaage at 10:07 AM on July 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


American section stocked with America's unique contribution to the planet's culinary landscape

I love these and took pictures of them on a recent trip to the Netherlands and UK. Yes, that is a $7 jar of Goober.
posted by theodolite at 10:07 AM on July 21, 2015 [7 favorites]


I definitely agree with the premise of the article.

I also wish I had some injera right now.

A little thing, though: the rise of restaurants in the US wasn't because people just somehow wanted to start eating tastier foreign food. Some of the causes that spring to mind: working class people moving off the farms and into the cities, and then living in housing that wasn't congenial to cooking; working class people laboring on the railroads or in frontier-expansionist projects and being unable to cook; the knock on effect of the rise of restaurants in Europe, itself partially the result of the displacement of aristocrats' chefs in the French Revolution and then in 1848; the increasing acceptability of middle and upper class women being in public; women workers and independent women outside the home who needed respectable places to eat (thus tea shops, department store restaurants, etc).

The rise of Chinese restaurants (mainly Cantonese at first, IIRC) is absolutely the result of the Chinese exclusion act and the exploitation of immigrant labor out west. I've eaten at the Pekin Noodle Parlor in Butte, which is one of the oldest - if not the oldest - Chinese restaurants in the US (and honestly it wasn't that great, but it was interesting; would go again). And that was absolutely a restaurant that resulted from Chinese labor in the building of the railroads and the clearing of the western forests.

I know that a lot of restaurants opened by European immigrants (who were not fully incorporated into whiteness at the time and thus somewhat analagous to the subjects of her article) were first opened to serve, eg, the German communities, Polish communities, etc. You can still see the traces of this if you look around at all the Eastern and Central European restaurants in Chicago, for example. Those places didn't succeed because of tourism dollars, with the exception of a very few.

Until post-wwII it seems like there's been two different primary restaurant markets - working people who don't have space at home to cook (bed-sits, slums, YMCA lodging, bachelor apartments etc) and who eat a lot of meals from cheap restaurants catering to office and factory workers, and elites who could eat out for fun. Post war and after, middle income people who can eat out for fun become a big factor, but they're just not that present pre-war. I assume that this has to do with the cheapening of food and clothes in that time.


Considering that looking back at "American" recipes from the 1950s include things like chopped melon and hot dogs in molded aspic, I'm not sure I'd want to eat anything that hasn't somehow been labeled ethnic food at some point in our past.


It's so easy to lol at the past and its terrible food, and certainly there's a lot of race/class stuff that made past food worse than necessary (like the incredible fear of garlic - I have some old recipes where you put one clove of unchopped garlic in the soup and then extract it before serving because garlic is so overwhelming!!!) but there's also a lot of food distribution issues. It's not like one could stroll down to the Cub for brown rice, goat cheese, kiwi fruit and a bottle of mole in 1945.

Aspic was a classy and expensive food that slowly became downmarket and then disgusting/midwestern/bizarre. You see a lot of recipes for it through the fifties because it's what a lot of fifties adults grew up seeing as classy.

It occurs to me that the reflex disdain for the food of the fifties* almost premised on the idea that it's women's natural lot/skill to cook - that the "real" "authentic" way for things to be is for there to be someone at home who is a great cook and fulfilled by cooking. So when the canned green beans and mac and cheese come to the table, it's not because the cook has anything better to do with her time, or hates cooking, or isn't that good at cooking; it's because she's derelict in her duty.

*Also, seriously, try looking through some cookbooks some time - some of that stuff is really good. Baked olives in cream-cheese pastry? I guarantee that your party guests will descend on them like a flock of pastry-eating locusts.
posted by Frowner at 10:08 AM on July 21, 2015 [39 favorites]


inevitable that someone will say they don't go to restaurants like that because they are worried that the restaurant would secretly serve them dog or something.

I just don't understand this.


Neither do I. I literally haven't heard this 'gag' in forty years.

Must just be the way people talk on the coasts.
 
posted by Herodios at 10:09 AM on July 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


I never could quite figure if the Polish dry goods sold in Granoskawa's on Roncesvalles were actually legal to sell in Canada considering that had no labelling in either French or English... we would buy dry soup packets and look for numbers and hope for the best.

Granoskawa's actually saved my ass one time because I had run out of paprika and couldn't find it anywhere else near me. Even the No Frills didn't have it. They had fresh jalapenos and scotch bonnets and serranos and Thai chilies. Cayenne, chipotle, etc. No dice. Like, 6 kinds of Matouks. Tried the Indian and Trinidadian places on Queen, no dice. No English or French on the label, but the clerk there assured me that it was paprika.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 10:10 AM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


Must just be the way people talk on the coasts.

there are vast hordes of racist idiots in every single state of the union.
posted by poffin boffin at 10:11 AM on July 21, 2015 [16 favorites]


This all reminds me that one of my worthless housemates half-inched my special fancy imported paprika in the pretty tin and I need to buy more at the special fancy imports shop.
posted by Frowner at 10:12 AM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


Aspic was a classy and expensive food that slowly became downmarket and then disgusting/midwestern/bizarre.

Aspic (and terrine and head cheese etc.) is so fucking weird because it's basically on a sine wave, always drifting between "rich people food," "ordinary people food" and "poor people food" in places that aren't America.
posted by griphus at 10:13 AM on July 21, 2015 [5 favorites]


It'll have mostly dumplings stuffed with offal and rice side-dishes and you can get everything in two varieties: boiled flavorless or inedibly spicy.

you should serve only potatoes and molasses
posted by poffin boffin at 10:13 AM on July 21, 2015 [7 favorites]


foods that will likely cause severe gastrointestinal discomfort and are mostly eaten on unusual occasions or when really drunk or stoned, but are not really foods that you would normally want to eat . . .

I think you just described the menu at Applebee's.


This I think we can all agree on.
 
posted by Herodios at 10:15 AM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


But I'd like it if people put a bit more effort into their fusion than slapping kimchi on something and calling it a day.

This is fair. That said, I'd also like it if people put more effort into their kimchi, instead of just labelling all pickled leafy vegetables as such.


Hey, restaurant operators, don't listen to these two chuckleheads, kimchi, even bad kimchi makes almost anything better. Keep up the efforts to include it in every single dish in your Edison bulb-centric restaurants.

Kimchi protip - Add chopped kimchi to Kraft dinner for an international taste treat, and layer it into grilled cheese sandwich to make an umami bomb.
posted by Keith Talent at 10:16 AM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


Hey, restaurant operators, don't listen to these two chuckleheads, kimchi, even bad kimchi makes almost anything better.

Can we compromise? Maybe go for other varieties than cabbage kimchi at least? I've always preferred radish and cucumber kimchi anyway.
posted by imnotasquirrel at 10:19 AM on July 21, 2015


Even the No Frills didn't have it.

So if everyone wants a real demo of "ethnic food", the next time you're in Toronto hit the No Frills at Dundas and Landsdowne. It's the craziest mix of random "ethnic" foods from all over the world but you can't get a decent bell pepper. Plantains? Yes. Odd canned Brazilian desserts? Yes. Portuguese breads? Yes. But it's called "No Frills" and mostly that's what it looks like inside. Industrial shelving, clearly second-tier produce.

And a live fish counter. Like, tanks and probably half a dozen varieties of fish, live. LIVE FISH IS A FRILL PEOPLE. IRONY.

I guess unless you're Portuguese in which case it's not a frill so I guess it's still a No Frills.
posted by GuyZero at 10:19 AM on July 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


My bologna has a first home, it's from I-T-A-L-Y
My bologna has a second home, made for the U-S-A
I love to eat it can't you see
Don't take it away from meeeeeeee
Cuz bologna it's just sandwich meat, it ain't got no eth-ni-city
posted by Debaser626 at 10:22 AM on July 21, 2015 [5 favorites]


Actually, the 'Ethnic' aisle at my supermarket has a British section, FWIW.

Ours too and amusingly it's full of Heinz products, imported from the UK back to the city where they're headquartered.
posted by octothorpe at 10:23 AM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


Does prepared herring count as ethnic food in America?
posted by griphus at 10:26 AM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


the "all-day breakfast in a can" thing should have an aisle of its own where shoppers can behold its terrible existence and then learn from this experience.
posted by poffin boffin at 10:26 AM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


Does prepared herring count as ethnic food in America?

Does not count as food.
posted by Drinky Die at 10:28 AM on July 21, 2015 [9 favorites]


I once opened a jar of kimchi that nearly made me vomit from the smell.

I don't have high aspirations toward being a global food eater, but I was trying to experience this one thing that friends and lovers told me was amazing, and, well, I didn't eat after that.

I know kimchi is widely loved, but that turned me off for probably the rest of my life.
posted by hippybear at 10:29 AM on July 21, 2015


The headline is: Why everyone should stop calling immigrant food ‘ethnic’

... even though the author keeps using "ethnic food" non-ironically throughout the article. "Immigrant food" is worse; it sounds like something a drunk uncle-in-law would say.

Sorry, article. I'm going to keep my self-loathing level at its current setting.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 10:30 AM on July 21, 2015 [10 favorites]


the little jars of herring in white sauce count as "thing you found in the fridge at your grandparents place in midwood and which has haunted you ever since"
posted by poffin boffin at 10:30 AM on July 21, 2015 [6 favorites]


There are Applebees all over the Mid-Waste. Next to the shopping mall, usually.

Plenty of locations in Colorado and California too. Not an east coast thing at all
posted by aydeejones at 10:31 AM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


Gefilte fish is also probably considered ethnic food, but is not food.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:32 AM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


I think fusion cuisine is haute cuisine only when it's white folks doing the fusing. At least in the US.

José Andrés is one of a number of examples that this isn't the case.


is this a joke or
posted by kagredon at 10:33 AM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


more herring for me
posted by griphus at 10:33 AM on July 21, 2015 [9 favorites]


I once opened a jar of kimchi that nearly made me vomit from the smell.

We do love fermenting the shit out of everything.

I don't have a particularly adventurous palate by nature and have always said that if I hadn't grown up on the stuff, I'd probably absolutely hate Korean food.
posted by imnotasquirrel at 10:36 AM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


it's time for your nap grampy yasha
posted by poffin boffin at 10:36 AM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


> I think fusion cuisine is haute cuisine only when it's white folks doing the fusing. At least in the US.

Two of the worst restaurant meals I've ever had in my life were both Chinese places (one in Toronto, the other in Hong Kong) that served nothing but their take on White North American Food (i.e. almost everything on the menu was a casserole drenched in canned mushroom soup).
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:36 AM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


My parents have extremely low tolerances for spicy foods or culinary adventurism relative to the regional cuisine with which they're accustomed. When we get together for dinner they sometimes request "nonethnic" restaurants as a catch-all shorthand for "nonspicy with fried-chicken-something as an option." It's a matter of palate, not xenophobia.
posted by echocollate at 10:40 AM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


The aisle's called "International Foods" where I am too, and it's something to watch how it tries to cater to the multitude of ethnicities in the area.
posted by jonmc at 10:41 AM on July 21, 2015


It's a matter of palate, not xenophobia.

Not sure why these would be mutually exclusive.
posted by griphus at 10:42 AM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


On posting, tripe can be damn tasty if it's cooked right.
posted by jonmc at 10:42 AM on July 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


And I love Gefilte fish.
posted by jonmc at 10:43 AM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's a matter of palate, not xenophobia.

Not sure why these would be mutually exclusive.


