Eatin’ Pidgin

Talking food

27 JANUARY 2015,
Lunch time © Raffaele Brustia
Lunch time © Raffaele Brustia

Language and food –two very viable means of illustrating and interpreting culture. Every culture communicates just as every culture eats, and it is how both are done that, in part distinguishes one from another. The individual food items which make up meals and formulate the whole culinary identity of a nation, are the same as the single words which create phrases and go on to construct language. Within a food culture, there are variations between regional cuisines, the same as the different dialects of the same language.

With people, foods have emigrated and moved around the globe, and as with words, their meaning has changed and adapted to fit in with their new environment, which means that sometimes non-indigenous ingredients or meals become the figurehead of a nation’s cuisine or food identity. Think of the tomato in Italy or tea in England. When relating this to cultural identity, the line we often draw between ours and theirs then becomes blurred.

When we move around the world and learn a new language, we become bi- or even trilingual. Is it possible to stretch the parallel between food and language even further than usual? Can we become bi- or even tri-cuisinal? After all, we all have a mother tongue. To a certain degree it could be fair to assume that most of us have a ‘mother-cuisine’, meaning to say a cuisine which we are most comfortable cooking, where we are more familiar with the ingredients and flavour combinations- the cuisine we understand the most. OR is the process of familiarising ourselves with, and taking on the conventions of another food system, something completely different?

The world is getting smaller, new words are being created (tweet, selfie), copied and pasted into other languages with such velocity as has never before been experienced. Yet, with all of these new additions into a vocabulary, we still call the language English or Italian or French. There is a similar pattern happening in food cultures around the world and yet most people are more defensive in defining what is allowed in and what must remain foreign. Emigration and immigration confuses the matter further with culture no longer being restricted to a time or place and so individuals themselves are now as multicultural as their eating habits.

Initially I tried in vain to put the English food identity into a box, but found it is impossible and in the end highly unnecessary. Maybe the English culinary culture follows the structure of the language more closely than we realise. English is a fusion of different languages; start with a good spoon of Germanic roots, mix in a cup of Old Norse and then add a pinch of Latin lexicon. Leave to sit for a few years and continue to add sprinklings of this and that. English food culture is equally as mixed and always has been, mostly due to its colonial history. Respecting and protecting traditions is important, but let’s not forget that all traditions were new once and half of them were not even native to this country, yet we still identify with them as being English. Think about it. We are a nation of tea drinkers, but tea is decidedly not English – it is only in the past ten years that this island has started to even grow the plant; A very English tradition with decidedly Asian roots.

Australia like Britain is also a country in the process of understanding its culinary identity. In an interview with Jock Zonfrillo a Scottish chef with Italian roots and owner and head chef of the Australian restaurant Orana & Street Adl who is trying to‘re-establish’ Australian cuisine, Zane Lovitt writes ‘… the Orana Crew are consciously developing (…) a form of cooking that begins with indigenous ingredients and traditional cooking methods, then enhances them with other ingredients, other cooking methods. If pumpkin will improve the dish, they will add pumpkin. There is beetroot and coconut and goat’s cheese in their meals. So it’s not bush tucker, it’s not Modern Australian, it’s not strictly native, but it’s not fusion either. Jock says, “What’s wrong with calling it Australian?”

When it comes to food identity, culture, authenticity and traditions are not static and are continually being redefined by, and redefining the world around them (which should come as no surprise as it has been happening for centuries). This is why approaching them with extremes is not necessarily the most effective way of trying to understand them: exclusion vs. inclusion, native vs. foreign, old vs. new. Instead look at the various morsels as if they are pieces to the same very complicated puzzle. Call it English, call it Australian, in the end it’s all pidgin. Defined as an auxiliary language that is created by the fusion of two or more languages allowing the speakers to communicate which, is then simplified into one language. Put into food terms, it is literally the completed puzzle, with all its differently shaped pieces – the model of many food cultures around the word as well as my own.

I have amassed a range of tastes, words and culture from different people and places in my life and this expresses itself in how I cook and the foods that remind me of home. Not 100% British, Bajan, Nigerian or Italian, but a melting pot of them all. It looks like pidgin’s on the menu tonight guys…