The excerpts I read from Culinary Tourism this weekend reminded me of the anthropology and sociology texts I read last year in my Intro to Society and Culture class. I remembered the theory of “otherness,” as Lucy M. Long writes, “something being different from the usual” (1). As I read about “the departure from the everyday” as a recurring theme in tourism (4), I could almost hear Dr. Baptiste’s lectures about societal norms and culture specific traditions. I waited to read that culinary tourism in the United States is just another way for Americans to be imperialistic. Long notes that critiques of tourism as exploitation are common, but I prefer Long’s more optimistic analysis of culinary tourism: that it is potentially positive.
Long begins her essay, “A Folkloristic Perspective on Eating and Otherness,” by defining cultural tourism as “the intentional, exploratory participation in the foodways of an other—participation including the consumption, preparation, and presentation of a food item, cuisine, meal system, or eating style considered to belong to a culinary system not one’s own” (21). I like to think that this exploratory participation is a result of pure, genuine curiosity in the other foodway, cuisine, or meal system. Because food is so deeply engrained in cultural systems, consuming a new food through culinary tourism can help Americans learn more about cultures other than their own.
When I think of this sort of culinary tourism, I remember a day about three years ago when I had the chance to attend a neighbor’s bridal shower. The bride’s family immigrated to the United States from Egypt when she was young and her fiancés family emigrated from Sudan. When my mom and I knocked on the Farawi’s front door, we found ourselves surrounded by women from the bride and groom’s families. We were the only attendees who didn’t speak English and who hadn’t before participated in an Egyptian or Sudanese wedding ceremony.
While my mom and I weren’t invited to the family-only wedding ceremony or reception, we felt honored to be invited to the bridal shower. We were curious and we were nervous. We were not familiar with any of the ceremonies surrounding this wedding, but we wanted to learn about and try everything related. Mrs. Farawi welcomed our curiosity. She had moved all of the furniture out of the dining room and piled tables around the edges of the room high with home-cooked food. From her son—friends with my brother—we knew that she had been cooking all week for this shower. We came hungry. Mrs. Farawi took us on a culinary tour of the dining room; she fed us lamb kebabs, grape leaves, shawerma, pita bread, rice, and pudding. We continued eating everything she put on a plate until she stopped scooping food and it was time for an elderly woman to paint henna tattoos up our arms.
This bridal shower episode seems to me like a perfect example of the most positive experiences from Culinary Tourism. In this example, my mom and I ate Mrs. Farawi’s Egyptian dishes first because we were purely curious about how they would taste. Then, that curiosity became hunger, as Long suggests is typical of touristic eating. This culinary tourism experience was positive: the Farawis appreciated our interest in their foodways and were excited to share in this moment with my mom and I. I didn't feel imperialistic or guilty about my culinary exploration. Instead, this tourism experience exemplified “the willingness of humans to experience the cultural worlds of other people, as the result of curiosity about other experiences and other ways of life” (45).