I think this is unfair. I've known very nice people from rural areas and they're not worldly but they're very kind. And they literally think anything with more flavour than overcooked roast turkey (or a well-done steak) is unpalatable. They don't dislike anyone, but they probably dislike their food.
posted by GuyZero at 10:44 AM on July 21, 2015 [15 favorites]


Two of the worst restaurant meals I've ever had in my life were both Chinese places (one in Toronto, the other in Hong Kong) that served nothing but their take on White North American Food (i.e. almost everything on the menu was a casserole drenched in canned mushroom soup).
Homer: Whoo! - All that seizing made me hungry.
Lisa: Me too. Let's go to an authentic Japanese noodle house.
Homer: The toilet recommended a place called Americatown.
Lisa: Dad, we didn't come halfway around the world to eat at Americatown.
Marge: I'd like to see theJapanese take on the club sandwich. I bet it's smaller and more efficient.
Television: [ Man ] We now return to 'Battling Seizure Robots'.
posted by Fizz at 10:45 AM on July 21, 2015 [8 favorites]


They aren't mutually exclusive, but if you try something and you don't like it, pretty much that comes down to palate.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:45 AM on July 21, 2015 [5 favorites]


I think this is unfair.

Oh I definitely didn't mean that in that specific example people are being xenophobic. Just that "palate," "xenophobia" and "equal (or unequal) parts palate and xenophobia" are all valid options for why people don't want to try a food from outside of their comfort zone (geographically or otherwise.)
posted by griphus at 10:47 AM on July 21, 2015


Not sure why these would be mutually exclusive.

One is a matter of palate and the other worldview. I suppose the two might correlate in some instances but it would be pretty lame to assume one naturally flows from the other.

But maybe I just kind of love the image of a White Supremacist raving about the new local curry place to his friends.
posted by echocollate at 10:47 AM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


The thing that perplexes me here is that the final section of the article is titled "If not ‘ethnic,’ then what?", but there are no actual suggestions. When someone says they want ethnic food, in my experience, they often mean "I want food from a non-European country, but I don't want to limit our choices by specifying a particular cuisine." Sometimes it means "I want to go anywhere with fried noodles on the menu". Sometimes it means "If I get dragged to TGIFridays again I will murder everyone." Sometimes it means "someone suggest a world cuisine I have never tried because I love trying new delicious foods."

I don't use this term, so I'm not asking for myself. But I would be interested in finding ways to replace the word with a less-problematic phrase.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 10:49 AM on July 21, 2015 [13 favorites]


I grew up in a home where the hottest spice in the pantry was black pepper; these days I love spicy food, but it took my palate a long time to adjust. The first time I had south Indian food it damn near killed me.
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:50 AM on July 21, 2015


Nobody seemed to much notice when Hispanic kids would eat spicy foods, but there was this notion that my little apple-cheeked white boy was too delicate or something to eat a tamale. No shit, I have had people casually raise the spectre of CPS for giving my son Mexican food. In Colorado.

It's interesting to try to pin down the historical and geographic borders between white people who are afraid of "exotic" food and white people who feel sophisticated because they know a lot about "ethnic" cuisines. I definitely grew up much more among the latter (in a college town, with parents who came from major coastal cities).
posted by atoxyl at 10:51 AM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


And I love Gefilte fish.

Same here.

Borscht on the other hand, is disgusting. Double-disgusting with sour cream floating in it.
posted by zarq at 10:51 AM on July 21, 2015


all valid options for why people don't want to try a food from outside of their comfort zone (geographically or otherwise.)

Well I think that "xenophobia" is a pretty harsh term for people who might just be unadventurous. People who like to stay at home and in their comfort zone aren't all xenophobes.
posted by GuyZero at 10:53 AM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


My husband is in his fifties and grew up in a working class town in the midwest. When we first got together, the very first place I took him out to dinner was a Korean restaurant. It was only much much later that he admitted to me that he was terrified. He'd never used chopsticks before that day, and he'd only even had RICE maybe five times in his life. And we didn't meet when we were young, either. He was 45. (Edit I lied, he was 43 or 44.)

Fortunately, we were in that early relationship impressing each other stage, so he powered through and discovered that he loved it. And he has since developed an appreciation for lots of other things he would never have tried if I hadn't dragged him along. Indian was the hardest to convince him of (he said everyone he knew who'd eaten Indian food had gotten food poisoning, so I suspect there's a super terrible Indian restaurant in his old town). But I accurately predicted that it'd be his favorite.

He's still a little picky, but he is not a jerk about it. He doesn't make yuck faces at foods he doesn't eat, he doesn't disparage it or act like it's scary. His family does, though. I mentioned that we were having curry for dinner to one of his sisters, and she was horrified, like she was honestly concerned for his safety or something. Curry. That's not even a specific food, it's a category.

I didn't grow up with much variety in my diet either. My mom was a reluctant cook, so I ate canned soups and hot dogs and Kraft dinners, and expanded my diet as I got older and more autonomous.

This isn't just a matter of social class. It's a xenophobia thing. It's being conscious of the fact that the foods you're terrified of are normal foods that normal people eat. Giving them a try is optional. Just don't be a jerk about it. (Here I will freely confess that I am sometimes a jerk about certain types of overly sweet and fatty American foods, but I am not anyone's role model, and I try not to do it directly to people's faces. Also, those trends sometimes pick my pocket and break my leg.)

And I don't see an issue with identifying cuisines by ethnicity. That provides meaningful information. It's categorizing foods as "ethnic" as though that were a meaningful category in itself. It's calling Mexican and Syrian and Indian and Thai foods by the same name.
posted by ernielundquist at 10:53 AM on July 21, 2015 [18 favorites]


griphus: more herring for me

Perhaps we're part penguin.
posted by zarq at 10:55 AM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


Borscht on the other hand, is disgusting. Double-disgusting with sour cream floating in it.

i am like 99% sure this is how orthodox schisms originated
posted by poffin boffin at 10:55 AM on July 21, 2015 [25 favorites]


poffin, I concur. Now we know why Borscht is red.
posted by effugas at 10:59 AM on July 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


I want food from a non-European country, but I don't want to limit our choices by specifying a particular cuisine.

Also I'm pretty sure my mom would say "ethnic food" to include, say, Italian food - and she's Italian (American). I don't mean that there are no problems with the term but I always thought of an "ethnic restaurant" as being a place that offers a predictable repertoire associated with a particular nationality (excepting "White American" which is where it does get weird). Tapas would probably count.
posted by atoxyl at 11:03 AM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


I guess I just usually hear 'palate' as a dog whistle for xenophobia.

If I'm at the taiwanese place with cold porks ear salad (that I have never ordered, but am always tempted to out of morbid curiousity), it ALSO has on the menu, bbq fried chicken/duck/pork, with plain rice, steamed veges, and peanuts sprinkled next to it. It is less spicy than KFC.
(You can get plain noodles instead of rice, or soup)

Or at an indian place, the is usually a super mild butter chicken (which is chicken in a tomato & cream sauce) or korma they have on the menu. Again, usually less spicy than KFC.

And I've known people who absolutely wouldn't eat spice, one wouldn't eat tomato sauce/ketchup as it was 'too spicy', and they still ate at 'ethnic' restaurants.
Whereas, the people who said non-ethnic? It has inevitably turned out that there were 'spicier' things that they would eat. Or that they would eat some ethnic foods but not others, Mexican but not kebabs (because, Arabic? *shrug*).


So yeah, blame all the xenophobes for giving 'palate' as an excuse, a bad name.
posted by Elysum at 11:05 AM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


if I'm at the taiwanese place with cold porks ear salad (that I have never ordered, but am always tempted to out of morbid curiousity

It is delightful. Nothing morbid about it, and really, you've probably already had it in the form of a sausage or bologna.
posted by Karaage at 11:10 AM on July 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


I use "i don't want to die of the esophageal cancer that is just waiting for me to let my guard down" as my excuse and I feel pretty good about it.
posted by poffin boffin at 11:10 AM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


When we get together for dinner they sometimes request "nonethnic" restaurants as a catch-all shorthand for "nonspicy with fried-chicken-something as an option." It's a matter of palate, not xenophobia.

I don't know, "nonspicy with fried chicken or something" is fine, or being a bit more specific - American or Western - is preferable to ethnic/nonethnic. It just comes across with more than a hint of "give me that normal stuff - nothing too weird and foreign!" I really just have a problem with that word "ethnic" because it's loaded with xenophobic connotations, even if you're not using it in that way.
posted by naju at 11:11 AM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


(*I think "Western" is fine, but I've never really given it thought until now)
posted by naju at 11:12 AM on July 21, 2015


I do think that there's a stronger-than-by-random-chance connection that someone who prefers a certain style of unspicy, meat-and-potatoes-ish, white-American food probably wasn't exposed to lots of different kinds of foods growing up.

So I work for a big multi-national company that has two interesting interacting elements:

1) it has offices around the world and employees sometimes move between these offices, especially to corporate HQ
2) it has free food in every office (as far as I know)

So HQ is here in beautiful California and California cuisine is pretty heavily influenced by Mexican/hispanic food. Additionally, there are a lot of Asian & South Asian people who work here and so the cafes serve a lot of that kind of food and in reasonably authentic ways. I doubt anyone in this thread would complain about eating lunch here.

Anyway, so sometimes... sometimes you get these people from the Zurich office who are otherwise nice people I'm sure and they come to HQ here and they complain pretty bitterly about not being able to eat any of the food for its intense spiciness.

The food here is not universally spicy and it's pretty easy to tell that the channa masala is going to have at least a little bit of spice in it although it's usually on the bland side even by my white guy standards.

But it seems like some Swiss people can't stand anything spicier than salt. So I guess it's not just Americans.

What I am sure of is that if some of you read these email threads you'd dislocate an eyeball from the intense eye rolling.
posted by GuyZero at 11:14 AM on July 21, 2015 [8 favorites]


When someone says they want ethnic food, in my experience, they often mean "I want food from a non-European country, but I don't want to limit our choices by specifying a particular cuisine." Sometimes it means "I want to go anywhere with fried noodles on the menu". Sometimes it means "If I get dragged to TGIFridays again I will murder everyone." Sometimes it means "someone suggest a world cuisine I have never tried because I love trying new delicious foods."

The fact that it could mean so many different things is evidence of how vague and meaningless the 'ethnic' designation is.

And those are all great suggestions for how to rephrase, not just to avoid othering, but to express what you (generic you) mean more clearly.
posted by ernielundquist at 11:14 AM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]



It's a matter of palate, not xenophobia.

Not sure why these would be mutually exclusive.


But "adventureousness" is extremely class- and generation-bound*. My parents are pretty sophisticated and adventurous eaters for their backgrounds and generation - lots of French, Italian and Greek cooking in our house when I was little, back when that wasn't common for midwesterners of German and Scandinavian descent, especially people from really small towns like my dad. They love fancy Chinese food, especially dim sum. But they just never got into eating anything spicier than the spicy kind of Italian food - they don't like anything Thai or Vietnamese or any kind of spicy Mexican or South American food (but they like Szechuan for some reason). They don't really want to try Korean food or Ethiopian or or or.... And now they're older and can't get out often because of my mother's declining health, so they like to get things that they're sure they enjoy.

But the the thing is, they spent their youth/early adulthood being adventurous - as adventurous as their budget and location allowed. They did all that cultured stuff. It's just that if you were in the midwest in the late sixties and seventies - unless maybe you were in Chicago and affluent, or in Chicago and connected to the Indian or Chinese communities - French and Italian and Greek food was the sophisticated option.

*And also, I really object to the idea that food-preferences are about morality. There are lots of rich and evil people with great palates.
posted by Frowner at 11:17 AM on July 21, 2015 [18 favorites]


But it seems like some Swiss people can't stand anything spicier than salt. So I guess it's not just Americans.

I had a coworker from Pune, India who was here for a month's training ask me, "don't Americans use any spices at all?" As far as he could tell, American food was totally flavorless.
posted by octothorpe at 11:19 AM on July 21, 2015 [5 favorites]


> It’s no longer a foreign concept to lunch at a banh mi carryout and then settle in for a dinner of Filipino sisig and end a night at a gelato shop, splitting an affogato.

