2013-08-31

Deconstructing a Take-Out Menu  

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This post has nothing to do with Belfast Nightlife.

One of my favorite internet reads is this story from the satirical news site 'The Onion'.
CAMBRIDGE, MA—Jon Rosenblatt, 27, a Harvard University English graduate student specializing in modern and postmodern critical theory, deconstructed the take-out menu of a local Mexican restaurant "out of sheer force of habit" Monday.

"What's wrong with me?" Rosenblatt asked fellow graduate student Amanda Kiefer following the incident. "Am I completely losing my mind? I just wanted to order some food from Burrito Bandito. Next thing I know, I'm analyzing the menu's content as a text, or 'text,' subjecting it to a rigorous critical reevaluation informed by Derrida, De Man, etc., as a construct, or 'construct,' made up of multi-varied and, in fact, often self-contradictory messages, or 'meanings,' derived from the cultural signifiers evoked by the menu, or 'menu,' and the resultant assumptions within not only the mind of the menu's 'authors' and 'readers,' but also within the larger context of our current postmodern media environment. Man, I've got to finish my dissertation before I end up in a rubber room." 

http://www.theonion.com/articles/grad-student-deconstructs-takeout-menu,85/

This article is great, because as well as being very funny, it is insightful. It gives some 'food for thought' about food from different cultures and how we 'appropriate' them.

The article made me think about Indian food in British society, how we refer to 'ordering an Indian' and then order something that an actual person living in India has probably never heard of. For example the Tikka Massalla was invented in Birmingham I've never been to China, but I feel with some confidence that if I went there, I'd struggle to find somewhere that could serve me a recognisable number 7 special sweet and sour.

Given this, it's reasonable to say that food has become a sort of pastiche of the culture from which it (in the popular consensus) originates. I know of an Irish person who went to a Greek island and set up a 'Mexican' restaurant . The customers are English holiday makers and they get a 'Mexican' hat, poncho and fake cigar to wear whilst they eat their meal. Further, the whole experience is not a replication of Mexican culture, but the American appropriation of Mexican culture popularised in American media.

This, illustrates a recurring theme throughout the Anglo-Western world of appropriating and then serving a caricature of a culture or identity to be consumed, perhaps re-enforcing certain prejudices in the process.

Indeed, it seems prejudiced and the food industry often go hand in hand. Take for example this news story from my home town in England:

Padiham chippy sign is racist - claim
A CHIP shop sign announcing its new owners are English has been branded ‘racist’.
Paul Bradbury and his wife Rachel have taken over the Chippy On The Green in Hapton Road, Padiham.
They have hung a banner outside which says ‘Under new management with English owners’.
Calls have been made from Burnley’s MP and the mayor of Padiham for it to be taken down.
But Mr Bradbury remains defiant and said people who think it’s racist are narrow-minded.

http://www.lancashiretelegraph.co.uk/news/10641120.Padiham_chippy_sign_is_racist___claim/?ref=mmsp

This story is one of those very common occurrences of  "being subtly racists whilst feigning ignorance" that you read about all the time. Is there anyone out there who does not genuinely believe the 'chippy' owner intended to communicate something other than "I am a white person, definitely not an Asian, people who don't like Asians will feel at home here".

A rebuttal I have heard is that other establishments refer to themselves as "Turkish" or "Chinese" with no trouble, so why can't he. However a better comparison would be if a Takeaway called itself "Padhiam Curry House, owned by Sunni's". That would certainly raise a few eyebrows.

I've met a lot of Muslim people over the years, but now that I think about it, I've no idea if they were Sunni or Shiite. I wonder if they socialise together in towns like Burnley, and if they do that weird thing Northern Irish people sometimes do when meeting a stranger for the first time trying to feel for if the other is a catholic or a protestant.

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