Mezze Ideology: Community, Class, and Multicultural Cuisine
Issue #73, April 2005
Tastes are made, not born.
— Mark Twain
The local wine, a dinner at your friends’ house, and music performed by amateurs are three things to be equally dreaded.
— Grimod de La Reynière
Four years in Los Angeles and three years in Toronto have spoiled me. I was used to people inviting me to join them for all kinds of multicultural menus. Anything from extreme sushi to goat rotis, falafel to lamb vindaloo, chimichurri to chicharrones, had made its way across my plate, over my palate, and into the book of “food I love” (and rarely, “food I don’t like”). Deciding on a cuisine was generally just a matter of figuring out what no one in the group had eaten for a while; and if everyone in the group was game, anything from Abyssinian to Zoroastrian was on the menu for the evening.
Then, I found myself two months into living in the “Amish country” section of Pennsylvania. And I was in trouble. I knew coming here that the food choices would be, shall we say, slim in the pickings, and that Amish cooking (a pastiche of German and Czech traditions, combined with the staples Lancaster County could produce, and known particularly for “shoo-fly pie”) was not going to be sparking my taste buds. But I figured that being in a university community, filled with faculty from around the world, would provide a bastion of culinary curiosity; and having been told that “there’s a Greek store here, too,” I set out to host my first party.
Taking place just after 9/11, I decided that if we were going to bomb the bejeezus out of the Middle East, my guests should know something about the culture. So I broke out my best Middle Eastern cookbook and selected the finest of mezze – “appetizers,” to translate it badly – from across the region. From homemade baba ghanouj to omi houriya, from an Iranian cherry bread pudding to Afghani tamarind potatoes, we were set – there was no country left unrepresented, not a cuisine whose food would not be what my guests thought of when CNN announced American attacks on country X. Then, I heard it, floating like the olive oil on the baba ghanouj: “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” The words came from a tenured colleague, with a fair amount of experience traveling abroad and a penchant for going into Philadelphia, the largest nearby city, for dinners and shows.
I was stunned. The comment wasn’t offered about the omi houriya (Moroccan spicy carrot purée) or the harissa (Tunisian hot sauce that makes Tabasco taste like baby food). It was about the baba ghanouj, the puréed eggplant that’s a staple in any Lebanese fast food joint – and there are three of them in this town. It completely blew away my vision of what to expect from my colleagues and newfound townspeople. Sure, I’d half-expected that some of the more exotic things, like the tamarind potatoes, might draw some curious questions, but I never thought that something so common as puréed eggplant would raise eyebrows.
From that moment on, I swore that every future party would be increasingly culture-driven. The winter party was themed around Cuba – homemade ropa vieja, mojitos for drinks (no Cuba libres), and real-live Cuban music (without Wim Wenders) stole the show. March saw St Maximilian, a conscientious objector to the Roman Army in 295CE, taking charge, leading to an all-Algerian evening. September was “Playdoh’s Academy,” with non-Greek-restaurant Greek food and rembetika (the Greek equivalent of the blues) as the theme. At each party, the response is amazing: people are simply blown away by the luxuriousness and extravagance of the food, are stunned by the theming, and occasionally are left wondering how it is I can best myself. What they don’t know is that all the food I ever serve is peasant food.
Mezze, in many Middle Eastern households, is a point of pride, garnering its own table during almost any gathering. Unlike the way it’s presented on menus in western restaurants, mezze is not simply the appetizer course, a stopping-point on the way to bigger and better foodstuffs. It is, rather, the customary greeting for guests. A good household always needs to be prepared for guests, and when they arrive, mezze welcomes them into the home. Mezze tables can be quite extravagant – many books on Lebanese culture, for example, suggest that a spread of up to 50 different kinds of food would not be outlandish – but they always convey one crucial point: we value your presence here, and would never think of rushing you to and through dinner. Conversation before dinner is a must; mezze is a necessary accompaniment.
Just like any other offering, though, mezze is a double-edged sword. Gift-giving very often works, wittingly or not, as a way of entrapping someone in a long-term obligatory relationship: I gave to you on this occasion, and I would expect that, as a stand-up kind of person, you would give to me on this occasion, and so on. There is no need for expressing thanks for a fine mezze table; the expectation is that the thanks will come in its reciprocation at a later unannounced time. St. Thomas Aquinas’ linguistic analysis of thanks, after all, shows three levels of gratitude reflected in this: the recognition of a benefit one has received, the thanks, and the reciprocation of that benefit “according to one’s means and at the most opportune circumstances of time and place.” Gift-giving, then, is another way of reinforcing the social networks that intertwine people within a community, a way of showing that one recognizes one’s interconnectedness and interdependence and isn’t afraid to show that recognition at the drop of a hat.