I consider myself an "adventurous" eater, and this would be a foreign concept to me. My spouse, who is from the Midwest and grew up in the 50s and 60s, would not entertain any of these options. So, I think, while the author makes great points, they are not really in touch with a lot of what America actually eats.


My personal theory is that it's foreign-language anxiety (and sometimes a little ingrained xenophobia) around the foreign-language names, more than it is an actual food preference issue. This suspicion that if the words are unrecognizable, then the ingredients must also be utterly unfamiliar.

Even if it's acknowledged that the same food can be called something different in another language, it's still tainted by distrust. I grew up this way too. I am sure that I am not the only person who was a little agog upon realizing that chickpeas are the same thing as garbanzo beans...those things we put on salad. And yet still hummus is met with suspicion because that's not the familiar way of preparing garbanzo beans, even though we accept that white beans are good in soup AND can be blended with herbs and garlic into a tasty dip.

But there's really nothing about bahn mi that your average American wouldn't eat. It's a variety of lunchmeat sub, people. (It's been fun to overhear my old-school Italian neighbors in South Philly try bahn mi after realizing how close it is to a hoagie -- eh, jalapeno instead of longhots, fresh cucumbers instead of pickled, a sprig of cilantro instead of minced parsley, but still the same idea -- and fall madly in love.)

I'll grant you that sisig is a little more unfamiliar of a preparation for Americans. But what on earth is foreign about affogato except for the name?
posted by desuetude at 11:21 AM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


But there's really nothing about bahn mi that your average American wouldn't eat.

Have you ever heard people argue about cilantro?
posted by GuyZero at 11:22 AM on July 21, 2015 [12 favorites]


I see what Naju's saying - In of itself deeming things not found at applebees to be "ethnic" can function as an othering in some way, since it's fundamentally a question of what is "American"

Just like when I constantly have to convince white and black people here in DC that yes, I am indeed an American, given that I was born and raised here and the correct answer to "where are you really from" is California.

Despite what I may look like, that doesn't make me any less American than you, just like that General Tso's Chicken is no less American than that Hot Dog you're holding there.
posted by Karaage at 11:22 AM on July 21, 2015 [8 favorites]


I had a coworker from Pune, India who was here for a month's training ask me, "don't Americans use any spices at all?" As far as he could tell, American food was totally flavorless.

Hopefully you don't have an Glasgow office.
posted by GuyZero at 11:23 AM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


They aren't mutually exclusive, but if you try something and you don't like it, pretty much that comes down to palate.

Yes, I will always be up for trying new foods, but depending on how far that strays from what I'm used to, I may or may not like it.

Of course, sometimes even familiarity isn't a good predictor. Korean cuisine puts scallions on everything, and to this day I can't fucking stand scallions.
posted by imnotasquirrel at 11:24 AM on July 21, 2015


I really just have a problem with that word "ethnic" because it's loaded with xenophobic connotations, even if you're not using it in that way.

That's why I generally give people the benefit of the doubt. I'm not going to police anyone's use of language just because some borderline usage cases may be problematic to some people. There's a kind of fundamentalism inherent in that behavior that I find, well, problematic. I recognize that others may feel differently.
posted by echocollate at 11:25 AM on July 21, 2015 [5 favorites]


I don't understand the assertion that Midwesterners traditionally eat only bland food. Because, um, sauerkraut.
posted by desuetude at 11:26 AM on July 21, 2015 [8 favorites]


Also, this whole "oh, people who don't eat spicy food regularly and then don't enjoy it, that's because they are unsophisticated [read "bad/hick"]...when I was 20 I had never had anything significantly spicy. Sriracha hurt my mouth. I remember choking down a meal that my boyfriend had cooked to be polite - it seemed like it was doused in Sriracha, I couldn't even taste any of the ingredients except the hot sauce, it was just blech. I used to try to manipulate him into never cooking stir fry because I was too embarrassed to say that it was too spicy for me to enjoy even a little. Because it hurt my mouth, I decided that I didn't want to try Sriracha again.

Randomly, over the course of my twenties, I ended up eating some moderately hot or spicy things that I liked - wasabi peas, primarily. I added a few little drips of Sriracha to things and my tolerance gradually increased.

It wasn't until I discovered a Szechuan restaurant that I adored that I started to be able to eat really spicy things (they had a fantastic ability to make things just at whatever level of heat you could tolerate). Over the past four years, I've become able to eat and enjoy really pretty spicy things and it no longer hurts my mouth. But I've definitely taken friends - sophisticated people! smart! traveled! good cooks! - to this place, ordered things I don't think are very spicy and watched them grab for their water glasses and pick at the dishes they ordered.

Weirdly, I don't think to myself "what a bunch of rubes, they need to build up their spice tolerance because this is actually the very pinnacle of enjoyable/correct eating". Instead, I think to myself "gee, I wish I'd been more careful and ordered the non-spicy dishes so that my friends could eat something they enjoy".

If you don't eat spicy food regularly, eating spicy food isn't very comfortable. And if you don't have a particular desire to build up a tolerance for spicy food, why should you work up via degrees of hot sauce? Why not just eat what you enjoy?
posted by Frowner at 11:27 AM on July 21, 2015 [25 favorites]


I'm not really going to police people either when I can tell they don't mean anything by it, because it's not worth the effort and friction. But inwardly speaking, I feel vaguely othered when I hear the word "ethnic" in relation to Indian cuisine, and surely many others do too for their respective backgrounds, and that should probably count for something.
posted by naju at 11:28 AM on July 21, 2015 [11 favorites]


I wish that more Korean snack food would cross over into the mainstream, or actually more of anything other than kalbi/bulgogi/kimchi and to a lesser extent fried chicken. Most of my non-Korean friends have never even heard of patbingsu or tteokboki and I can only get them when I visit a city and only in a handful of places. Mostly I wish that I had a giant plate of tteokboki in front of me right now. Mmm, tteokboki.
posted by kagredon at 11:32 AM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


My suite mate in grad school was Indian and we would occasionally cook for each other. The first time he made me curry I literally cried. It was delicious but made me realize my presumed abnormally high threshold for spicy food was hilariously miscalibrated.
posted by echocollate at 11:33 AM on July 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


My personal theory is that it's foreign-language anxiety (and sometimes a little ingrained xenophobia) around the foreign-language names, more than it is an actual food preference issue. This suspicion that if the words are unrecognizable, then the ingredients must also be utterly unfamiliar.

This might belong in the emotional labor thread as much as this one, but oh MAN: my friend's dad refuses to eat quiche, because it is FRENCH and WEIRD and he's a MAN and he likes REAL FOOD. (This is a guy who lived in Europe for business for a few years, and yet...)

My friend's mother circumvented this by introducing him to egg pie. He loves him some egg pie! An egg pie by any other name would be unacceptable foreign glop, but yay egg pie.

I wonder how many delicious foods could be slyly introduced to people who fear foreign cuisine if we could just give them Betty Crocker-sounding names?
posted by a fiendish thingy at 11:40 AM on July 21, 2015 [24 favorites]


Applebee's is a East Coast thing. I don't know what the Midwestern equivalent is.

Not really; I've been to the one in Spearfish, SD, when visiting relatives. A Google Maps plot shows there's a higher density overall east of the Mississippi, but they're found all around the country except, oddly, southern California.
posted by aught at 11:40 AM on July 21, 2015


I've never heard anyone say "ethnic food" in real life. I think I've only heard it said on TV or in movies when they want to show how subtly racist and out of touch the person is.
posted by thewumpusisdead at 11:40 AM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


I currently live in nowheresville, KY -- This place is what many would consider backwards in many ways. It's rather xenophobic, and it's very, very white. The overwhelming majority of food choices we have are fast food, or - no kidding, this is the only non-fast food place around that could be considered "american" - applebees.

That being said, absolutely nobody here says "ethnic" in regards to food. We have a Chinese restaurant as well as a Mexican restaurant - We don't have an "ethnic" restaurant. If you asked if there was ethnic food around, you would absolutely be asked for clarification.

I almost never defend where I live or use it for a positive example, as most of my interactions have been with very bigoted, xenophobic, and opinionated folks... This may be the first time I've actually done so in writing.

I lived in a larger city before this, and I've travelled all across the US -- I don't think I've heard a single person say "ethnic food" with the exception of possibly my grandparents in my dads side, in even more the middle of nowhere. I have a hard time believing this is actually a huge problem.
posted by MysticMCJ at 11:41 AM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


as has already been pointed out, "ethnic" =/= spicy. It is interesting that the association between the two is so ingrained, though, and across a very large variety of cuisines that get classed as "ethnic" (and therefore spicy).
posted by kagredon at 11:41 AM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


And when I say nowheresville, what I mean is that confederate flags are abound here (although, happily, I've seen a few stickers that have been 'crossed out') and they don't (*edit, missed that critical word) tolerate even obvious rural white folk if they don't personally know how they are connected to the area, and still, nobody would say ethnic food here.
posted by MysticMCJ at 11:43 AM on July 21, 2015


If you don't eat spicy food regularly, eating spicy food isn't very comfortable. And if you don't have a particular desire to build up a tolerance for spicy food, why should you work up via degrees of hot sauce?

What you say is true for most people, but my stepmother...we went to an Indian restaurant once and we ordered some butter chicken in addition to other stuff because we knew she was not big on really spicy food, and she still said it was "too hot", which...nope it totally wasn't hot. I don't think this was a case of me just being more tolerant of spice--I mean there's hardly anything in it that could be considered hot and spicy. Ginger maybe? But the edge is pretty much counteracted by having a bunch of cream in it. And I've seen her eat hotter food than that before. They live right next to a Thai place they eat at all the time. I think it was more a case of her having convinced herself "Indian food is too hot for me" before she ever set foot in the restaurant with us.
posted by Hoopo at 11:46 AM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


"My personal theory is that it's foreign-language anxiety ...more than it is an actual food preference issue."

My dad, who had nothing but home-cooked meals since his marriage in 1952, went into a McDonalds for the first time in the late 90's. He glanced at the menu board, shrugged and said, "I'd like a burger, please." It took two counter workers and 5 minutes to translate his request into McDonalds speak.
posted by klarck at 11:47 AM on July 21, 2015 [16 favorites]


"It’s no longer a foreign concept to lunch at a banh mi carryout and then settle in for a dinner of Filipino sisig and end a night at a gelato shop, splitting an affogato.

Hell, replace the Filipino cuisine with Korean or Ethiopian (I'm currently missing a good local Filipino joint—which is a shame because pancit is one of my favorite things ever) and this could describe my eating any day of the week (Saturday's breakfast: banana leaf tamale) and I don't live in the most cosmopolitan place in the world.

I'm surprised to learn that the phrase "ethnic food" is still used anywhere but the occasional grocery store.
posted by octobersurprise at 11:49 AM on July 21, 2015


I feel like a lot of the issues is that if you're not from a relatively cosmopolitan area you don't often have an "in" to a lot of non-traditional American cuisine.

It took me years to get into Indian food and other heavily spice (not spicy, but spice) based cuisines because without experience it's extremely hard to get a bearing on what you're getting, what the spice level will be and often a lot of the dishes at restaurants have very similar bases with varying sauces. Getting acquainted with foods you don't know well is fairly difficult, especially if you're not wealthy; it's terrible going a restaurant ordering something and finding out you don't like it at all!

I agree ethnic is a terrible term for food cultures, but "It’s no longer a foreign concept to lunch at a banh mi carryout and then settle in for a dinner of Filipino sisig and end a night at a gelato shop, splitting an affogato. isn't really true for a lot of the country. Very often if you live in an area that doesn't have people of those ethnicities you won't get those foods.

