Preparing the Other: The Politics of Food

Dutch television, it seems, is infested with them: food commercials. You cannot spend an evening vegging out in front of the TV without being confronted with at least one commercial in which some or other comestible is being advertised. All commercials are tiresome in one way or another, however food commercials that advertise “ethnic food” are liable to be – in addition to tiresome – extremely colonialist in their narrative and presentation. Through most, if not all, of those “ethnic food” commercials there run the long fungal hyphae of colonialism.

These commercials of seemingly harmless reproductions of “ethnic food” tell us a lot about the role that Otherness plays in the recipe of our culture. Food is a medium through which we learn more about not only our own culture but also about various other cultures. In that sense, food and its preparation are respectively a site and a practice of a (multi)cultural pedagogy.

The consumption of “ethnicity” is quite often framed as a sign of cosmopolitanism or, in some cases, as an indication of anti-racism. The urbane consumer’s active participation in eating “different” foods, or trying on “different” modes of dress is conceived as her/his being familiar or at ease with the Other – or, to put it more bluntly: as not fearing miscegenation. However, as the following commercials illustrate this debonair attitude is ultimately only “multicultural posturing.” The acceptance of the Otherness of “ethnic food” is fuelled by the desire of consumers to be perceived as sophisticated cosmopolitans.

Generally, White Autochtoon Dutch people’s practice of eating the Other does not entail a genuine learning about nor an accepting of the Other; quite often it is a multiculturalism without ethnicities.

In fact, White Autochtoon Dutch folks cooking “ethnic food” at home usually highlights their own cultural identity – their White Autochtoon Dutchness. bell hooks’ notion of eating the other deals with how pop culture repackages and exploits “ethnic” cultural productions, like “ethnic cuisines,”  in reductionist and marginalizing ways that serve the dominant culture.

What the Knorr commercial makes clear, is that one can (virtually) ignore the racialized bodies that are associated with a type of food or a dish – despite the fact that food and the body are intimately connected in a myriad of ways. Not only do we use our bodies in the cultivation and preparation of food, but food is essential to keep our bodies functioning. Due to this close interrelatedness there is an intimacy in preparing food and eating. This intimacy is the inevitable result of  the experience of being close to something, of ingesting something, whilst you’re constantly aware that you’re surrounded by boundaries (thus simultaneously conjuring up the illicit idea of transgressing them; of the Other becoming part of the Self). Cooking “ethnic food” for White folks becomes then a double gesture of distancing and bringing closer – of conservation and transgression.

When we do see racialized bodies in “ethnic food” commercials they serve as props to enhance the foreignness of the food. In the Lassie Toverrijst commercials, which employ the same visual rhetoric as Uncle Ben’s, the Black male body serves as a technique to sell rice.

What is also at play in the Knorr commercial is a matter-of-fact demystification of the exoticism of the “Asian Other” through the “easy-to-prepare” recipe. One does not need to know precisely how “ethnic bodies” prepare a certain dish, if one lacks the necessary skills associated with its preparation, one can rely – successfully – on the know-how (or, more correctly, illusion) of Conimex and Knorr. In the process of preparing an ethnic dish Otherness itself becomes an ingredient to enhance one’s everyday humdrum existence.

Unlike the cookbook recipe, which Debra Castillo has described as a “theory of possibilities,” the packaged “quick-to-prepare” and “can’t-fail-favourites” of the likes of Knorr and Conimex offer a template that is pretty much fixed. Knorr boasts that “[E]very recipe was designed to please just about everyone.” It’s safe to assume that potentially disruptive elements, that might be construed as unpalatable, have been purged from the recipe. The end product is a sanitized dish, or as Uma Narayan has put it succintly a “package picture” of culture, capable of pleasing and exciting a wide variety of palates. Such a positioning does not encourage a deviation from the template; the recipe is in and of itself already whole. This process is an act of “hijacking,” packaging and marketing the Other’s “authentic” cultural production in such a manner that does not invite the cook to engage in a dialogue with the recipe.

As with colonization through the preparation of “ethnic food” White Autochtoon Dutch folks are trying to make a dish “theirs” – through the added flavour of a touch of Dutch – that isn’t “theirs.”

One of the privileges of being “White Autochtoon Dutch” is the invisibility that this positionality affords. The White Autochtoon Dutch person, whose body constitutes the norm, can remain personally oblivious of how White Autochtoon Dutch privilege affects contemporary race relations. White Autochtoon Dutchness, for instance, awards White bodies the privilege to define authenticity in any “ethnic food” – case in point: Pickwick’s Dutch blend “Authentic Dutch tea.”

The histories of the different intercultural “food encounters” that made this tea “Dutch” is glossed over in this commercial with a disdainful ease. Both the Pickwick and Conimex commercial obscure the violence perpetrated against the “Asian Other.” Instead – as the Pickwick Delicious Spices commercial shows – the Indian decor serves merely as an alluring backdrop that adds an exotic and romantic cachet to the image. The image of India is reduced to entertainment.

The violence that the VOC used to further their economic interests in South-East Asia, or the abuse, to which the Chinese immigrants were subjected, is completely veiled. The Chinese immigrants who worked in the Rotterdam docks at the beginning of the 20th century were treated like chattel; when they were no longer needed, they were marked as the “useless” Other. Chinese restaurants, which became an important means of economic survival, and the Chinese-Indonesian cuisine that Conimex positions as inherently Dutch, emerged from those harsh circumstances. Both tell the story of oppression, the Chinese diaspora and Dutch colonialism.

What makes these commercials problematic is that they re-embed through a reproduction of “ethnic food,” which promotes and normalizes the consumption of “ethnic cultures,” colonialist notions and attitudes and the epistemology of ignorance that comes with it.