Food and festivals: Consuming multiculturalism

Multiculturalism has acquired a quality akin to spectacle. The metaphor that has displaced the melting pot is the salad. A salad consists of many ingredients, is colorful and beautiful, and it is to be consumed by someone. Who consumes multiculturalism is a question begging to be asked.

Angela Y. Davis (1996, p. 45)

WOMAD main stage, March 2012

The New Zealand summer has ended, and as Autumn deepens there are a flurry of festivals making the most of sunshine hours and daylight saving before we turn to insular hibernation modes. In the last few weeks I’ve been to WOMAD in New Plymouth, Pasifika and the International Cultural festival in Auckland and a few smaller low key community functions. I’m interested in whether food and festivals, which are such visible and public celebrations of ‘culture’ (and especially culinary cultures) are anything more than what Duruz calls the appropriation of difference by a greedy white consumerist society.

The pretext of a cultural festival is that there is an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, a national culture and an alien culture.  Migrants then are people who try and enter something that has ostensibly already formed into something and solidified (that’s why it feels like you are banging your head against a wall when you can’t get a job, because it really is a wall or a bamboo ceiling). This imagined sameness might not be very clearly articulated by the dominant culture, but everyone knows what does and doesn’t belong. If you don’t know, the media or a politician will tell you. The latter are renowned for either demonising or exoticising diversity. Festivals as less scary manifestations of diversity bring out enthusiasm, as Mayor of Auckland Len Brown speaks about the Auckland International Cultural festival (made up of dance and musical performances, an Ethnic Soccer Cup and over 100 stalls of ‘traditional’  food): ” …a fantastic celebration of Auckland’s ever-growing cultural diversity …which highlights the dynamic contribution people from other cultures bring to our wider community, and to New Zealand. Come along and sample the many sights, sounds and tastes of Auckland diversity.”

Monte con Huesillo: Chilean drink of dried peaches and wheat

The celebration and sampling of this dynamic contribution can be read as an enabler of social cohesion and community building. As Uma Narayan points out, the combination of prejudice, neighborhood and occupational stratification and segregation can mean that we have very little do do with members of other ethnic groups beyond seeing them as service providers to the detriment of “collective possibilities”. The public consumption of food is a great mechanism for intercultural exchange. The sensual enjoyment of the food of others can help us gain an appreciation of them as part of our communities even if we don’t know very much about the cultural context of the food.

The aspect of consumption that is on display also has a ‘feel good’ aspect. Where the media and its three stooges (Paul HenryMichael Laws and Paul Holmes) often lead us to view migrants (and Tangata whenua and several generations of Pacific peoples) as a political threat to the integrity of the ‘host’ white settler Pakeha nation. Festivals tame diversity into a strategic asset, that is managed and displayed for people to witness and enjoy. The elephant in the playing field or park though are the unanswered questions of racism and exclusion. The safe packaging inherent in festivals, where people embody their culture in a display allow ‘us’ to feel good about our city and the presence of ‘others’.  This low impact kind of engagement has very little performance pressure and even less demand for any kind of accountability or responsibility. Culture can be celebrated rather than acted upon as Arun Kundnani quips.

Hungarian Langos (Fried Bread) with a topping of pesto, tomato and feta-Yum!

The pleasures of consumption make diversity appealing, something to be shared and enjoyed as Sara Ahmed notes.  The consumption of ethnic food points to a desire to consume difference through appropriation of food and tradition as exotic, where ethnicity becomes spice for mainstream culture, losing its own legitimacy in the process. Instead of engagement, the other is consumed. Consuming diversity gets translated into ‘eating the other’. Heldke talks about a kind of “cultural food colonialism” where the food being cooked and eaten comes from economically dominated countries of the ‘third world’. Culture is there for the taking and “something to be be enjoyed, consumed at will and with discernment by the liberal subject.”. The new marker of sophistication is the latest ethnic restaurant find, a marker of street credibility and sophistication. Reflecting a desire for novelty and a sense of entitlement.

This differs to how might I think of food and festivals, as a diasporic subject. For me attending the cultural festival and more low key community events creates is a way of being at home in the context of a community far from ‘home’, being able to express aspects of my life that don’t often get a public viewing. As Ghassan Hage points out, cooking and eating familiar food is a way of making a home in the present. Food represents comfort, enjoyment, social life, memories and stories. As someone whose food choices were derided until they became fashionable (why did it take so long for curries to become popular in New Zealand? and what is wrong with tongue sandwiches anyway?). The advent of cultural food colonialism inflicts an old pain, food shapes us physically and emotionally, creating possibilities for enjoyment and pleasure. However, we must be mindful that power relations accompany our consumption choices and have implications for how we are to live in a multicultural society founded on biculturalism.

Cartoonist Alexyz and the author in Auckland at an exhibition of his work with members of the Goan community. February 2012.

So how do we reconcile these diverse ways of looking at food and its consumption? Perhaps we can use the gustatory pleasures we experience to build more powerful bonds between us as Uma Narayan proposes. These pleasures can have more power than intellectual understanding or knowledge. The sensual pleasures of food can counter our physical alienation in the unpressured form of contact that a festival allows. Perhaps the journey to greater openness and acceptance and building of bonds begins at the venue where we eat the food where we can be provoked into a process of reflexivity  and begin to care for the cooks as much as we are willing to enjoy the food.