Something about the article bothers me about deriding "ethnic" food as cheap cultural tourism but then at the same time putting up sentences like the one I quoted which strikes me as a statement of massive economic privilege. It fits into the whole weird thing of food culture needing to be about more than just food but some sort of proof of your worldliness and moral purity. Saying:

"[...]diners would be aware of the West African and slave influence on barbecue and Southern food, know kalbi from Kobe, and finally recognize there’s no such thing as Indian food but instead Punjabi, Goan, Kashmiri and more."

really strikes me as a the sort of tying together of food and righteousness that fairly endemic in foodie culture right now.
posted by Ferreous at 11:54 AM on July 21, 2015 [20 favorites]


Here in NJ the term "ethnic food" still includes a variety of Eastern European food, Polish, Lithuanian, German, Hungarian, Greek etc and also Jewish, as well as Mexican, Indian, South and Central American etc. Italian food is kinda the official food of NJ so does not qualify, but some restaurants in old Italian areas like Arthur Avenue in the Bronx might still be called "ethnic".

It seems to loosely mean any cuisine that is not white bread American and has no particular relation to the skin color prevalent in the country. If someone asked me where to get "ethnic food" I would have to ask "which ethnicity"? I would not assume they meant Indian or Ethiopian. They could just as easily be looking for authentic kielbasi or goulash, or even some real Irish sausage!
posted by mermayd at 11:54 AM on July 21, 2015 [8 favorites]


I don't understand the assertion that Midwesterners traditionally eat only bland food. Because, um, sauerkraut.

I wish I had a good local Minnesotan joint, tho, because sometimes I could kill for some lutefisk and a hot dish.
posted by octobersurprise at 11:58 AM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


There also seems to be a ton of white folks ...

This type of sentence has to die.

I can't be the only white guy on HTLAL who has lived most of his life in majority non-white places. I just can't be. But usually when I see a sentence that starts like this I think that the person is describing American middle / upper middle-class behavior, but one that (in my world) is equally common among among Asian, black, and Latino Americans as white Americans.
posted by kanewai at 11:58 AM on July 21, 2015 [6 favorites]


> Weirdly, I don't think to myself "what a bunch of rubes, they need to build up their spice tolerance because this is actually the very pinnacle of enjoyable/correct eating". Instead, I think to myself "gee, I wish I'd been more careful and ordered the non-spicy dishes so that my friends could eat something they enjoy".

I share your reaction (and as a formerly-picky eater, I love gently introducing people to new foods.) But why does the prospect of trying foreign cuisines so often turn into "X Food Is Too Spicy" to the exclusion of all other qualities?

Most cuisines have some dishes that are very spicy and some that are not hot at all. Hot Italian sausage, even just the stuff from the grocery store, can be pretty seriously damn hot (and in fact I have kind of a disproportionately low tolerance for red pepper flakes specifically), but that doesn't make people too terrified to eat eggplant parmigiana or veal piccata on the principle that "Italian food is so spicy!" But I sure hear this sort of blanket distrust about the spice level of Indian and Mexican and Ethiopian food on a regular basis.
posted by desuetude at 12:00 PM on July 21, 2015 [5 favorites]


To clarify: I'm definitely not saying that there aren't attitudes that are more "white," - but the fetishization of authenticity in the kitchen, or "authentic"ethnicity," isn't one of them.
posted by kanewai at 12:00 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


the next time you're in Toronto hit the No Frills at Dundas and Landsdowne

Oh man I used to live on Roncy (which has changed oh my God it has changed) and sometimes the stars would align and make that the most logical place to go shopping. That No Frills is fucking outstanding.

the "all-day breakfast in a can"

wait what

Gefilte fish is also probably considered ethnic food, but is not food.

gefilte is amazing. I'm guessing your problem is you've only had the weird soggy testicle-looking things that come packed in brine. I mean properly made gefilte is basically just fish pate. Add some horseradish and nom nom nom nom nom.

Borscht on the other hand, is disgusting. Double-disgusting with sour cream floating in it.

yay more borscht for me and yay more sour cream for me! I R WINNAR
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:08 PM on July 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


But I sure hear this sort of blanket distrust about the spice level of Indian and Mexican and Ethiopian food on a regular basis.

So a couple things:

1 - most people aren't food writers. If they eat something they don't like they probably can't really tell you why.

2 - it has as much to do with flavour profiles as it does with spicy-hotness. Cilantro, garlic, strong fresh ginger, raw onions, etc can all be pretty overpowering if you're not used to them. The only people I know who dislike mexican food are the people who dislike nearly everything but for Indian food... Indian food (which is itself nearly as meaningless as "ethnic food") is really complex.
posted by GuyZero at 12:09 PM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


When ever has "ethnic" meant anything other than 'brown non-european'?
posted by signal at 12:11 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


Here in Toledo, we have the Birmingham Ethnic Festival. You wouldn't know it was the Hungarian festival if you didn't live here.
posted by charred husk at 12:14 PM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


Here in NJ the term "ethnic food" still includes a variety of Eastern European food, Polish, Lithuanian, German, Hungarian, Greek etc and also Jewish, as well as Mexican, Indian, South and Central American etc. Italian food is kinda the official food of NJ so does not qualify, but some restaurants in old Italian areas like Arthur Avenue in the Bronx might still be called "ethnic".

It seems to loosely mean any cuisine that is not white bread American and has no particular relation to the skin color prevalent in the country. If someone asked me where to get "ethnic food" I would have to ask "which ethnicity"? I would not assume they meant Indian or Ethiopian. They could just as easily be looking for authentic kielbasi or goulash, or even some real Irish sausage!


Yeah this is the understanding of "ethnic food" that I grew up with, and the way my parents (who are from SF and NY) still say it. This is not meant to suggest that it's not a loaded thing to say because I do not think it would be used for, say, Southern barbecue - unless the same food was presented as "soul food." Or in other words white people can be ethnic but non-white people are definitely ethnic.
posted by atoxyl at 12:16 PM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


fffm: gefilte is amazing. I'm guessing your problem is you've only had the weird soggy testicle-looking things that come packed in brine. I mean properly made gefilte is basically just fish pate. Add some horseradish and nom nom nom nom nom.

I made this a couple of years ago. Took a really long time to prepare (the fish stock adds an hour) and didn't taste like Grandma's homemade but still, really good. Did not make homemade horseradish because Gold's exists.

Ingredients
1 head (about 2 1/2 pounds) green cabbage
1/2 cup matzoh meal
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 medium (5 ounces) onion, minced
2 pounds whitefish fillets, such as pike, carp, or whitefish, cut into chunks
3 eggs, separated
1/2 cup chopped Italian parsley
2 tablespoons (6 or 7 sprigs) chopped fresh tarragon leaves
2 to 3 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
Cayenne pepper, to taste
1 quart fish stock
1 medium carrot, peeled and cut into julienne
1 medium leek, white part only, cut into julienne
Homemade Horseradish, recipe follows

Directions
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Blanch the head of cabbage in boiling salted water, about 5 minutes, then place in a basin of cold water. Remove the whole leaves and cut away the tough core. As you peel off the outer leaves, you may have to return the head of cabbage to the boiling water to soften the inner leaves. Dry on a clean towel and reserve.

Place the matzoh meal in a small bowl. Cover with 1 cup of stock and let soak until needed.

In a small skillet, heat the olive oil. Over medium heat, saute the onion until wilted, 4 to 5 minutes. Do not brown. Cool.

In a wooden bowl or on a chopping board, chop the fish fine with a chopper or large knife. Add the matzoh meal with the stock, the cooled onions, 3 egg yolks, the chopped parsley and tarragon, 2 teaspoons of salt, white pepper, and cayenne, and continue to chop until well combined. In a clean, medium bowl, whisk the egg white until firm but not stiff. Stir a little into the fish mixture, then, quickly but gently, and fold in the remaining whites. To test for flavor, bring a little fish stock to a simmer, add a small ball of the fish mixture and cook for about 5 minutes. Taste and correct seasoning.

Heat the remaining fish stock and spoon a little into an 11 by 17-inch baking pan. Divide the fish mixture into 12 portions, about 4 ounces each, and enclose each portion in 1 or 2 cabbage leaves. You will find that when the leaves get smaller, you will have to use 2 leaves to wrap the fish. As each package is formed, place in the prepared baking pan, seam-side down. This size pan holds the 12 packages comfortably. Pour the remaining stock over the fish and top with the julienned carrots and leeks. Cover the pan with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Let cool in the stock and refrigerate until needed.

Presentation: Place 1 package of fish on each of 12 plates, garnishing with some of the julienned carrots and leeks. Serve with homemade horseradish, white or red.*

*To make white horseradish, finely grate peeled fresh horseradish into a small bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until needed.

*To make red horseradish, boil 1/2 pound red beets until tender. Peel and then finely grate into a medium bowl. Add about 1/2 cup grated horseradish, or to taste, and combine thoroughly. Refrigerate, covered, until needed.
posted by zarq at 12:18 PM on July 21, 2015 [6 favorites]


When ever has "ethnic" meant anything other than 'brown non-european'?

When it means "Jews."
posted by zarq at 12:18 PM on July 21, 2015 [15 favorites]


When ever has "ethnic" meant anything other than 'brown non-european'?

During the Ellis Island days when Italians and Irish were immigrating to the US?
posted by hippybear at 12:18 PM on July 21, 2015 [15 favorites]


When ever has "ethnic" meant anything other than 'brown non-european'?

when it means jewish.
posted by poffin boffin at 12:18 PM on July 21, 2015 [7 favorites]


signal:
"When ever has "ethnic" meant anything other than 'brown non-european'?"
See my above quote post. Toledo was originally divided into various ethnic neighborhoods that included Hungarians, Irish and Pollacks (and still is to some degree). When someone says "ethnic" around here, they're just as likely to mean Hungarian or Polish as they are to mean Lebanese.
posted by charred husk at 12:19 PM on July 21, 2015 [8 favorites]


And, like the darker your skin/the closer you are to Asia/Africa as a European the more ethnic you are for sure. Greek food is definitely ethnic.
posted by atoxyl at 12:20 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


Hungarians, Irish and Pollacks

beg pardon?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:21 PM on July 21, 2015 [5 favorites]


> Hopefully you don't have an Glasgow office.

Glasgow born. Raised on curry. While they don't have the range of Toronto (o for a chettinad place on Byres Rd) Glasgow has the quality, and have done so for over 40 years. You've just not gone to the right places (or woken up hungover with your trousers decorated with mystery pink dots - the pakora sauce bandit visited you in the night).

It's great in Toronto - I can get every types of food including meat pies, fern cakes and Irn Bru.
posted by scruss at 12:22 PM on July 21, 2015 [6 favorites]


Not Jews though in our family ('cause half of us were Jews, duh).
posted by atoxyl at 12:22 PM on July 21, 2015


But I sure hear this sort of blanket distrust about the spice level of Indian and Mexican and Ethiopian food on a regular basis.

I think obviously there's racism in play.

Of people who are not emotionally invested in racist narratives about food*: I think that most people's first introduction to Italian food is not spicy and that's where the expectation is set. I grew up outside Chicago in a family who ate the most "authentic" Italian food we could afford every time we could afford it, for example, and I didn't encounter a really spicy Italian dish until I was eighteen or nineteen. (Pasta arrabiata - utterly blew my mind; no dinner party of mine was complete over the next five years without my literally weak-sauce version.) I'd occasionally encountered sausages or peppers as antipasti, but my baseline was set at "not spicy".

I think that for inexperienced but well-meaning people, it may be that they first encounter, say, an Indian dish that's relatively spicy by their standards, setting their expectations differently. (My first Indian food ever, though, was mattar paneer when I was nineteen - not spicy, indeed the perfect intro dish for a person like me that immediately made me a fan of what I later realized was northern Indian food.)

