The ability to cook diverse food, to eat food from different places and cultures, is too often described as an enlightenment project, as a way to ‘becoming’ something else. It is seen as a way to become more attuned to diverse ways of being, to even become less racist, more understanding, a better person, to dismantle biases, or to be less xenophobic. The famed travel and food writer Anthony Bourdain, remembered for the way he engaged diverse food cultures and told stories through food, summed up his philosophy as encouraging people to move, to walk in another’s shoes, to ‘at least eat their food’ as a way to becoming a better person.
But, Donald Trump and the people that support him eat tacos, all the while still building a wall to keep Mexicans (and Hondurans, and Guatemalans, and…) out. They might enjoy a falafel or some hummus, all the while demonizing Muslim people and Arab cultures and instituting travel bans to prohibit their movement and bar them from the United States.
In reality, the ability to cook and eat diverse foods is the result of a series of particular forms of colonial and capitalist displacements. I pick up ingredients at a local middle Eastern grocer to cook something from a Palestinian cookbook but the reason I can do this is, in part, because of the Nakba, a violent displacement that leaves hundreds of thousands of Palestinians navigating the diaspora, unable to return home. I chat with the owner of a café specializing in kunafeh, particularly the variant from Nablus, and we talk about cooking Palestinian food. He tells me about how ten or twenty years ago there wasn’t grocery stores like the one I just visited, and how other places in Canada don’t have places like that, places where Palestinians can remake tastes of home.
In places like Toronto, small ‘international’ grocers flourish, importing ingredients from around the world. The small ‘variety’ store at the end of my street has fresh sorrel around Christmas time and I see the Jamaicans who live in the area filling large plastic bags with this holiday bloom, knowing that the reason many Jamaicans are here in Canada is to take care of our children or to pick our vegetables, leaving their own children and gardens behind to navigate low wages, poor worker rights, and systemic antiblack racism.
For those forced into exile from their homes, through poverty, war, environmental disaster, ongoing colonialism, and more, access to these ingredients are an important part of remaking a small bit of home, a fragment of a place they no longer inhabit . Supermarkets that carry these ingredients act as important community hubs, connecting and remaking home. But what are they to me? As I cook pozole, khoresh gheimeh, or kousa bil laban, what do these dishes and their ingredients mean to me? Are they a way to enlightenment and a way to make myself a better person?
bell hooks, in a seminal essay titled “Eating the Other” explains how Western commodity culture has packaged ‘Otherness’ as a way to spice up the monotony of mainstream Whiteness. This ‘seduction of difference’ does not alter the power structures but rather reifies or normalizes them, using marginalized ‘otherness’ to center the superiority and centrality of whiteness. White folks can experience ‘otherness’ in ways that are both pleasurable but also support their inherent beliefs that their own positionality is ‘normal’, ‘civilized’, or just better. We see examples of this in NGO and charity work that seeks to bring ‘civilization’ (and its many vestiges) to ‘uncivilized’ parts of the world. Often the people who go on these trips both desire these close encounters with ‘otherness’ but also hold deeply ingrained understandings of their own racial superiority. hooks also gives the example of white folks who seek out sexual encounters with people of a different racial background. Much like how having a sexual partner from a different race doesn’t make you less racist, eating their food doesn’t make you more tolerant or antiracist either.
This desire to consume the others’ foods without challenging the systems that make them ‘other’ manifests in various ways. In how food is photographed. By appropriation of food by white chefs who detach the food from the cultures and histories that have brought it into being, “a consumer cannibalism that not only displaces the Other but denies the significance of that Other’s history through a process of decontextualization” (hooks).
And as I prepare this cake, with ingredients from another place – rum from the Dominican Republic, ras el hanout from Morocco, limes imported from Brazil – I reminded of how Samantha Marie Nock describes finding sweetgrass alongside dreamcatchers alongside Nag Champa alongside veladoras de Virgen de Guadalupe – “It’s not a surprising scene for anyone who has lived under colonization—to see things from my people spread carelessly throughout your white, witchy, queer house.” Too often appreciation is a guise for appropriation, enlightenment a guise for colonization.
In a search for something else, in a quest to become something else, too often food is ascribed a mythical quality, given an ability to transcend politics and bring people together. As if we could sit down over a pupusa and convince Americans to stop denying El Salvadorean immigrants refuge, or we could sit down over some canned salmon and pipelines would stop being thrust through Indigenous territories in British Columbia. But this isn’t how it happens. Settlers eat the salmon and still build the pipelines, Trump eats his tacos and still builds the wall. Food is no silver bullet to stop the vampires that thrive on the darkness of racism and hate.
So what is the answer? hooks asks us to stop decontextualizing Otherness and to stop uncritically consuming it, instead seeking to learn and understand the ways in which we consume. So, we must work to not divorce food from the cultures and politics that it is birthed from. We must also work to change the systems of power that create these power imbalances: white supremacy, colonization, antiblackness, Islamaphobia, etc. Creating the conditions for people to thrive and create healthy relationships with one another (and the environment) will in turn create conditions for healthy relationships with culture and food. To sum up a recent article: Fix the big things and the ways we eat will change too. It’s not an easy or straightforward fix, but one worth working towards.
Eggless Ras El Hanout Spiced Apple Bundt Cake with a Brown Butter and Rum Icing
This cake is a subversion of a classic apple spiced cake, replacing many of the traditional spices (cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, etc) with a more complex blend of Moroccan spices called ras el hanout. With the icing and topping, I've gone with a classic brown butter and rum icing, using a Dominican rum from when I visited recently, and then added lime components which also remind me of my time in the Dominican. It all works together to create both classic combinations (rum and spiced cake) but also novel and unique flavor combinations like rum and ras el hanout. The cakes are moist, sweet, and loaded with fresh fruit. Best of all, they're not fussy and easy to put together.
- 1 cup milk
- 2 apples (finely diced)
- 2 limes (zest and juice separately)
- 2 cups all purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 tablespoon ras el hanout
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon powder
- 3/4 cup brown sugar (packed)
- 1/2 cup margarine (melted)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1/4 cup butter
- 3/4 cup powdered icing sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 2-3 tablespoons dark rum (I used
In a bowl mix together milk and the juice from one lime (the milk should curdle a little, approximating buttermilk). Set aside while you prepare the rest of your ingredients.
Chop your apple and add juice from your other lime to the chopped apples to make sure they don’t oxidise and turn brown.
Preheat your over to 350F and grease your bundt cake pan well.
In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, ras el hanout, cinnamon powder, and lime zest. In another bowl, whisk together the curdled milk, brown sugar, melted margarine and vanilla.
Now pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and mix till combined well. Fold in the chopped apple, and pour the mixture into the greased bundt cake pan.
Bake for 40-45 minutes. The time will vary depending on if you're using large or small bundt moulds, your oven, etc... Bake until a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.
While the cake is baking, make the icing. Heat butter in a pan until it turns a golden brown color. You should start smelling a nutty flavour, which will help you know it is done.
Once the butter is a golden brown, switch off the stove and pour the butter through a (non-plastic) sieve into a bowl. Whisk in the powdered sugar, vanilla and rum till the mixture is smooth. Set aside till the cake finishes baking.
Once the cake is baked, invert it onto baking rack over a baking sheet. Drizzle the glaze over the cake/s, and let it set for 10-15 minutes. Serve warm.
If you don't have ras el hanout (you should get some!) you can substitute a combination of cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg.