Become Spoiled Moroccan Royalty for an Evening: The Allure of Ethnic Eateries
Issue #19, March 1995
Although there is always an entertainment and encouragement of cultural diversity, there's always a corresponding containment of it. A transparent norm is constituted, a norm given by the host society or dominant culture, which says that these other cultures are fine, but we must be able to locate them within our own grid. This is what I mean by a creation of cultural diversity and a containment of cultural difference.
— Homi Bhabha, from The Locations of Culture
When I was a child in New York City in the 1970s, my family would often go out to eat in the many different 'ethnic' restaurants that city has to offer. In true New Yorker fashion, my parents read the restaurant reviews in the New York Times faithfully, and would thereby garner ideas about new places to frequent. I remember these outings fondly, and have always thought it a testimony to my cosmopolitan nature that I am able to enjoy such diverse types of food.
When I moved to California, I took a semi-perverse pleasure in knowing just what foods to order off the menu at the Indian restaurant downtown, while some of my new-found friends from cities with a less heterogeneous population looked blankly at the list of strange delights. By this time (the late 1980s), ethnic restaurants had grown tremendously in popularity. It was no longer a struggle to locate a restaurant serving Afghani, El Salvadorian, or Vietnamese food.
It was some time later in my education that I began to question some of my assumptions regarding certain aspects of our culture. I had little trouble condemning larger social institutions and practices, particularly with regards to economic and social conditions; but it was harder for me to accept that my well-developed taste for seemingly innocuous pleasures, such as movies (even so-called 'arty' or 'intellectual' films), the theater, and yes, food, are very much implicated in the transmittal and solidification of some of the more insidious aspects of contemporary ideology.
I decided to take a closer look at the restaurant reviews that afforded me so much pleasure. When my funds were sparse, I would read restaurant reviews in lieu of visiting the restaurants themselves. I was my parents' child, all right. I definitely felt there was something sophisticated about eating 'ethnic' foods. Didn't it mark me as open-minded, progressive, and hip? Still, I was curious: what was I searching for other than a good samosa? More importantly, what underlying cultural assumptions do 'ethnic' restaurants and 'ethnic' restaurant reviews help perpetuate in our current economic and social order?
An investigation of restaurant reviews reveals a great deal about how cultural difference is absorbed, ingested and digested, while a perfect example of how contemporary cultural imperialism facilitates the perpetual marginalization of immigrant groups in America. These cultural documents also illuminate other aspects of life in our post-modern times. Most immediately striking is the desire for something authentic and true in a historical moment infused with cynicism and disbelief. This tendency reflects a nostalgia for a mythical earlier era, before community was destroyed by society. However, this supposedly kinder and gentler past was actually marked by brutal imperialism, where one culture fed off the life source of another. In his book, The Location of Culture, Homi Bhabha catalogues how this process was facilitated by centuries of representations of the East in the art, literature, and especially, non-fictional writings of the West. Most importantly for the purposes of this paper, he describes how this discourse functions to produce 'the colonized as a social reality which is at once an 'other' and yet entirely knowable and visible.' (p.70-71)
In restaurant reviews, as in colonialism, the non-dominant culture is exoticized, fetishized, and consumed. The rituals of the 'other' are appropriated for 'our' use. The reviewers produce images of the group in question which perpetuate ideas its members had no intention of advocating. The sureness of the style and language used in the reviews is structurally similar to realism. What gets represented is seemingly the 'truth' about the food and culture in question. The food and people of many different regions and cultures are grouped together under the ambiguous heading of 'ethnic'; and various people, who may otherwise be dissimilar, are grouped together based on their collective difference from Western Europeans and Americans. In this way, the reviews provide a confirmation of an 'other' whose life, language, and customs are indeed radically different from the reader. This 'other' must be represented in a suitably exotic yet simultaneously realistic manner, one which continually reasserts justification for unequal power relations: between reviewer/patron and proprietor, and by extension, between America and the country or group in question.
The restaurant review provides its reader with an identity: that of an informed, cosmopolitan member of the cultural elite. To position the reader universally, the reviewers must utilize common stereotypes. For example, all Asian people or all Spanish-speaking people will frequently be clustered together, despite their derivation from vastly different locations and cultures. Similarly, certain key phrases are used to generalize about the staff of different ethnic restaurants. According to one critic, 'Chinese waiters are famously bad' (Read, B. The San Francisco Underground Gourmet p.30); in another passage the same reviewer describes his Vietnamese waitress as 'a lovely little toy lady' who 'serves you sweetly but not well.' (Ibid., p.277)
In order to get a good review, ethnic establishments must momentarily satisfy the critic/consumer's desire for authenticity and difference by magically bringing the eater into a foreign world. For example, Connie's, a West Indian restaurant, is praised for being an 'island...much more than a restaurant...if you prefer, a trip.' (Ibid., p.280) One Greek restaurant is as 'close as you're going to get without a passport.'(Riera & Smith, Two Hundred Good Restaurants, p.63) The same reviewers tell the reader that 'seven dollars will buy you a two hour vacation in Manila.' (Ibid., p.158) Another praises an establishment as 'the only alternative to a trip to Spain.' (Martin & Martin, San Francisco's Ultimate Dining Guide p.11) 'The ambiance of Morocco comes brilliantly alive' (Killeen & Miller, Best Restaurants: San Francisco and Northern California, p.14) in one place, while in another, 'you will find a haven of Oriental tranquility.' (Ibid., p.59) One Swiss restaurant miraculously 'exudes the charm of the mother land': there are 'pretty young waitresses dressed like Heidi!' (Ibid., p.88) to make the transformation complete. Cafe Central is a 'Mexican restaurant so authentic, you can easily forget that you are north of the border.' (Ibid., p.116) Walking into India House, 'is like walking into a restaurant in another land,' one of 'tiger skins, soft Indian music,' with 'the aromatic sense of curries wafting throughout.' (The Camero Eating Team, The Great Restaurants of California, p.152)
In these reviews, critics describe fictitious lands that are static, immune to political strife, poverty, and any oppression due in part to intervention from the so-called first-world. In some instances, descriptions of a restaurant's idyllic setting and yummy food blatantly functions to misrepresent the ethnic group's material and historical circumstances. For example, 'With raised dining areas, bamboo or burnished wooden columns and lots of thatch, plants, and native artifacts,' one place 'achieve(s) Vietnamese village visions.' (Martin & Martin., p.55) Would this alleged village be from before or after the war? A similarly simplistic representation was found in a review of an 'authentic' soul food establishment: 'How authentic? By the time you leave the place, you'll be doing the James Brown leap and the O'Jay's kick.' (Riera & Smith., p.93)
Another writer touts that simply by eating certain foods one can 'sample the Hakka way,' (Martin & Martin., p.98) implying that this particular Chinese culture's essence is nothing more than its comestible items. Another writer divulges that in order to 'go Brazilian,' all one has to do is 'start your meal with cachaca, the white potent firewater made of sugarcane.' (Sheraton, Mimi, Mimi Sheraton's The New York Times Guide to New York Restaurants, p.363) Centuries of civilization and complexities of culture are disregarded when reviewers imply that people with distinct histories and social structures are reducible to edible items. The antiquated stereotype of the chitlin' eatin', black-eyed pea consumin' darkie seems to persist here. The food is depicted as having a symbolic meaning that is easily mastered, which seems to have the power to transform the diner into his or her cultural 'other.' Such misrepresentation destroys that which is truly 'other' about the food, turning it into a mere simulation of cultural difference.
Ironically enough, some reviewers claim that restaurants can provide something more 'authentic' than the native land. One reviewer describes a place as a 'pure Italian experience of a kind that one does not often have...in Italy itself.' (Read., p.139) Reviewers promote the belief that one can not only 'go' to the country by way of gastronomics, but also become one of its citizens, at least on a short-term basis: 'With a tent-like canopy overhead, silvery Moroccan music drifting from somewhere, attentive service and the sensual sensation of eating with your fingers, you become spoiled Moroccan royalty for an evening.' (Martin & Martin., p.89)
Clientele is also judged with respect to 'authenticity.' The quotes that illustrate this are particularly jarring, as they are replete with negative and reductionist stereotypes. A Japanese restaurant is described as 'excellent and authentic...the clientele is overwhelmingly Japanese.' (Sheraton., p.192) A Chinese restaurant is said to have 'ethnic color' because 'one's fellow diners here are authentic enough.' (Read., p.33) The implication is that an inauthentic diner in this case would be any non-Chinese.
The reviewers also reveal their racist tendencies by generalizing about a group's behavior: 'First impressions were promising — at a long table in one of the two dining rooms, were six tipsy Japanese business men, their silk ties askew and normally rigid expressions softened by sake.' (Miller, Bryan, The New York Time's Guide to Restaurants in New York City, p.66) A comparable review reads:
'As one moves downward geographically from Thailand, the irrationality gains momentum, ascends through fuzzy-mindedness to inspired goofiness, and reaches at last it's zenith of sheer, deliberate chaos among the flowerlike people of the island of Indonesia.' (Read, R.B., p.122)
The author of the following quote glaringly draws attention to the fact that the patrons and clientele of a Greek restaurant provide more reason to visit it then does the food itself:
'What they [the staff and diners] provide is a milieu, a world. They are simply being themselves, in effect getting paid for what they like to do best: talk; sing; argue; munch on olives, cheese, and bread...What makes the Minerva special is that it is unaffectedly, unabashedly, wholly Greek, and that it attracts a constant Greek clientele.' (Ibid., p.105)
A hierarchy of cultures is maintained through the making of another culture into 'low art.' For example, the emphasis in the reviews is on how 'kitschy' Chinese restaurants are, as opposed to the refined elegance of more Western establishments. In spite of their definitive ideas about what an 'ethnic' restaurant should look like, however, critics often lambaste restauranteurs for being too stereotypical or for complying with the very notions they advocate. For example, one reviewer writes:
'Fortunately, the absurd custom of serving Chinese food only in dining rooms that resemble the pagoda telephone booths in Chinatown is falling out of favor. New York now has several highly successful Chinese restaurants decorated in modern or continental styles, totally devoid of bric-a-brac that looks as though it came from a souvenir shop at the Hong Kong airport.' (Sheraton., p.294)
One critic betrays his feelings about 'ethnic' restaurant decor (and ethnic groups in general), when in a review of a Spanish restaurant he queries 'where are the flamenco hats, the silly waiter's costumes, and the map of old Iberia?' (Miller, p.102) Another reviewer declared of one restaurant that 'the only thing Mexican, other than the menu, is a wonderfully garish pink, yellow, and neon sign outside with a dancing senorita, bull, lobster, and a convict (presumably from the line-up).' (Martin & Martin., p.86)
The demand for authenticity necessitates that the ethnic groups essentialize and spectacularize themselves in order to attract customers. 'Ethnic' proprietors tend to decorate their restaurant and act as is expected of them; it is necessary to cater to the 'dominant' group's wants (and those of the reviewer) for monetary reasons. This exoticization functions as a prostitution of one's culture, an exploitative bodily performance, plainly in exchange for money. As with pornography, clients are solicited by a complex and delicate dynamic of attraction and revulsion to the deliberately exotic. People even slip into sexualized and metaphoric terms to describe the illicit act, as in 'we did Chinese last night.' Indeed, in some cities, the area where 'ethnic' restaurants are can be seen as something like a red light district; certainly, Chinatowns and Little Italys are ghettos: a place to venture out to with the comforting knowledge that you are indeed returning home later that evening.