There's two separate problems, I think, and they get muddled together: the problem of racist narratives/expectations about food and the problem of access/familiarity/physical comfort/anxiety. I think there's a class piece, too - if you're of a background where you know that the "correct" behavior is to be all sophisticated about your food but you haven't had access to a broad range of foods, it's far easier to eat something that you know you'll like/can eat/know how to eat than to risk social humiliation by ordering something you're not sure about. (Ask me how I know!)

*That is, I think that white people all learn them, and people of color probably learn some racist food narratives about other regions/races, but that's not the same as deriving emotional satisfaction (conscious or unconscious) from enacting them.
posted by Frowner at 12:23 PM on July 21, 2015 [7 favorites]


2 - it has as much to do with flavour profiles as it does with spicy-hotness. Cilantro, garlic, strong fresh ginger, raw onions, etc can all be pretty overpowering if you're not used to them. The only people I know who dislike mexican food are the people who dislike nearly everything but for Indian food... Indian food (which is itself nearly as meaningless as "ethnic food") is really complex.

This seems pretty directly at odds with what desuetude was saying, though? What you say might make sense if "too spicy" was only directed at some cuisines with very unfamiliar flavor profiles, but it's not. It's equally levied at Mexican and Indian food, and at all dishes within; at the same time, you don't see blanket rejection of French food even though there are plenty of ingredients that are unfamiliar to many people and potentially intimidating or off-putting if you aren't acclimated to them (Roquefort, leeks, truffles.)
posted by kagredon at 12:23 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


When it means "Jews."

when it means jewish.

the alarm at HQ went off what's going on
posted by griphus at 12:25 PM on July 21, 2015 [17 favorites]


When ever has "ethnic" meant anything other than 'brown non-european'?

In my family, the "ethnic" foods are from the Norwegian, and sometimes German and Alsatian, sides. Or, foods that are pretty specific to those cultures.

For whatever reason, the few Irish foods that were passed down weren't considered ethnic - even though most non- Micks don't know what colcannon is, or have any idea that it's the best way to prepare potatoes, ever.

In Honolulu things are all flipped - I've actually been told I never knew you were so ethnic! when I cook a lunch that would be blandly normal back in Michigan.
posted by kanewai at 12:25 PM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm an American of Japanese descent. My family has been in the U.S. for generations, even longer than my white, Midwestern-raised husband's family. I'll admit, I come from a food culture so wide, it verges on parody, but I grew up eating Kraft Mac 'n' Cheese and Hamburger Helper too. That said, it hurts my heart when we go out with my husband's parents who are extremely educated, sophisticated, well-traveled people and see them literally blanch with fear at the thought of eating an unfamiliar cuisine. They literally do not keep black pepper in their home because they think it is too spicy.

But my husband? The man raised without pepper and who didn't encounter Indian food until college? He eats just about everything. It doesn't mean he always likes everything, but he's willing to try it, and he doesn't expect any kind of special praise just because he's white. Even more amazing, the few times we've persuaded his parents to come with us to carefully vetted restaurants outside of their comfort zone, they usually enjoy them.

I have to imagine a big part of this is cultural rather than palate based, because when I was growing up, I had to eat what was served, even if I didn't know what it was (and in some cases, I still don't). The concept of a "kids menu" was a super-special treat, not a given, and if I didn't like the food, too bad. And this went for my parents too! I definitely watched them eat things they had reservations about, and that was all part of the pact. This was probably not always pleasant or easy for parents or kids, but I definitely feel like I'm a much better-rounded adult (in oh, so many ways) for this attitude.

I just wish more of the world would eat the damn food. Maybe you won't like it, but that shouldn't stop you from trying it. You learn when you try new things, even things you don't like. You can even learn to like something you used to hate. I've known people who survive on plain cheese pizza, others who adamantly refuse to eat anything other than Chinese food, and others who will eat anything but only if they deem it "authentic" enough. All of them are severely limiting themselves for no reason, and it cuts them off in a major way from shared experiences. There is so much delicious food out there, so just eat the damn food already!
posted by Diagonalize at 12:26 PM on July 21, 2015 [8 favorites]


There's a street in Bloomington, Indiana, that has a lot of restaurants specializing in international cuisine. It's a really nice little area, as most of the restaurants are in cute converted houses and some are quite good.

I heard someone call it "Ethnic Street" and died a little inside.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 12:26 PM on July 21, 2015


I think there are more Americans that would never willingly step foot in a French restaurant than you would expect. The stereotypes about it are different, but it's the same dismissal of a diverse cuisine.
posted by Drinky Die at 12:26 PM on July 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


feckless fecal fear mongering:
"beg pardon?"
Oh hell my family has used that term to refer to ourselves as long as I can remember. I've never used it outside that context so I didn't think to Google if it was an offensive term or not. My apologies!
posted by charred husk at 12:27 PM on July 21, 2015 [6 favorites]


My point is that the stereotypes are different.
posted by kagredon at 12:27 PM on July 21, 2015


Applebee's is a East Coast thing. I don't know what the Midwestern equivalent is.

Applebee's corporate headquarters is in Kansas City. It's plenty Midwestern.
posted by rewil at 12:27 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


the alarm at HQ went off what's going on

It's a Jewlert.

I'll just see myself out.
posted by zarq at 12:27 PM on July 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


(When I was growing up outside Chicago, "ethnic" meant Italian, Polish, Hungarian, maybe Spanish - basically Eastern and Southern Europe. Oddly, even though I'd say it was a pretty racist and unsophisticated place, people said they were getting Chinese food if they were getting Chinese food, or Mexican food if they were getting Mexican food.

I think that saying "ethnic" was in part a seventies thing, sort of a white/white-ish response to Black, Asian, Native and Latin@ movements - I don't remember it, but I know that people used to say "white ethnics" to indicate that they meant, for example, Polish people who lived in heavily Polish neighborhoods and maybe still spoke some Polish. My sense is that it was kind of an asshole response to, say, Black Pride - "I'm no mere white person, I'm ethnic". Which is why you could have said "ethnic restaurant" when I was little and meant "Hungarian place". And then I think it's drifted toward a more directly racist term as discourse around whiteness has changed.
posted by Frowner at 12:29 PM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


Mod note: A few comments deleted. Twang, be clearer and think about whether you're joining the conversation in a thoughtful way. Other people, please just flag things and don't instantly jump to the mocking one-liners.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 12:34 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


And also, I really object to the idea that food-preferences are about morality. There are lots of rich and evil people with great palates.

Man, I still can't believe they moved it from Thursday to Saturday night. Booooo NBC
posted by Greg Nog at 12:34 PM on July 21, 2015 [11 favorites]


even though most non- Micks don't know what colcannon is, or have any idea that it's the best way to prepare potatoes, ever

you have some I know you do share it now
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:36 PM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


Cuisines of the Rich and Evil.
posted by octobersurprise at 12:37 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


Last time I went to Applebee's I think I had the wonton tacos, or maybe it was the quesadilla burger
posted by prize bull octorok at 12:38 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


Acquaintance at Applebee's: "I thought they were one ton tacos!"
posted by octobersurprise at 12:41 PM on July 21, 2015




If I had not had it for a meal by the time I was ten, then for me it is ethnic food
posted by Postroad at 12:47 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


Last time I went to Applebee's I think I had the wonton tacos, or maybe it was the quesadilla burger

relevant
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:51 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


When visiting Vancouver recently my wife and I stopped in an American-style sports bar for some wood-fired Neapolitan style pizzas. Our waitress from Ireland engaged us in some small talk about U.S. and Canadian and Irish foods. At one point, she pointed out that "We just recently got Lucky Charms" in her home town in Ireland. She said she liked them, but they cost too much (around $15 a box). The cost was her only complaint about them. She seemed quite sincere and unaffected; I don't think I was being led on or made sport of. Well, I've never gone from shock and dismay to horror to laughter in less time. I guess maybe you had to be there.
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 12:54 PM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


This type of sentence has to die.
But usually when I see a sentence that starts like this I think that the person is describing American middle / upper middle-class behavior, but one that (in my world) is equally common among among Asian, black, and Latino Americans as white Americans.

That's fair, although I will note that my comment was specifically about my experience here locally, not that it's a particularly "white" behavior. Maybe my perception exists as a result of other non-white/black minorities being so few around here, but certainly the question of "where to find legitimate chinese food around this town" or declaration of "place X has the best kung pao chicken, I LOVE chinese food" thrown at me even in the most superficial interactions around here comes from white people, and not my interactions with other minority groups.

It often strikes me as coming from a place of someone trying score ethnic cred with me, because the fact that I am non-white must somehow be acknowledged for some reason and here's the easiest way to do it without getting into heavy discussion of race relations.
posted by Karaage at 12:55 PM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


If I never have to see another kimchi burger with scallion aioli and something something gochujang....

*Reaches over table* Well if you're not gonna eat that..
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 12:56 PM on July 21, 2015 [6 favorites]


Oh, and to post too many times in this thread:

first, yeah, sometimes disliking "ethnic" foods is totally about xenophobia or racism, for sure. I think a lot of examples aren't but I guess most of the racists I know are keeping it on the down-low.

BUT another element in disliking "ethnic" foods, especially mexican, is the use of beans, which some white folks seem to think will turn them into a North Dakota gas field. Now, sure, some people do get gassy fro beans. BUT HONESTLY PEOPLE. Beans are not going to kill you.

Or goat. As far as meats go, I don't think goat is really here or there, but man, some people who would gladly eat a butter chicken roti would never, EVER get a goat roti. People have hangups.

It's not just spice, it's not just flavour profile, some people I think honestly can't handle pretty generic ingredients or they dislike them at any rate.

Also, in honour of this thread my lunch today was fried fish, garlic fries, cole slaw and bread pudding for dessert. A literally white meal.
posted by GuyZero at 12:57 PM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


Also my stepmother who thought butter chicken was too spicy thought I should pack a year's worth of toilet paper when I moved to Japan because apparently she thought they used the 3 seashells or something I guess.
posted by Hoopo at 12:59 PM on July 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


oh man goat roti and the nearest roti place is way too far away. damn you.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:06 PM on July 21, 2015


What I'm getting from this is that America will probably never get a real Sichuan or Chongqing hotpot restaurant. *weeps*
posted by peripathetic at 1:07 PM on July 21, 2015



What I'm getting from this is that America will probably never get a real Sichuan or Chongqing hotpot restaurant.


You can dry your tears. Or at least start crying because you don't live here instead.
posted by Frowner at 1:10 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


no, we have jackson heights for that.
posted by poffin boffin at 1:10 PM on July 21, 2015


BUT another element in disliking "ethnic" foods, especially mexican, is the use of beans, which some white folks seem to think will turn them into a North Dakota gas field. Now, sure, some people do get gassy fro beans. BUT HONESTLY PEOPLE. Beans are not going to kill you.

Texture of beans can take some getting used to as well if you don't eat them often. When I went vegetarian I trained myself to think of them as flavorful little potatoes instead of expecting the texture of meat. For a lot of people I think they shy away because it would be gas for something they wouldn't even enjoy that much.
posted by Drinky Die at 1:11 PM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


You can dry your tears.

But now I am crying because I can't get to Little Sze (or Tea House for that matter) for at least a couple of weeks.
posted by sparklemotion at 1:12 PM on July 21, 2015


I didn't grow up eating beans and I remember a lot of popular culture stuff about how difficult they were to digest. When I actually did start eating beans, I kept waiting for all the horrible gastro effects to kick in, and getting confused when they did not. (Some folks have difficulty with high fiber stuff for health reasons, I know; but the narrative I absorbed from pop culture was definitely "healthy people will find beans really difficult to digest".)
posted by Frowner at 1:14 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


BUT another element in disliking "ethnic" foods, especially mexican, is the use of beans, which some white folks seem to think will turn them into a North Dakota gas field. Now, sure, some people do get gassy fro beans. BUT HONESTLY PEOPLE. Beans are not going to kill you.

