“One does not need to be authentic to be ethnic.” – Susan Kalcik (Ethic Foodways in America)

The sun is coming out and it looks like another foggy bay area morning. I’m drinking my coffee and reading a book on food, one of my favorite ways to spend the extra minutes I have in the day. The book comes with me as much as my car keys or my cell phone. Like all babies, Siena has about a 50/50 chance of falling asleep in the car and I can’t bear to wake her most times, so I end up parking in a shady spot so she can enjoy her nap uninterrupted.

It’s been awhile since I’ve written. Mostly because I had to take a breather from balancing my full-time job, school and mommy duties. Plus I’ve decided not to work this summer, instead choosing to wake up with my daughter every morning, have her “cook” me breakfast, and spend the day playing, cuddling and napping. Having a child has brought me a feeling of satisfaction and contentment I’ve never known before. My heart feels a very solid and true love.

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I have also been contributing weekly to Metroactive Newspaper, an alternative weekly based in downtown San Jose. I’ve been doing restaurant reviews for the last few weeks. If you’re in the area, new issues are out Wednesday or you can check them out on the web here: http://www.metroactive.com.

I thought I’d introduce this new part of FilipinoFoodProject.com, a discussion of food quotes on Tuesday. I love food quotes and collect them with each new book. Right now I am reading Consuming Geographies by David Bell and Gill Valentine, and they discuss a point that immediately got me thinking about Filipino Food.

When discussing community, Bell and Valentine discuss the evolution of food and its entry into the mainstream:

Susan Kalcik (1984) has described the process as ‘acculturation and hybridization’:

1) Ethnic cuisine is altered to fit host cuisine (ingredients, ways of cooking, etc.)

2) Ethic cuisine gradually incorporates more of the host cuisine– at the same time – a ‘watering down’ of the cuisine begins, and members of the ‘host’ community begin to try the ethnic food.

3) Host community gets used to its presence and begins to enjoy it.

 All of this, Kalcik argues demands a ‘cultural entrepreneurship’ in which culture and its food are constantly recast.

What do you think of this perspective on the incorporation of ethnic food?

 My mind immediately darted to Panda Express, a fast food chain for Chinese food. I have to be completely honest – I love Panda Express. I wouldn’t say that it’s my favorite Chinese restaurant (because that’s a BIG no-no) but on a busy weekday night I wouldn’t turn down some orange chicken or eggplant with tofu. I know it’s not particularly authentic or distinctive but it offers elements I love:

  • It’s clean
  • It uses ‘clean’ cuts: chicken breast meat, meat that is devoid of fat.
  • The foundational flavors are there. Nothing spectacular but it’s darn good ‘desperation’ Chinese food.
  • It has habituated the American public to the Chinese palate.
  • Portions are huge.

Then I’ve classified those elements: aesthetics, ingredients, familiarity, regional/national popularity and portions.

What I think is most interesting about this breakdown is that essentially, there are no surprises with Panda Express. The food has to be completely malleable to reign in success, in other words, it has to be easily molded and translated to the American palate with a few, ethnic core ingredients.

Some would say that chain restaurants are the death of ethnic cuisine, with some calling it the ‘bastardization’ of food. I’m also interested in the timeline of acculturation and how it pertains to Filipino food. Is it true that no one has unlocked that ‘secret’ to bring Filipino food to the mainstream? What needs to be done to our food to make it more approachable to the American public? Thoughts?

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One thought on ““One does not need to be authentic to be ethnic.” – Susan Kalcik (Ethic Foodways in America)

  1. Glad your back. Referencing your comment on Panda Express, you forgot to mention the universal appeal of this chain…its convenient.

    Last weekend I spent a few minutes with a trio of Filipino gentlemen at the local donut shop and began a conversation about coffee. We all agreed that the coffee at the donut shop was to our liking because it was fresh, inexpensive and not fancy (ie/ Starbucks). After the usual pleasantries I posed the question about coffee again and in particular, coffee imported from the Philippines. As we were in Milpitas, there were comments about Barako coffee which can be purchased from Coffee Adventure. After that, nothing much else. I took the conversation to another level, tobacco. More comments and amusing anecdotes of the big ‘cigars’ that are rolled by the tobacco workers and their families. Further comments of family and friends asking for Filipino cigars to be brought back in their pasalubong. Unlike coffee which didn’t so much raise an eyebrow, the ensuing conversation about tobacco and cigars in the Philippines began took a life of its own. So a couple of things. In regards to coffee, it necessarily was viewed as anything ‘special’ despite the popularity of the coffee drinking culture here in the US. Tobacco and Filipino cigars on the other hand seemed to have a sort of cult status. The same, perhaps, can be said about Filipino food. For the Fil-Ams and the mainstream, Filipino food has a cult status. On the other hand with respect to our older generations and their experiences, Filipino food or more accurately ‘home cooking’ is just a part of daily life as opposed to our showcase dishes such as pancit, lumpia, puto bumbong which are closely associated with good times.

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