We need to remember, though, the material economic context the mezze tradition takes place in. After years of civil war, Lebanon is not particularly wealthy, nor are most people throughout the Middle East. Yet in most households around the world, the rules of hospitality – no, it’s beyond hospitality at this point – dictate that one offer up whatever one has to guests, regardless of how poor one happens to be. Americans traveling through almost anywhere in the world are amazed at this practice; “such poverty,” they might say, “but the people gave us everything they had.” Of course, guests would too, if the situation were ever reversed.
Taste in food, much like taste in all other aspects in our lives, is usually seen as a highly personalized phenomenon. Certain people like certain kinds of foods – that’s a given. And if there is some kind of social or sociological basis for it, it can be traced back to one’s parentage and how they ate. If they were “meat and potatoes” kinds of people, chances are that their children will be “meat and potatoes” people; likewise for vegetarians, adventurous eaters, people who don’t like spicy foods, and people who don’t eat fish regardless of the context. This is usually as far as we take any kind of consideration about people’s eating habits; beyond that, it’s personal taste, combined with exposure, that determine if we’re going with the safety call of teriyaki chicken or if we’re hitting the fugu (pufferfish that, if not prepared properly, can be fatal).
There is, however, much more to food consumption than meets the eye. In particular, there is a symbolic element to food consumption, one that parallels the symbolic elements presented in the clothing we wear, the music we listen to, the artwork that adorns our walls, and the movies and television shows we watch. We are, quite literally, what we eat. There are really three different elements at work in our eating preferences.
The first element has to do with the brute fact of economics. Based upon one’s class position, one’s income, and one’s wealth, one can afford different kinds of foods. There are some foods – caviar, for example, or sweetbreads – that simply aren’t affordable to the vast majority of people, while other kinds of foods – rice, noodles, root vegetables, and others – are cheap and plentiful. Any university student who’s run out of money and had the “ramen semester” knows this bit of economics all too well; once the money is gone, one’s culinary preferences have to change merely to survive. McDonalds, Burger King, and other fast-food restaurants capitalize on this, offering large amounts of food for a cheap price. They can do this precisely because the food they serve is cheap: fatty, low-quality beef, sometimes combined with processed soy or other hydrolyzed vegetable protein; potatoes and onions fried in oil; bread made with low-cost processed flour – these are the staples of any fast-food restaurant. And if one can afford to buy a better meal, whether that is only slightly more expensive submarine sandwiches or a gourmet meal, why would one go to Mickey D’s? Prom night, the tendency to go to a restaurant to celebrate an important occasion, and the choosing of just the right bistro for a first date all tie to this: going out for a sit-down, potentially multi-course meal is a sign that one can afford this luxury, a display of one’s economic capital.
Related to this class-based determination of what one can afford has to do with the amount of time one can spend preparing their food. Class position here combines with the domestic division of labor to determine this; for the stereotypical “traditional American family,” where the female of the house works in the home while the male goes out and “wins the bread,” the preparation of larger meals was a daily occurrence, while in the two-income family, the roast beef is more likely prepared by Stouffer’s than by Mom or Dad. The leisure classes – people whose prestige derives from their ability not to do work – have a greater amount of time to prepare lavish meals (and most likely, domestic laborers to do the preparation for them), while manual workers are more likely to resort to easily prepared foods or to look forward to the chance to make elaborate meals on a rare or special occasion.
The second element tying into the production of culinary tastes has to do with what Pierre Bourdieu called “cultural capital” – a concept encapsulating both “culture” in the anthropological sense of the term (practices and meaning systems held in common by a group of people) and “culture” in the “ordinary” sense of “high culture” as opposed to “popular culture.” Bourdieu’s 1984 Distinction, the result of years of surveying the relationship between class position and cultural tastes in France, showed in particular two things: first, following from earlier work, that one’s class position helps construct a habitus, a socially constructed, class-driven sense of “how we are”; and second, that this habitus leads people to partake of a particular set of cultural practices and tastes, ranging from music and food to newspapers and films. As Bourdieu puts it, “The manner in which culture has been acquired lives on in the manner of using it” (2): what we learn to be culturally appropriate for people in “our situation” constructs as possible and desirable a particular set of cultural consumptive practices.
The processes that go into producing consumption practices parallel those that are involved in production itself. Through labor – either through performing it or through exploiting it – we learn that we are to our core part of the working class or part of the bourgeoisie, which constructs an entire set of possible actions for us. Bourdieu takes this a step further in arguing that the aesthetic preferences we develop are tied to that class position and that set of conceptions of self; but even further than that, our consumptive practices display that sense of self and enable us to distinguish ourselves from others in different class positions and class fractions (hence the lack of limousines in a Taco Bell drive-thru, and the sense of many working-class families that highbrow restaurants just “aren’t for the likes of us”). As well, what Marx considered to be the impending class warfare has been, according to Bourdieu, converted into cultural competitions: the processes by which we distinguish ourselves from other class positions (generally lower in either economic or cultural capital than our own) result in a struggle over control of the very symbols that we use to distinguish ourselves from others. The trend, for example, toward the employment of personal chefs – people who prepare a week’s worth of food for a family – follows from a need to display one’s economic and cultural capital (by employing others to prepare food, and through the ability to say to the Joneses, “I have a personal chef”) and follows from finding out that “celebrities” and “the wealthy” also employ personal chefs (thereby giving us a degree of cultural capital similar to the people we emulate).