You forget that many white folks are observant Pythagoreans
posted by prize bull octorok at 1:17 PM on July 21, 2015 [7 favorites]


My mother cooked mostly generic American/Southern food when I was growing up. We ate a lot of cornbread, ham, porkchops, and baked/fried chicken. Green beans, black-eyed peas, oakra. Pot pies. Meatloafs. My favorite of her recipes was jambalaya, but even that wasn't particularly hot-spicy. She and my stepdad loved eating out Mexican and American Chinese.

I didn't try Thai, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, or Ethiopian foods until I was 24 years old and living in the PNW, mostly because in the area where I/we grew up, these restaurants either didn't exist or were completely off our radar.

So when I tried exposing them to these foods years later, they balked at the exotic names, the spiciness, the sometimes unfamiliar ingredients or preparation styles. I eventually got mom into specific Thai dishes, but my stepdad still gets fried rice on those rare occasions they consent to be adventurous.

But as someone who gets the same dishes over and over, even at different restaurants, because I like them, and I'm a creature of habit, I've always sympathized with their stubbornness.
posted by echocollate at 1:18 PM on July 21, 2015 [4 favorites]



But now I am crying because I can't get to Little Sze (or Tea House for that matter) for at least a couple of weeks.


I went to Tea House last night. Have you seen their new, fancier menu? Ah, Tea House. I would be so much richer if I did not know you.
posted by Frowner at 1:20 PM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


I had for years assumed that my Mom (born in India) could not be a picky eater -- she was foreign, 'ethnic'... And yes, she is vegetarian, so no meat, fish... no vegetarian meat substitutes either, those are gross... and mushrooms are too much like meat, tofu is also right out... Eggs are ok only if you can't see or smell them...

Ok, she's picky. If it isn't from a limited set of things she's comfortable with (largely what she grew up with) she doesn't want to eat it. It's a preference that has only gotten stronger as she's gotten older.
posted by pointless_incessant_barking at 1:30 PM on July 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


another element in disliking "ethnic" foods, especially mexican, is the use of beans, which some white folks seem to think will turn them into a North Dakota gas field.

What? White people love to fart. "Beans, beans, the musical fruit" is drilled into us at an early age. Right around the time we learn to say "pull my finger."
posted by octobersurprise at 1:30 PM on July 21, 2015 [7 favorites]


it is also worth noting (and it's mentioned in passing in the original article), that the exotification and the conflation of "ethnic"/spicy" also manifests as the folks who affect this weird braggadocio about ordering everything at SPICE LEVEL OVER 9000 and ordering the "weirdest" (i.e. highest quantity of offal and/or fermented ingredients) thing on the menu, and that can also be really alienating and weird (not to mention that most food, even dishes that are supposed to be spicy, aren't supposed to be that spicy, because then you can't fucking taste it for shit anymore.)
posted by kagredon at 1:34 PM on July 21, 2015 [8 favorites]


White people love to fart. "Beans, beans, the musical fruit" is drilled into us at an early age. Right around the time we learn to say "pull my finger."

12 year-old white boys love to fart. Your matronly aunt from Small Town, SK may actually arrange her life pretty carefully to ensure that farting never actually happens.
posted by GuyZero at 1:37 PM on July 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


that's just what she wants you to think.
posted by poffin boffin at 1:39 PM on July 21, 2015 [8 favorites]


Ok, she's picky. If it isn't from a limited set of things she's comfortable with (largely what she grew up with) she doesn't want to eat it. It's a preference that has only gotten stronger as she's gotten older.

I do wonder about how many of us see our parents are pickier because they're getting older right around the time we start living on our own and trying new things. I remember growing up and going to the Raleigh International Festival with my dad and him trying all kinds of food; admittedly the selection there was limited, so nothing was particularly crazier than samosas or dolmas, but he tried it. Nowadays, he's often willing to try places I suggest (I got him to try Ethiopian and he liked it! Right until it gave him indigestion), but my more recent memories are more of him asking endlessly "What is it" about stuff from Indian restaurants or picking all the bell peppers out of a Thai dish. His palate has always been limited; he steadfastly refuses to cook with salt* and prefers the taste of margarine to butter, but it's more noticeable as he gets older and gets more uncomfortable with new things.

*This weekend he made some steaks and I realized why I thought steaks were really overrated growing up; he just throws them bare on the grill and takes them off when they're done with no seasoning.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 1:42 PM on July 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


This is in the 'World Food' aisle of my local supermarket. Also we don't call it 'ethnic food' in UK supermarkets, it's always 'world food'.

I live near an 'International Supermarket' - run by Turks, selling food from all over Europe. It's the only place I ever need to go to buy all the food for the annual Eurovision party. I even managed to find Swedish wagon wheels in there. I also have an Indian supermarket nearby, which blew my tiny mind the first time I ever set foot in it. Neither makes even the tiniest concession to British food.
posted by essexjan at 1:42 PM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


I also have an Indian supermarket nearby, which blew my tiny mind the first time I ever set foot in it. Neither makes even the tiniest concession to British food.

Which is ironically funny because my local Indian grocery store in the US is the only place I can get HP sauce and custard powder. They have half an aisle of British dry goods. And two aisles of chutney.
posted by GuyZero at 1:45 PM on July 21, 2015


Swedish wagon wheels

A word to the wise, this leads to NSFW Google search results
posted by prize bull octorok at 1:46 PM on July 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


A word to the wise, this leads to NSFW Google search results
posted by prize bull octorok at 4:46 PM on July 21


What am I missing? Is this a joke? Did I scroll through hundreds of pictures of Volvos for nothing?
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 1:49 PM on July 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


Frowner: "*Also, seriously, try looking through some cookbooks some time - some of that stuff is really good. Baked olives in cream-cheese pastry? I guarantee that your party guests will descend on them like a flock of pastry-eating locusts."

Are you talking about this? Because I am suffering right now from having drooled into my keyboard.
posted by scrump at 1:49 PM on July 21, 2015


What I can't stand is when I am with other white people and suggest going to a Chinese or Vietnamese or similar restaurant, it seems inevitable that someone will say they don't go to restaurants like that because they are worried that the restaurant would secretly serve them dog or something.

I just don't understand this.


This may help
posted by escape from the potato planet at 1:49 PM on July 21, 2015 [13 favorites]


I think some of the resistance to trying foods that are foreign to one's own culinary tradition may come from misplaced anxiety that because they don't speak the language, they risk being served food that is of a lower quality, or not entirely fresh.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:51 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


What am I missing? Is this a joke? Did I scroll through hundreds of pictures of Volvos for nothing?

The first three non-image hits were for imaginative wagon-wheel-related Urban Dictionary terms. I still don't know what it means in food
posted by prize bull octorok at 1:53 PM on July 21, 2015


Are you talking about this? Because I am suffering right now from having drooled into my keyboard.

Every bit as good as they look. Make a lot of them, freeze them and bake them in batches through the party. Also you can use leftover pastry to make little pastry crackers - brush them with water or milk and sprinkle them with black pepper and parmesan before baking.
posted by Frowner at 1:56 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


The first three non-image hits were for imaginative wagon-wheel-related Urban Dictionary terms. I still don't know what it means in food

Oh, for some reason I just assumed image results (what I think of when I think of NSFW, I guess) so I legitimately did scroll through a bunch of pictures of Volvos looking for some kind of deviant smut.

I'm at work, too.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 1:58 PM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


I love to fart. Please add me to your data set.
posted by echocollate at 2:01 PM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]



It's so easy to lol at the past and its terrible food . . . It's not like one could stroll down to the Cub for brown rice, goat cheese, kiwi fruit and a bottle of mole in 1945. . . . Aspic was a classy and expensive food . . . reflex disdain for the food of the fifties . . . . some of that stuff is really good. . . . Baked olives in cream-cheese pastry . . .

Somewhat relevant discussion in AskMe a while back about queasy-een (uh, an' cookin') in the mid 20th C USofA, including availability of food from elsewheres and elsewhoms.
 
posted by Herodios at 2:02 PM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


Perhaps this is where I can share this: last night I picked up an old anthology of Elizabeth David's first three books - she basically brought Mediterranean cooking to England (and to a degree to the US) in the fifties. I was flipping through it looking for recipes to try and stumbled upon a recipe for something called [I believe] pizzicare which began with getting some unbaked bread dough and spreading it in a pan. I read further, and lo, this was pizza-before-pizza. The recipe goes on to say that elsewhere in Italy, it is known simply as "pizza". I felt like I'd been poking around with a fishing line and pulled up a coelacanth. Mozzarella, I learned, reading further, was a white, soft cheese.
posted by Frowner at 2:22 PM on July 21, 2015 [15 favorites]


It's just that if you were in the midwest in the late sixties and seventies - unless maybe you were in Chicago and affluent, or in Chicago and connected to the Indian or Chinese communities - French and Italian and Greek food was the sophisticated option.

Not really? I grew up in St. Paul in the 1970s and my parents took my sister and I out for Indonesian, Thai, Japanese, Mexican, Indian, Chinese, probably others I'm forgetting. My mom grew up extremely poor and her mother was a terrible cook, and it was important to my mother to explore and try different things and give her kids the opportunities to try different things. We were not wealthy in those days, and eating out was always a big treat as well as an adventure.

Living in Arizona is interesting, because for even the most conservative eaters I know, Mexican food is okay-cool (but they make you taste the salsa before them sometimes.) I knew a couple guys in college who grew up in very low-income families in Arizona who had never had anything as "exotic" as Chinese, but their families did eat Mexican food.

Of course, my limited palate father-in-law still manages to be a jerk about Mexican food, because he has a very specific Sonoran food model in his mind and if you take him anywhere that deviates from that, he gets all squirrley.
posted by Squeak Attack at 2:41 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


You can dry your tears. Or at least start crying because you don't live here instead.

I will definitely try this place if I visit St. Paul! But I wlll be measuring it against Dainty Sichuan in Melbourne, Australia and various Sichuan restaurants in China. I live in the SF Bay Area and there are one or two okay Sichuan restaurants, but they certainly skimp on the peppercorns imo.
posted by peripathetic at 2:54 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


My supermarket (in Chicago) has an International aisle that includes (incomplete list) Thai, Italian, Indian, British, Jewish, and Southern foods.
posted by bentley at 4:06 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


So now "The South" is international food? I'm not sure whether that's better or worse than it being "ethnic" food.
posted by GuyZero at 4:14 PM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


My Mexican-Korean relatives run a sushi restaurant. They call their food ethnic, but decline to specify which ethnicity.
posted by betweenthebars at 4:28 PM on July 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


> 1 - most people aren't food writers. If they eat something they don't like they probably can't really tell you why.

People who are not food writers really, really can talk about why they do or do not like something that they're eating. They have to be willing to actually talk about the food, rather than just pooh-poohing the whole shebang with "nuhh-uhh I am not comfortable having this experience and so everything is a blanket NO because it isn't really about the food in my mouth." And, they have to have some level of assurance that their friends are not going to immediately scoff and mock them for being wusses for not knowing technical terms or the buzzwordy way to describe what they're eating.

/former occasional freelance food writer who talked to a lot of non-writers about food.

2 - it has as much to do with flavour profiles as it does with spicy-hotness. Cilantro, garlic, strong fresh ginger, raw onions, etc can all be pretty overpowering if you're not used to them. The only people I know who dislike mexican food are the people who dislike nearly everything but for Indian food... Indian food (which is itself nearly as meaningless as "ethnic food") is really complex.

You don't think that people can tell the difference between "overwhelmingly tasting of garlic or raw onions" and spicy-hot?

I disagree agree that Indian is as nearly meaningless as ethnic as a descriptor. Ethnic has no specific meaning; it collectively includes any ethnicities subjectively considered to be "other." India, on the other hand, is an actual country. By "Indian food," I mean any of the cuisines of India -- they do share some similarities despite their rich diversity. Similarly, I recognize that the cuisines of Puglia, Piedmont, and Sicily are vastly different, but are all recognizable as "Italian food."
posted by desuetude at 4:34 PM on July 21, 2015 [5 favorites]


GuyZero:
But there's really nothing about bahn mi that your average American wouldn't eat.
Have you ever heard people argue about cilantro?


I was having this discussion with my sister the other day as we sat in what used to be Tulsa's Vietnamese Restaurant (in the days when there was just one), talking about that and the single Thai Restaurant (ibid). She said something about cilantro and I realized I don't mind cilantro in, say, Vietnamese or Thai food, but I don't like it in Mexican food.

I have no idea what this means.
posted by fedward at 5:27 PM on July 21, 2015


It's been fun to overhear my old-school Italian neighbors in South Philly try bahn mi after realizing how close it is to a hoagie -- eh, jalapeno instead of longhots, fresh cucumbers instead of pickled, a sprig of cilantro instead of minced parsley, but still the same idea -- and fall madly in love.)

Not South Philly, but there's a Vietnamese mini-mart, Fu Wah, at 47th and Baltimore in West Philly, that has a tofu banh mi. They call it a "tofu hoagie". It is delicious. I miss it.
posted by madcaptenor at 5:39 PM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


Damn, I've never heard anyone say ethnic food before. My mother primarily cooked a lot of pasta and different "European" foods because her father immigrated from Sweden and fought in WW2, and my dad grew up poor in Miami, FL so he made a lot of Cuban food, a lot of "black people" food (he hung out at a lot of the black bars as a kid), a lot of Jewish food, and "poor people" food like kale (which is popular now). He also fought in Vietnam so he made us a lot of food he ate over there. When I was a little older I remember eating instant ramen for dinner sometimes because we didn't have enough money for groceries sometimes, and now ramen is huge. My idea of fancy "ethnic" food growing up was like, getting a good steak or something. And yeah, people can laugh about Applebee's, but my family sometimes went there when we were lucky and had some extra money to go out, so I grew up thinking places like that and Outback Steakhouse were fancy "ethnic" food places, although as I got older figured out they aren't at all.

Also, someone up thread mentioned people making jokes about dog being served at "Asian" places. There was a burrito place in Phoenix that got caught serving feral dog meat in their burritos and tacos so whenever I am out late and getting a burrito I joke about finding dog meat in it because I definitely ate at that place and was probably served some.
posted by gucci mane at 5:40 PM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


Yes! I hate it when people talk about "ethnic food" as a code word for "any food not usually eaten by white people." And people definitely do use the term; in fact just look at this recent thread from Manhattan Chowhound: "Best ethnic, Upper West Side."

All the same, I have some sympathy for the use of the term "ethnic food", because it is a useful term. I've been writing and re-writing this comment, trying to explain that I rarely eat "white people food." Nominally, that's because I'm not a "white person" and I didn't grow up eating "white people food." But of course that's a huge can of worms, because who are white people and what do they eat? After all, I love Italian food and Eastern European food, and those people are "white", aren't they?

So really, what it boils down to is: I like food that comes from a specific culinary tradition. For me, a French restaurant is "ethnic." A Southern restaurant is "ethnic." A BBQ restaurant is "ethnic."

And I would argue that America (as a whole) doesn't really have a culinary tradition, other than perhaps the tradition of functionality. For most of its recent past, America has had a very functional relationship with food. Think of a generically "American" food, and more often than not, it will be a functional, fast food. Burgers. Pizza slices. Sandwiches. "Wraps". Salad with dry chicken breast in it. The menu of Applebee's.

Eating is one of my greatest daily pleasures, but I know a lot of people who simply don't like eating. They would be happy drinking glop 3 times a day that provided all of their nutrients. They eat the same boring sandwich for lunch every day. They just view food as fuel for their bodies, they take no special pleasure from it. And obviously that's an extreme, but I feel like that attitude characterizes American food culture to some extent. You go to places like Chipotle and they ask you to "pick a protein", as if the only reason one would eat meat is for its nutritional value. There's even a restaurant chain that calls itself "Fuel"! Can you think of a more unappetizing, utilitarian restaurant name?

So I can sympathize with people who want to eat "ethnic" food, if only because most generic American food is rather boring, and it's the most common type of food served in the US.

One interesting point from the original link is the idea that people are unwilling to pay a premium for "ethnic" food. I'm the other way. I rarely eat at (for lack of a better term) "white people restaurants" because I think they're overpriced. You're paying for fancy decor, a scene, service, it's implied that you will be buying alcohol. You're not paying for dinner, you're paying to go out. I don't want any of those things, I just want good food on nights when I'm too tired to cook and I don't want to eat take out. I'm struggling to think of "white people restaurants" in NYC that aren't also scene-y type places - maybe diners, but I don't think generic American diner food is very good.
posted by pravit at 6:16 PM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


And I would argue that America (as a whole) doesn't really have a culinary tradition, other than perhaps the tradition of functionality.

The entire South would likely beg to differ. The Southwest, too.

And the things you're handwaving away as 'utilitarian' food are in many ways exactly what the American culinary tradition is. The hamburger is a uniquely--and iconically--American food.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 6:47 PM on July 21, 2015 [10 favorites]


And I would argue that America (as a whole) doesn't really have a culinary tradition

If you reduce American cuisine (as a whole) to "white people's food" and reduce "white people's food" to Applebee's, diners, and "scene-y" restaurants, then of course you're going to argue that there's no American culinary tradition. Like any other tourist you're seeing what you want to see. It's a wonder that you've noticed that Americans eat at all.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:57 PM on July 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


And I would argue that America (as a whole) doesn't really have a culinary tradition, other than perhaps the tradition of functionality. For most of its recent past, America has had a very functional relationship with food. Think of a generically "American" food, and more often than not, it will be a functional, fast food. Burgers. Pizza slices. Sandwiches. "Wraps". Salad with dry chicken breast in it. The menu of Applebee's.

not only is it pants-on-head ridiculous to ignore the complexities of burgers and pizza and diners and Caesar salad (American!) and the Slow Food movement in California in order to reduce them to their limpest, safest, saddest mass-market forms, but it's also straight-out offensive to act as though American food culture belongs to and was shaped only by white people. Soul food is American. General Tso's chicken is American. Tex-Mex and New Mexican food is American.
posted by kagredon at 7:16 PM on July 21, 2015 [8 favorites]


So I can sympathize with people who want to eat "ethnic" food, if only because most generic American food is rather boring

Right, but the whole point is that only certain cultures get labeled as "ethnic". There are plenty of cuisines which aren't boring or utilitarian, but don't get called "ethnic".

Just as people who moved away from the US or a western European countries are called "expats", but people who moved away from another country are called "immigrants", the word "ethnic" is part of a way of thinking that recognizes different degrees of foreign-ness.

"Ethnic" doesn't just mean "non-American": it's a specific kind of non-American (almost entirely non-western-European, and largely non-white). Italian, Irish, Norwegian: none of these are ever called "ethnic" (though some of them were at one time). As you move eastward and southward, though—Greek, Hungarian, Polish—now you're getting ethnicky.

Mexican and (depending on where you live) Cuban straddle the borderline: they're Hispanic, but they're familiar Hispanic. But if you're talking about Salvadorean, Peruvian, Guatemalan...then you're in "ethnic" territory. That stuff is exotic and unfamiliar and "other".

Similarly, Japanese food isn't generally considered "ethnic"—there's a sushi/hibachi joint in every podunk town in the US by now, and you'll see the same mix of races patronizing them as you would see at any given shopping mall. (Heck, you can buy takeout sushi at most supermarkets.) But when you start getting into the cuisines of southeast Asia—Vietnamese, Korean, Indonesian—you guessed it! "Ethnic".

Basically, there are three main categories: "American", "Foreign but Honorary American" (Italian/French/German/etc., and to some extent Mexican/Japanese), and "Ethnic" (all that other, weird stuff from countries that Americans can't find on a map).

An "ethnic restaurant", to a "Normal" White Person, is one where he hears unfamiliar music and unfamiliar languages; smells unfamiliar smells; may be the only white person in the room (which might make him uncomfortable, or might give him something to brag about to his friends later, or both); etc. Cultures regarded as "ethnic" are those which haven't integrated into American culture.

They're often poorer countries, as well, adding to the "othering" factor—most of the world can't afford to be as prissy about food as Americans are. Goat? Fish head soup? Tripe? Cow tongue? Why the hell not—it's perfectly nutritious, and (if you're used to it) perfectly tasty. But it violates American food taboos, so it gets pushed into the "other" category. (Sushi used to be this way—and probably still is, in some places. "OMG, raw fish? Disgusting!" The whole "cat/dog meat in Chinese food" trope is a manifestation of the same anxiety—thankfully, this seems to be fading, but "joking" or not, a lot of people used to seem nervous that there must be something suspect in there.)
posted by escape from the potato planet at 7:17 PM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


Similarly, Japanese food isn't generally considered "ethnic"

Gonna disagree on that one.
posted by Drinky Die at 7:25 PM on July 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


It probably depends on where you live and who you're talking to.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 7:28 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


Damn, I've never heard anyone say ethnic food before.

I hear it all the time.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:47 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


I hate to break it to you all, but Americans are some of the more adventurous, varied, eaters out there. Sure newer cuisines take a generation or so to become standards, but they become (albeit "Americanized") standards.
posted by aspo at 8:06 PM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


I thought you should know that tonight was leftovers night here: doner kebab, hummus, sagg paneer, tomato bisque, cambozola, and prosecco, with chocolate tart and espresso for afters. I'm now enjoying a glass of Pierre Ferrand and another hit of that cambozola.


I love it here.
 
posted by Herodios at 8:30 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


Here in Melbourne there's a store called USA Foods that carries imported groceries for homesick expats. I've been in a couple of times; it's really weird.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:31 PM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


at first I was stunned that there was a whole subsection for poptarts, and then I was more baffled when I realized that they don't stock any of the good flavors
posted by kagredon at 8:42 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


unless you want to buy a box of like 50 and still get stuck with a bunch of strawberry ones
posted by kagredon at 8:43 PM on July 21, 2015


Kraft Macaroni and Cheese is a food tradition religion.

noticed your typo
posted by turbid dahlia at 9:09 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


at first I was stunned that there was a whole subsection for poptarts, and then I was more baffled when I realized that they don't stock any of the good flavors

There is only one good flavor of poptarts: brown sugar and cinnamon. And I haven't seen them here (in San Francisco which is sort of in the USA) for ages, either. WHAT IS GOING ON, KELLOGG'S?
posted by trip and a half at 9:18 PM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


Anyway, so sometimes... sometimes you get these people from the Zurich office who are otherwise nice people I'm sure and they come to HQ here and they complain pretty bitterly about not being able to eat any of the food for its intense spiciness.

I was once served curry chicken in Switzerland that was literally mayo with turmeric mixed in and topped with a slice of pineapple. Switzerland has a lot of wonderful, wonderful foods, but this was not one of them.
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:27 PM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


You know, when I was first starting to cook I had already developed a taste for spiciness but my Dad who grew up in depression era America never really had. Obviously, I nuked his tastebuds. It took years for him to stop saying everything I cooked was too spicy even if it contained literally no spice.

I think it might be some basic human psychological reaction to avoid being poisoned again or something. So, I imagine some of these people who think international cuisines are too spicy may have tried them once and gotten nuked because they just ordered something they should not have and could never get over it psychologically. So, they end up like my Dad tasting heat that doesn't exist. A lot about appreciating and tasting food comes from the brain instead of the tongue. I think people can be afraid to ask for help in ordering sometimes and sometimes menus don't give enough detail. Maybe introduce a Newbie or For Dummies menu.

(And yes, speaking of dummies, bring me a fork. Never got the hang of chopsticks.)
posted by Drinky Die at 9:33 PM on July 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


I was once served curry chicken in Switzerland that was literally mayo with turmeric mixed in and topped with a slice of pineapple.

That's kind of awe-inspiring
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:36 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


I noticed the other day that Corner Bakery -- which is, bluntly, basically a class-conscious lunchtime version of Applebee's -- now has an "Asian pork sandwich" which is transparently a banh mi only dialed back in the same way that a production car always looks like a dimwitted, boring version of the concept car that goes to an auto show. It's a sad hint of what might have been, clearly derived from the same idea, but giving little of the experience that the original was designed to.

Anyway, I think sisig is probably a bit further away from its elevation (or debasement) to chain-restaurant staple, but it's probably just a matter of time. And when it makes it there, it won't be called "sisig". It'll be called "Asian citrus pork" or something similarly unexotic and safe sounding.

Such is the culinary lifecycle. What starts as daring outsider culture becomes merely exotic, and then simply foreign, and eventually "ethnic". From there, it's a long time of languishing, until the stars and marketing departments align to cut away the awkward cultural and linguistic baggage, and package everything up in an easy-to-consume form, at which point it just becomes part of the majority culture. The existence of "ethnic food" as a category is a symptom of that process, not a cause, and calling it something else ("immigrant food" seems so much worse) isn't really going to change much.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:03 PM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


Man, this is a weird conversation. The fair cop in the FPP about racist undertones to "ethnic" combined with an utter blindness to class and a weird view of how Americans eat and some just wrongo filler history bullshit; the odd convolutions of how MeFites both define "ethnic" and their knee-jerk reactions to emotional food cues; the ahistorical views of culinary culture… What a gallimaufry!

When I was growing up outside Chicago, "ethnic" meant Italian, Polish, Hungarian, maybe Spanish - basically Eastern and Southern Europe. Oddly, even though I'd say it was a pretty racist and unsophisticated place, people said they were getting Chinese food if they were getting Chinese food, or Mexican food if they were getting Mexican food.

My parents are from outside Chicago (North Riverside/Berwyn etc.), and I grew up in Michigan. The definition of "ethnic" I grew up with meant Italian, Polish, Bohemian, Irish, German, Mexican or Chinese, if only because options like Indian weren't common enough to rate.

I've always been really conscious of the food I've eaten, not least because I grew up vegetarian. At nearly every meal not eaten with my immediate family, I've been an outsider, asking for something different than almost everyone else. I can remember loving the spread of Taco Bells across the country because it meant that there was something other than cheese pizza to eat while traveling. The combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell was like a collision of 80 percent of all the road trip food I ate as a kid.

As you might guess from the vegetarianism thing, I was raised by hippies. They were incredibly food conscious, which was its own bit of rebellion from their parents — my dad had grown up as a weird sickly and gangly kid, and his reward for having blood drawn all the time, he basically only ate meat. He had never eaten a tomato until he moved in with my mother — he barely tolerated the vegetable content of ketchup. None of my grandparents could cook — my grandfathers weren't expected to, and my grandmothers developed their palates on Depression-era canned food. It makes sense to loathe brussels sprouts if you've only had canned ones boiled, and for both sets of grandparents they never really understood that vegetarians eat more than boiled Green Giant.

But "ethnic" restaurants were an oasis. It was my dad who led the way on that — he travelled for work, and often an Indian restaurant was a treat instead of more terrible pizza (and, coming from Chicagoland, both my parents have opinions on pizza). He didn't drink then either, so the Lebanese joints around Dearborn were a respite from his asshole coworkers. My mom took longer to come around — when she was pregnant with me and my brother, she picked up a whole constellation of puke triggers. Like a whiff of Captain Morgan brings back the feeling of a high school hangover, some bad dolmas put her off Middle Eastern for over 20 years. But this was food someone else would make that we could eat and it wouldn't be so goddamned bland — the number one mistake that meat eaters make in preparing vegetarian food is to under season it, followed closely by trying to make it healthier than meat options. Even after we moved to the college town, "vegetarian" restaurants were a luxury; "ethnic" restaurants were what we could afford and (at least nominally) reflected cultures where meat was enough of a luxury that there would be something on the menu for us.

It wasn't a panacea — plenty of "Mexican" places defaulted to lard in their beans, European "ethnic" (outside of Italian, which usually has something) is all boiled sausages, and different Asian cultural assumptions about what constitutes a meat make a lot of questions not worth asking. But still, it was and is often cheaper and more flavorful than "American" alternatives, especially vegetarian options at mainstream restaurants. (I learned the hard way that I could either pack a PB&J for every meal on a school trip or get stuck trying to choke down the potatoes "hog rotten" at whatever Bill Knapps the teacher picked for our repast.)

I live in LA now and understand the ways that "authenticity" is a proxy for bolder flavors that are novel to me, the lower price point so that I can still afford to try new things and not have a week or month's restaurant budget blown on mediocre noodles, and — not to get too goddamned pretentious — I want to encourage people to understand that there's no inherent conflict between being authentically of a foreign culture and also authentically American. I think the danger is in essentializing that aesthetics of authenticity into hierarchies, which is something the complaint about "ethnic" versus "fusion" gets at. Like, I've had shitty pizza in Italy, Korea and America. I can recognize that despite the paragraphs of google-translated-English narrative of authentic roots, the joint we got taken to in Seoul had absolutely zero idea of what a pizza should taste like (or any of the Italian food that we ordered) and that their cooking showed an abject lack of authenticity — they would have likely improved if they had gone to Italy instead of reverse engineering some abomination. But then, your average Roman pizza al taglio is both authentic and pretty crappy compared to Neapolitan or New York.
posted by klangklangston at 12:36 AM on July 22, 2015 [10 favorites]


Wagon Wheels.
posted by essexjan at 5:20 AM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


Filipino sisig ... And that’s true whether we’re in Los Angeles, Minneapolis or Washington.

Minneapolis does not have a Filipino restaurant. None in the whole state that I can find. For whatever reason very few Filipinos ever moved here. Of course there are a few cusines represented here that aren't really anywhere else, like Hmong and Scandinavian, so I don't complain too much.
posted by miyabo at 5:25 AM on July 22, 2015


I left the US for Italy in 1973 and discovered pesto. I returned to the US in 1976 and somehow this regional dish from a not very touristy area had become a thing.

I've always wondered, who blew the gaff?

(Still astonishing how hard it is to get Rijsttafel in the US. Why dozens of people are not out there making a killing is beyond me.)
posted by BWA at 7:53 AM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


All food is ethnic food.
posted by littlejohnnyjewel at 10:35 AM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


Similarly, Japanese food isn't generally considered "ethnic"

Gonna disagree on that one.


It was enough of a thing that even while working in Japan, a few of my fellow foreign workers tried to use "ate some bad sushi" as an excuse to take a sick day. Because raw fish! Risky behaviour, that! Hint: no you didn't, and this excuse was like the biggest red flag ever.
posted by Hoopo at 10:50 AM on July 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


BUT another element in disliking "ethnic" foods, especially mexican, is the use of beans, which some white folks seem to think will turn them into a North Dakota gas field. Now, sure, some people do get gassy fro beans. BUT HONESTLY PEOPLE. Beans are not going to kill you.

My family tree has roots in Mexico. I didn't eat beans for most of my childhood because I was paranoid about farting and getting teased for it.

I think my grocery store (in the High Desert of SoCal) has an "International" section, not an "ethnic" one.
posted by luckynerd at 1:09 PM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


Soak your beans overnight, you'll be fine.

When I first moved to my middle-class neighborhood in Minneapolis, the grocery store relegated spaghetti to the Ethnic Foods aisle. (Italian, get it?) Things have gotten so, so much better since then. Recently I bought chocolate-covered matzoh and a 1-lb bag of raw cumin at the same store.
posted by miyabo at 2:35 PM on July 22, 2015


I will definitely try this place if I visit St. Paul! But I wlll be measuring it against Dainty Sichuan in Melbourne, Australia and various Sichuan restaurants in China. I live in the SF Bay Area and there are one or two okay Sichuan restaurants, but they certainly skimp on the peppercorns imo.

I can attest that there's at least one restaurant in New York that doesn't skimp on spice in its hotpot - at least not the night I tried it. And I'm used to a fair amount of heat.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:01 PM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


I love Little Sichuan! And its cohorts, Grand Sichuan and Tea House (all founded by the same chef, pretty similar menus). The cumin lamb is amazing.

Weirdly, I work a couple miles away from the place with people from big Sichuan... I haven't asked what they think of it.
posted by miyabo at 9:30 PM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm in Glasgow, Scotland. In our World Food section we have shelves devoted to Irish food. I think that sums up Glasgow pretty well.
posted by kariebookish at 1:17 AM on July 23, 2015 [5 favorites]


Oh, oh, and way late in the thread, but how did I not think of this earlier? So, 'Ethnic':

My mother worked at an Italian restaurant that was bought by a Hungarian chef. It already had the name, the decor, the red and white placemats, so... he just ran it as an Italian restaurant.
But ALL the specials were actually Hungarian.
It was Auckland, New Zealand, in the 1980s.
Nobody noticed.

One really 'special' special, was 'Exotic green vegetable in a buttery sauce', which he refused to explain any further to any of the diners. See, as a kid, one of a dozen or siblings, his mother had sent them round to get kitchen scraps from restaurants, so the 'exotic' vegetable, was based off this practice, and was in fact, peeled broccoli stalks.
Delicious. Exotic.

Context is, if not everything, then pretty damn close.
posted by Elysum at 5:54 PM on July 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


Lots of our chain supermarkets in the UK have the "World Food" aisle, which is Chinese, Indian, some Japanese and possibly Mexican food, but presented for British people. Lots of ready made sauces and "kits" for things. Everything is in very small sizes and very expensive.

Completely separately from that, there are miscellaneous unlabelled sections of general grocery aisles which contain food aimed at current local immigrant populations, largely Pakistani, Eastern European and Caribbean. Ten kilos of rice, big jars of ghee, Cock Soup, sauerkraut, cans of coconut drink, and lots of things that are not labelled in English, sometimes Polish brands of regular stuff you could get elsewhere.

Perhaps in 50 years there will be a twee little Polish section in the World Food aisle.
posted by emilyw at 3:50 AM on July 26, 2015


Applebees locations near you
New York City: 45 locations
Washington DC: 20 locations
Los Angeles : 20 locations
Seattle : 20 locations
Boston : 19 locations
San Francisco: 19 locations
Portland, OR : 12 locations
Chicago : 15 locations
St Louis : 4 locations

Where exactly is this 'midwest' of which you speak?


Sorry, this is one of my pet peeves but statistics like this are completely meaningless when you don't normalize them!

This list seems to imply that east-coast NYC is super full of Applebee's, PNW Seattle is somewhere in the middle, and midwestern Chicago and St Louis have very few in comparison, but in fact Applebee's are fairly equally distributed in NYC, Chicago, STL: there is 1 Applebee's for every 521,000 people in metro NYC; 660,000 people in metro Chicago; and 699,000 people in metro St. Louis. It's in fact *Seattle* that is the standout, with 1 Applebee's for every 220,000 metro Seattle residents.

Yes, I realize this still means that Applebee's aren't an exclusively Midwestern thing. (Although, I will point out that crunching the numbers for metro Milwaukee indicates 1 Applebee's for every 136,000 residents.) But the actual concentration of Applebee's isn't represented well by this list at all.

(Population figures based on 2012 CSA estimates: 23.462 million for NYC; 9.900 million for Chicago; 2.796 million for St. Louis; 4.399 million for Seattle. CSAs are used because the search function on Applebee's isn't strictly limited to city centers.)
posted by andrewesque at 6:44 PM on July 29, 2015


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