Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Joy of Impure Culture

Steve over at World of Okonomy wrote about St. Patrick's Day and how much about the holiday isn't particularly Irish (including Padraig himself, who was likely Welsh or Cornish), and cringed at the obnoxious way we tend to celebrate here (indeed, complaining about our stereotype here as drunks and then getting loaded is, um, counterproductive).  Steve has a real appreciation for Irish culture so the cartoonish way people here act set his teeth on edge, and I'm with him.  He also mentioned how difficult it was to find a truly Irish dish--one that didn't use other nation's ingredients or sauces (note to Americans: corned beef and cabbage is something Irish immigrants ate because the ingredients were cheap at the time.  It is not an Irish dish).  The dishes he found in Irish cookbooks called for French style sauces or other things that were not Irish.

I thought about that, and I realized that no matter how much we insist we're purely one ethnic group, we're not.  (I know, we can't really claim that anywhere in the Western Hemisphere). The vast majority of nations and cultural groups all over the world have had so much exposure to other cultures through trade, immigration and emigration, war, exploitation and conquest that you're not going to find a "real" Irish recipe, or a "real" French recipe, or a "real" Italian recipe.  Pasta, squash, rice, wheat, spices. . .they all came from places where they aren't well known.  Italians need to thank the Chinese for pasta, northeast Asians should probably thank Indians for rice, we should all thank the Mesoamericans for potatoes, squash, and corn, and Americans should thank the people of Central Asia for apples (without which, we could not have our well-known apple pie).  We all need to thank the Mesoamericans for chocolate.  Frankly, we should thank everyone, everywhere for all food. (While we're at it, banjo fans need to thank Africans for that particular instrument.)

The thing about non-native ingredients is that people will use them and make them their own.  And people will develop a taste for things that aren't "really" their culture, and it will become their culture.  When my father was a teenager, pizza was generally unknown and Italian food was considered exotic.  Now it's practically un-American to not eat pizza (though I suspect the pizza you get in Italy or Greece is very, very different from our version).  The Japanese took udon from China and made it their own.  People do that.  And it's a wonderful thing.  (What's not so wonderful is that they forget they got it from somewhere else.)

So I raise a (metaphorical) glass to the mutts of the world, to the nations that brought me things like chocolate, and coffee, and tea, and rosemary, and honey (bees are not native to North America), and garlic, and soy sauce, and miso, and tomatoes, and well, everything.  I raise my glass to the music and the clothes and the literature and the philosophy of all places.  I raise my glass to the people who gave us much and were forgotten. 

I am proud of my (mainly Irish, but generally mixed) ancestry.  But what I most love about it is that everyone was quite happy to take the new stuff in and make it all their own.


  1. I'm thoroughly British (half Cornish, half English, haha!), but if you go back far enough everyone's decended from the same place anyway!

    I like mixing with other cultures. It's interesting!

    P.S. I had pizza in Rome and it was AMAZINGGGGG compared to UK pizza!

  2. Awesome article, Pam! You covered everything I *wanted* to cover in my article. Also, judging from the Irish "Book of the Invasions" Ireland has been invaded by just about every group of people in the Mediterranean area, at some point or another, the last being the Normans and, of course, the English, so maybe those sauces for salmon ARE as irish as it gets!

    Missed you tonight. Katie had a wonderful B-Day party!