By Austin Shiner
BEIJING, China, 3:16 p.m. — Culinary variety indicates globalization. It makes sense: restauranteurship is a good option for immigrants adjusting to a new culture yet striving to maintain their own. American cuisine is both bolstered and battered by our melting-pot society (although melting-pot is hardly an appropriate metaphor — it suggests homogeneity, which is misleading. We’re more of a casserole, stratified into distinct layers which, working together, create something better than any single layer can offer. If this seems like an idealized culinary simplification, it is: food always irons out the creases).
China: is it globalized? The Olympics say yes, as Beijing hosts one of humanity’s greatest showings of international cooperation, starting tomorrow. Business says yes, as gleaming office buildings grow like weeds from China’s fertile entrepreneurial ground. Language says yes, as school children learn English and the expatriate population grows every day. Yet food says no.
Chinese people still, overwhelmingly, eat Chinese food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Sure, one cannot lump all Chinese cuisine into a single ball: Beijing, Hunan, Sichuan, Canton, and many other Chinese provinces have distinctive flavors. Yet it’s all Chinese, and a city dwellers’ access to this variety is a product of national unification, not globalization. Excluding the occasional McDonald’s, Starbucks, and the few ultra high-class French establishments, Beijing is entirely void of foreign foods. Contrast this with America. Tired of Italian? Worn down from Mexican? Feeling like Cuban? Ready for Moroccan? “I’m sick of Ethiopian, let’s go for some Hunanese” is the perfect embodiment of the American dream, as immigration gives everyday Americans freedom of culinary choice.
Yet last night, in one of Beijing’s highly westernized bar districts, Sam, Connie and I sampled some of Beijing’s only Mexican food (prepared by Chinese). It was my first non-Chinese fare of the trip. The guacamole was out of proportion (much more onion, tomato, and cilantro than avocado), yet my nachos (an Americanized version with ground beef and sour cream) were pretty tasty. I don’t see a wave of Mexican immigration coming to China any time soon, however. America, in this respect, might be unique: our confluence of immigration and magnetic attraction to peoples the world over has created the world’s most global society.
An aside: Professor Paul Freedman’s “History of Cuisine” course is stunning. I took it last semester — the reading list was scrumptious. No one explains America’s process of culinary diversification and its divergence from the European model better than Professor Freedman.
Globalization hasn’t been all good for American cuisine. Indigenous foods get lost in the shuffle as choice grows. Foreigners associate American food with McDonald’s and Starbucks, not our glorious Cajun, New England, Southwest, or California cuisines. Despite our British past and the culinary damage it wrought (another topic Professor Freedman covers in depth) America’s home-grown cuisine is world-class – so long as one digs beneath the corporate facade.
Adventuresome stomachs take heart: in its great spirit of individual freedom, America has tremendous mealtime choice. China does not. For me, it’s just another difference between home and Beijing. I don’t know what’s for dinner tonight, but I’d bet my life it’s not tapas.