Bow-tied chef, Christopher Kimball, the founder of Cook’s Illustrated magazine and the popular public television show America’s Food Kitchen, has started a new venture, Milk Street—a magazine, cooking school, and a television and radio show rivaling what he’s accomplished in the past. The New York Times called him “an intellectual and business powerhouse of American recipes.” It’s true, Mr. Kimball is impressive; he is admired and emulated by home cooks all across America. Which is why I was taken aback by his ‘About’ page on the site, which asserts that “ethnic food is dead.” He writes:
There is no “ethnic” cooking. It’s a myth. It’s just dinner or lunch served somewhere else in the world… Ethnic food is dead; it smacks of the sin of colonialism. This is a culinary—not cultural—exchange.
There are two corrupt ideas at work here: one, that ethnic food is dead; two, that colonialism is or was inherently evil and has no redeeming qualities.
Ethnic food will live for as long as ethnic identities live, and it should. The culinary is embedded in the cultural; it is a product of its surroundings and the creativity and ethos of the peoples living within that physical sphere. Identity is a complex system, as I’ve said before. It is made up of the ties the self has to what generated it, and to whom and what it is related. I, Luma, was created and born into a family, a household, a religion, a culture, a language, and a state. I was a girl, born in Baghdad, Iraq, to two Christian parents, and my first language was Arabic. Milk—in the form of breast milk or formula—may have been what I, and every baby was fed, and in that respect it is universal. But the very next food I tasted was shaped by the culinary practices, which are cultural by nature, of my heritage.
“Ethnic food” is not an insult, it is a phrase which honors the beautiful heterogeneity of the peoples of our world. This is why a chef like Jamie Oliver can travel around the world humbly and joyfully learning the cuisine and the cultures which gave rise to the cookery of different ethnic groups. As part of his Food Escapes series, Oliver tries making some of the dishes he learned, and sometimes he adds his own twist or a slightly different ingredient. This experimentation and innovation is fine, and it has its place in culinary art. But one thing Oliver does not do is erase distinctions, which is precisely what Christopher Kimball’s assertion does. Kimball wants to erase cultural and culinary identities at a time when people all over the world are fighting, and sometimes killing others, to retain them. Kimball’s Milk Street wants to water down every ethnic dish to milk, to try to make it universal. Who is the true colonialist here?
And that brings me to the next corruption—the idea that colonialism is inherently sinful and brought nothing but evil to the countries in which it existed. Does anyone want to ask the many Indians living in England right now if it they have benefited from their colonial history? As I mentioned above, I am an immigrant from Iraq, a country which at one time was a British colony. The Iraqi Christian subculture is deeply grateful for that period of time. Colonial reality can be good or evil; the acquisition of land as a result of war, or the economic influence due to trade on its own is not always and everywhere bad. This is not the place for an apology of colonialism, nor is it my intention to claim that the killing and conquering of peoples is good; it is not. But Kimball conflates the aggressive destruction and control of one political power over another with the civilizing influence that one people can have on another.
It is thanks to colonialism that, for a while, Christian Iraqis enjoyed equal protection under the law in Iraq—this was due to the British helping the Muslim government in Iraq create a Constitution which treats all people equally. Here’s a taste of the language of that document:
There shall be no differentiation in the rights of Iraqis before the law, whatever differences may exist in language, race or creed.
And although after defeating the Ottoman Empire the British did not give the Christian Assyrians in Northern Iraq a self-governing province where Christians could be safe from Muslim rule, they did help bring Iraq into the modern world, and they did create a space where Christians could flourish in a way they could not have previously.
I appreciate what Christopher Kimball has accomplished in the past, and if he wants to translate a Thai recipe which I can try at home, that would be wonderful and I may attempt to make it. But let him not preach to me that my ethnic food is a myth and that it’s a result of colonialism. If he wants his new venture to succeed, he may want to choose a different approach to judging the food of others.
Image: By MelissaBaldino (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons