Exotic Appetites

In Exotic Appetites, philosopher Lisa Heldke reflects on her behavior as a “food adventurer” and interrogates her fascination with the foods from foreign places. She considers this behavior, which in her experience is most often perpetrated by fellow white, Western folks in search of “novelty” and “authenticity” in an effort to make their diets more interesting and themselves more worldly, a type of colonization. More specifically, she calls this phenomenon “cultural food colonialism,” in contrast to more widely recognized food colonialism in which agricultural and natural resources are extracted from poor countries for the benefit of rich countries. This particular brand of colonialism is much less tangible— it happens mostly internally but manifests on the market in cookbooks, TV shows, and travel guides that exotify and romanticize the ethnic Other, make hand-chosen pieces of the Other’s culture more accessible for consumption by White westerners like Heldke herself, and work insidiously to solidify and perpetuate colonial power structures between “us” and “them.”

Heldke demonstrates how this behavior qualifies as a type of colonialism in Part One, where she identifies three rationales behind “our” (white peoples’) interest in (obsession with) with the foods of other cultures. First, she believes it stems from a need for novelty, which constantly shifts our attention from one culture and cuisine to the next such that an entire country and cuisine can come and go as a fad (or, on an individual level, as a “mood” a la “I’m in the mood for Indian tonight”). She points out our problematic desire for all things “authentic” and highlights some of the problems defining what exactly is “authentic” and who, in this context, gets to decide. This discussion culminates in her argument that we food adventurers often treat other people and places as a “resource” to use for our own benefit, which she identifies largely as “cultural capital.” 

Notions of authenticity, cultural capital, and “mining” the Other as a resource is present throughout her argument in Part Two, where she examines food writers’ approach to writing about their travels abroad and their experiences at “ethnic” restaurants at home. She argues that these writers, often white and male, write from a place of “neutrality” and “objectivity,” highlighting the fact that white people often see themselves as raceless, and that all other races and cultures exist relative to them. She questions food writers’ entitlement to foods and places and the assumption that people exist to cater to them, and sees this pattern reflected in food adventurers outside the food writing profession as well. In Part Three, she identifies similar trends in cookbooks, highlighting in particular the way recipe “developers” often “mine” the foodways of the Other and present them as their own work, offering little in the way of credit. In this “culture of colonialism,” the Other is often represented in cookbooks as existing only to serve the colonizer.

In the final section of the book, she offers some insight into “anticolonial eating” that, while imperfect, is at the very least a less harmful approach to these sorts of cultural, culinary encounters. Though she jokes about making the case for cultural isolationism, which she points out would not solve the problem and would be impossible anyway, she suggests “that we think and act from a consciousness of our privilege… from an acknowledgement that, among other things, we are always ugly Americans by default.” In this way, Heldke somehow manages to sprinkles a bit of comic relief into her discussion of topics like colonialism and exploitation, making the book both entertaining and readable. Her analysis is sharp, unforgiving, and badly needed in the world of food.

As a white person from a rural, working-class background with a curiosity in food that I have always dreamed of turning into a career, this book changed the way I see the world. It made me interrogate my own food adventuring tendencies, and as a result I am more thoughtful and engage more critically with race and food and my place in the conversation as a white person. As Heldke points out at the beginning of the book, some might argue that there are more important legacies of colonialism that she could spend her time and energy combatting. But it’s exactly the everyday, unspectacular nature of this behavior that makes it so powerful and pervasive, and without this book I doubt I would ever have been able to articulate the ways my behavior in restaurants and the media I consume perpetuate cultural colonialism. This one is filed away under “books that made me a better person.”

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