The third element that appears in culinary taste has to do with how we envision our personal future. By taking on a particular set of cultural practices – sports, music, films, or culinary preferences – we latch on to a mutually agreed-upon level of cultural capital that reflects the way we want to see ourselves. If we come from a lower-class background (a “meat and potatoes... if we can afford the meat” household, for example), and want to advance ourselves culturally and socially, we may “suddenly” develop a taste for sushi or some other food that we see as having more cultural capital than our original class standing did. Similarly, if we are born into the bourgeoisie and want to “slum it,” McDonalds may very well become our food of choice.
As should be clear by now, the entire cultural capital equation, as Bourdieu argues, involves not only how we view ourselves and the class position we wish to attain, but also how we are viewed by others through their classificatory schemas. Part of the reason why lower-class families who decide to go to a five-star restaurant feel out of place is because, based on their own perception of their cultural capital, they don’t belong there; but the other reason has to do with the fact that people who do “belong there” see them as not belonging. Put another way, Bourdieu claims that people “classify themselves in the eyes of other classifying (but also classifiable) subjects, endowed with classificatory schemes analogous to those which enable them more or less adequately to anticipate their own classification.” (Distinction, 482) To this end, food preferences become a gateway to a culture as well as to class practices, whether one’s original class position or the class position one wants to attain; and in some respects, the foods one enjoys or pretends to enjoy also symbolize the world one wants to see in existence.
This is why something like the mezze table, and in fact the whole emphasis on food as a part of hospitality and as an expression of our bondedness with others, is so important in so many cultures – presenting guests, whether family, friends or strangers, with a vast spread of food says multiple things about the hosts and their vision of the world: it shows that the hosts value the people visiting them so much that they are willing to provide them with whatever they have; it shows that there is some expectation of reciprocity at some point in the future, though in terms of one’s means rather than matching the original gift; and it commits both host and guest to a realization of the social bond between them.
This also serves to explain in part the lack of such a practice in many American homes, save during traditional feast days such as Thanksgiving. We rarely drop by someone’s house uninvited or unannounced; when we do, there is no expectation on either person’s part to have food ready within moments of guests arriving. The exception to this, of course, is the dinner party. These are the moments when we break out the fine china, dust off the good bottle of wine, and show our friends an evening filled with wonderful and abundant food over multiple courses. But this is not the same thing as the mezze culture – this is a show of extravagance, a display of economic capital through serving food in vast quantities and of a caliber that we’d never eat on a normal night. The dinner party doesn’t say, “we value our guests so much that we’d bankrupt ourselves for them.” Rather, it says, “We’ll bankrupt ourselves to show you that we can afford all of this food.” The dinner party represents a capitalist economy of excess, much like the potlatch, in which competitions are held to see who can destroy the greatest number of possessions; the mezze table represents an economy of relatedness, where the value of the guests is represented by the hosts’ willingness to share what they have.
In part, this is one of the two reasons why the parties I throw represent an attempt to hearken back to the mezze table. I want to get away from the sense that offering wonderful food to friends and colleagues is to show off to them, to show them a) that I can afford all of it (especially since I really can’t – credit opens up a whole new territory of how much one can “afford”) or b) that they’re suddenly indebted to me in an economy of exchange. I would rather use food to create a community in which the people who attend these parties see themselves as bound together in some way, be it through me or to one another by virtue of meeting at one of these events. The other important element of these parties has to do with what’s served. By diversifying the normal party atmosphere, what I try to do is to politicize the whole “dinner party” idea. In theming all elements of the party – authentic food, local drinks and beers, real music – I try to bring a glimpse of what living in the world is really like into an area that is by its own admission insulated from the world, making these parties a real dose of multiculturalism, one that moves past the consumable elements of another culture and highlights the sense of community that’s destroyed when hosting people is motivated by an economy of excess. Food isn’t just a personal taste, after all – it’s a gateway to the world, and now more than ever, we need a mezze ideology.
Scott Schaffer (email@example.com), who keeps swearing that his goodbye fête will be called “Farewell, Mes Amish,” is assistant professor of sociology at Millersville University of Pennsylvania, Managing Editor of Journal of Mundane Behavior (http://mundanebehavior.org), and a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team.