I picked up an old cook book about the genesis of California Cuisine, and I couldn’t help but think, “This was probably invented by black people.” Not because I have any proof, but just because that’s how America works. Although, as soon as I thought about it, I realized: well, cooking is a servant’s job. A slave’s job. The creativity of cuisine has never belonged to the upper class. There’s nothing very glamorous about it. Which means that there’s nothing very original about California Cuisine. As much as I love it, the concept of using ‘fresh, local ingredients’ was only revolutionary after the doldrums of WWII canned goods efficiency. Cooking other regions’ cuisines with local produce was always going to be California Cuisine. Substituting this spice and that green for something else would always look exactly like this. Reworking everything to be more salad-y and diet friendly wasn’t radical. California Cuisine is, at its essence, very unoriginal. It’s just the fetishization of farmers’ markets for white people. Produce is now Instagram-able, and that’s the essence of California Cuisine. It’s just marketing something that has always been around.
Fusion cuisine was, likewise, inevitable. The idea that cultures can survive intact and in their original form in a place like America is ridiculous. Even though I hate fusion cuisine – I’ll pass on cream cheese in sushi, dessert tacos, and tamale casserole – I guess I am, in essence, a fusion person, so there must be more to fusion cuisine than just cultural dilution. In all honesty, one of my favorite Indian dishes is technically British. Chicken Tikka Masala was created in London in the 1960s, and now it has been elevated as a signature dish of ‘Indian’ cuisine. Likewise, cuisine is a living expression of culture. It isn’t static because our economy isn’t static and the weather isn’t static and agriculture isn’t static. There’s a subtle sense of nationalism that goes along with any particular culture thinking they can come to America and preserve their cuisine intact just as it was in the motherland. Although, maybe it’s not nationalism, maybe it’s just a sense of pride. But for the people who came here willingly – part of the agreement with newfound Americanism is accepting the tenets of assimilation, even when those tenets of assimilation are off base and gauche. Which is to say: of course there’s a certain degree of cultural dilution that will happen. It’s called the ‘melting pot’ for fuck’s sake. How much can you really hang onto in a place like this? Perhaps the line should get drawn, just for convenience’s sake, because while cultural dilution is to be expected, it’s the cultural appropriation that is the pest in this situation. Because in cultural dilution, at least your culture can be diluted not in a true sense but just in the sense that your culture mixes with other equally vibrant and exciting cultures, which in turn produces a newer culture, an American culture, of which you can take ownership and power. On the other hand, cultural appropriation is merely exploitation. A white man with a taco stand is cultural appropriation. A Mexican man selling mole ice cream is not.
This is all to say: American cuisine is just a lot of borrowing. Except for Southern cooking. Southern cooking is American cooking, more so than fusion cuisine or New York pizza. Fried chicken, bbq, gumbo, and bourbon peach pie – that’s innovation. I’m a California girl, tried and true, but I gotta give credit where credit is due: the South. We’d still be eating aspic and milk for lunch if it weren’t for the south. I’m not going to reinvent the wheel when it comes to cooking because fried chicken simply can’t be improved upon. But in my exploration of what it means to be an American cook, I have stumbled across something that could perhaps use a bit of updating: Southern hospitality.
I have no clue what the fuck Southern hospitality is because I grew up in the Bay Area, California, and we’re way too political to be hospitable to anybody. Which I guess is ironic because we have a nationally lauded restaurant scene, and I have worked in the restaurant industry for most of my adult life. So you’d think I’d know something about hospitality. But I don’t. Not according to the old rules. I picked up an Emily Post book about etiquette just so I could see what I had gotten wrong, and turns out I got all of it wrong. Mostly because that iteration etiquette is rooted in what we would now refer to as racist, misogynistic perspectives. Apparently there’s a proper order for people to sit at a table. When pouring wine, you’re supposed to serve the gentleman first, but I always served the lady first based on the simple scientific logic that women have more taste buds and therefore will have a more informed opinion on whether or not the wine is good.
What happens to etiquette when it isn’t based on the ideas that women are weak and white men rule the world? I’d love to rewrite etiquette and hospitality for a post-gender, pro-gay, BLM, feminist era. We’ll keep the food the same, but we’ll abide by etiquette for antifa from hereon out. It will be a chaotic, disordered etiquette, unbounded by RSVPs and calling cards and punctuality. I’m not quite sure what it is yet, but I’ll figure it out since I’m living right in the middle of it.