Politics and the Dinner Table
\”Look,\” said Ali, an Egyptian/American chef, pointing at a plateful of traditional Alexandrian food in his Queens restaurant. \”The history of the world.\”
He had just put in extraordinarily succinct terms what any well traveled eater, student of ethnic or national food ways — or serious food nerd has come to know: that what is on your plate, the choice or selection, or preferences — or ingredients — almost any place you are eating, are the end result of movements of people and resources, the punch line of a story usually involving (at some point in history), deprivation, starvation, colonialism, slavery, greed, and warfare. No need for us to get all depressed about that.
The end result of the above — at least (and only) as far as cuisine — is more often than not, good.
People eat what they eat for a reason. And they tend to cook well for a reason. That reason may no longer exist as a prime motivator — but it\’s there if you care to go back and look.
People may not have to eat salt cod in Portugal or \”stock fish\” in the Caribbean anymore. The days of conquest for one — and slavery for the other, are long gone. But they do (Cause it\’s good. Or they\’ve managed to make it good.) The relatively non-perishable, seige-friendly cuisine of Fez, Morocco, the delicious one-time scraps and beans of Brazilian feijouda, the Spam cults of Korea and Hawaii, the bony delights of Malaysian sup tulang, the simple act of coffee drinking relate directly to the collision of cultures and, usually, to people doing bad things to each other.
No reason to fight the Battle of Hastings — or Dien Bien Phu over and over again, or wring our hands, particularly, over who was right and who was wrong. But it\’s certainly useful and appropriate when visiting a country, I think, to acknowledge that wars, for instance, happened, and to take note of who won — and who lost. More often than not, it\’s why there are still potatoes on your plate — instead of a starchy farinaceous product, couscous or rice.
I\’m not a pundit, an activist, an advocate for anybody. My political views are my own — and I try — really try, to keep them to myself. The last person I want to hear talk about politics or the nation\’s conscience or obligation to the world is some Hollywood ****tard. Some well-paid douchebag who lives in a compound in Malibu has, to my mind, very little of value or interest to say to anyone who\’s worried about the price of milk.
Neither you (nor I) should have to be preached to by Sean Penn or Leonardo DiCaprio — from between the legs of a beautiful actress — (even if I agree with them much of the time). Ditto, anyone lucky enough, like me, to have a job writing and making self-indulgent television.
That said, there are certain things one cannot help but notice when making food and travel television. One tends to notice — as in Laos — when one has to be careful about where one steps on the way to one\’s meal. Or (as in Laos and Cambodia when the people one encounters at meals are missing limbs. To not mention these screamingly obvious features — how they might have occurred and how they remain factors in every day life, would feel … bizarre.
It is no slight, for instance, against those Americans who fought along side of the Hmong people — to mention the final outcome of what happened there. Just as it is useful and appropriate to remind people that the Hmong, our allies, who lost so much in that struggle, still exist. Nothing \”political\” about acknowledging history. Particularly, when you are about to sit down and eat with it.
On a slightly different front, my crew and I spend a LOT of time in countries where the government\’s attitude towards human rights is not what you (presumably) or I or the residents of a comfortable, well fed community in say … the Berkeley area, might find appropriate or acceptable. If — as has been suggested by some viewers, we have an obligation to avoid ANY country where human rights are routinely violated or where equality of the sexes is not respected, the list of shows we would NOT have shown you at all might include China, Laos, Vietnam, Uzbekistan, Russia, Egypt, Malaysia, Indonesia and on and on.
If you wanted to put a really fine point on it, you could argue that even Colombia or sybaritic Brazil, don\’t stand the test of Political Correctness. I doubt, for that matter, that even we do these days. So … what then? Take this argument to its logical extreme and we\’d end up making shows exclusively in Sweden and Iceland.
\”How can you make TV in China and NOT mention the oppression of the Tibetan people?!\” – Goes one argument. And it\’s a pretty compelling one. But once committed to shooting in a country, one becomes very aware of those one will leave behind. The people who open their homes to our cameras, who guide us, drive us, feed us — they LIVE in the places I\’m talking blithely about on camera. If I start asking them questions like \”So …How was that re-education camp?\” It could put all involved with us in a very tough spot long after me and the crew have gone and are comfortably back in New York.
It\’s a fine line we have to walk sometimes. But what you should know about the leader whose biquitous and unsmiling portrait hangs on the walls of every home and business in Country X will always be mentioned — and the fact that it\’s on every wall should tell you plenty.
Conversely, I believe it to be useless, counterproductive and just … willfully ignorant to demonize everyone in a country because one finds their national policies or cultural beliefs repellent. The very last thing any of us aspire to do when making \”No Reservations\” is show you a definitive portrait of a nation, a culture or a religion — or even a city. It\’s not the \”Best\” or \”Worst\” of anything. It\’s not even the \”typical\”, necessarily — though we try and show everyday foods and life as much as we can. This is as true of the Saudi Arabia show as it is of … the Cleveland show.
At their best, our shows go like this:
I encounter some people — or take them along. They show me their lives. We go some places –meet some friends. I tell you how that felt to me. THAT\’S what we do. Now, if I\’ve managed to convey those things in entertaining — and possibly informative fashion (good or bad), then I\’ve succeeded. If, inadvertently, I\’ve found — once again — that people around the world, more often than not — are actually pretty nice — and not THAT different than you and me? Well, great. Score one for optimism. I\’m not, however, in the feel good business. But if you\’re genuinely nice to me and my crew, hospitable and I actually have a good time in your home? I\’ll make every effort to reflect that feeling.
Defining the \”character\” of a people is a complex matter. I have had many a warm and wonderful time in places where — just across town, it is likely that someone was getting their testicles twisted by some very unpleasant policemen. Just as I have been places where Very Bad Things have happened to Very Nice People, I have also met many Very Nice People who have done Very Bad Things.
Where we, as Americans, fall within those parameters, is open to debate. Personally, I embrace that grey zone — where morality, such as it is, is defined by how we, as individuals, can — given the opportunity — treat each other at the table. If nothing else, it\’s a start.
On \”No Reservations,\” I\’ve sat down to eat with many different kinds of people over the years: Miguel Cotto punches people in the head until they become unconscious — for a living. Nice guy. Really knows a good place for roast pork. For much of his life, Victor Cherkashin was in charge of all KGB operations against the USA — and personally oversaw some of our worst and most destructive traitors. Sweetest old man you\’d ever hope to meet. And good pickled mushrooms! Ted Nugent (coming soon) holds political views which would make Ghengis Khan blanche. He also knows good brisket. I really like all of them. And I think you should too.
Oh yeah … Uruguay was really cool. NOT a good place to be a vegetarian.