These restaurants appeal to people's liberal intentions. With a falsely supportive gesture, an illusion of inclusion is created for the members of the ethnic group, while their position on the margins of American society remains intact. Certain groups remain invisible to the (white) patrons except within the walls of the restaurant. The relationship can best be described as one of benevolent paternalism. One reviewer made this explicit when he wrote 'I am drawn to these lively little places and I want them to succeed.' (Miller., p.63) A visit to the restaurant can serve to assuage any potential guilt that the diner may have with regards to political, social, and economic conditions elsewhere. A paying customer can take comfort that he or she is actually helping — at least monetarily — the group in question. At a time when our culture outwardly celebrates cultural pluralism, new life is infused into anachronistic imperialistic relations between the East and the West, while at the same time, the current unequal power structure between white, wealthy patron and working, servile other is maintained. There is no acknowledgment of the fundamental contradiction: how can someone who is not even a member of the group in question deem its product 'authentic'?
By judging another culture as 'authentic' or 'inauthentic' the reviewer insinuates that there is some irreducible essence that IS Chinese or Moroccan. But because this 'authenticity' is an affect that is produced by the restauranteur, there is a sense that there is an aspect of this essence that is not necessarily innate, or at least is somewhat unstable. The cultural critic Homi Bhabha elaborates further on this ambiguous facet of colonialist discourse: after noting that an important aspect of colonialist discourse is its use of the notion of 'fixity,' he comments on how it is a 'paradoxical mode of representation' since it 'connotes rigidity and an unchanging order as well as disorder, degeneracy and daemonic repetition.' (Bhabha, p.66) Because the representations are stereotypes, there is always the danger that they will be exposed as false; hence, there is a compulsive need on the part of the reviewer to repeat the myths. At the same time, the power accorded the reviewer's aesthetic judgment (knowledge) by the society at large insures that the 'ethnic' group conform (or at least attempt to conform) to the proscribed specifications with regards to food, behavior, and decor, thereby fulfilling their own stereotype.
The above contradiction reveals the crux of how such a discourse operates in the reviews. They are an 'apparatus that turns on the recognition and disavowal of racial/cultural/historical differences.' (Bhabha, p.70) There is a tension between attraction and revulsion on the part of the colonizer for the colonized that is always already present. For this reason, Bhabha utilizes the notion of the 'fetish' to illuminate his reading of the stereotype. 'The scene of fetishism functions similarly as, at once, a reactivation of the material of original fantasy...as well as a normalizing of that difference and disturbance.' (Bhabha, p.74)
It is worth noting that there are genuine pleasures gained from frequenting these restaurants. People enjoy having the opportunity to consume food they don't usually prepare at home, in an environment different from their own dining room. On a more sensual level, the consumption of novel flavors can be exciting in an inspiring, intoxicating, perhaps even mind-altering way. Like ingesting a drug, eating new foods out can function as 'something to repel the ruthless continuity of the opiate 'life'.' (Ronell, Avital., Crack Wars. p.105) Quite explicitly, by retreating to an idealized environment, we can momentarily escape from the world we have created.
Instead of advocating an ascetic, purely functional approach to dining, I am simply suggesting a more careful and self-reflective reading of the 'ethnic' restaurant phenomenon. The point is not to judge the representations proffered as positive or negative, but rather to attempt to understand this discourse's productive effects. By stipulating that an 'ethnic' place be fun, exotic, and authentic, while simultaneously assimilating to Western definitions of 'good taste,' restaurant critics have created a no-win situation for 'ethnic' restaurant owners, for as self-oppressive as these restaurants can be for different groups, they also serve as one of the only acceptable ways many immigrants can survive in this economy.
There may be a liberatory aspect to the authentic food and atmosphere masquerade engaged in by various ethnic groups. For example, the exaggeration of supposedly innate traits could reveal their constructed nature. However, more likely than not, this ethnic performance is not consciously enacted nor critically received. While for some cultural critics the question of intention is immaterial, it would be foolish to embrace any positive aspects of this phenomenon without confronting the very real ways these representations serve (and help produce) current inequities.
Rena Diamond is a cultural critic living in Berkeley. She is currently searching for her main line.