Why do people take their food so seriously?

Why do people take their food so seriously?

You can mock their sports team, you can ridicule their dress sense, but never, never insult a person's national cuisine

food nationalismIn Denver, they threatened to kill me over soup.

They called me names that I can’t repeat in polite company, insulted my wife, my parents, threatened to come down to the office and kick my teeth in when I made a crack about sneaking a plastic bag full of grilled chicken into the vegetarian restaurant in order to make the limp, soggy vegan burritos fit for human consumption.

Granted, I was a restaurant critic and everyone wants to kill the restaurant critic now and then.

But there were nights when I was taking my life in my hands choosing between the momo and the iskender; in the obvious and wise decision to eat the mustard-spiked Carolina barbecue rather than the Texas brisket.

When I said something nasty about the chicken rice at the rattletrap strip mall joint with the buzzing, dust-fuzzed neon sign and the powerful smell of industrial cleaning products, I wasn’t just taking a shot at the food, but at Singapore in general, everyone who had ever lived there and the spirits of a million dead ancestors.

The coolest heads explained to me (as though I needed it explained) that chicken rice was the national dish of Singapore and that anyone with any taste at all must love it unreservedly, in any mutant form it took, because to do otherwise was to insult a billion years of Hainanese and Malaysian culinary history.

The sad, black heart of culinary jingoism is the knuckleheaded idea that none but those who are born to it can possibly appreciate the full, round expression of pelmeni or taco or stinky tofu. 

Those less restrained simply said that it’d be smart of me to never walk alone in that restaurant’s neighborhood again. Because if I did, they would find me.

Cuisine as patriotism

What is it about food that brings out the rabid nationalism in people?

How is it that CNNGo was tabled in a Taiwan parliamentary committee hearing and received a protest visit after the site used Catholicism’s seven deadly sins to describe the seven best Asian cities for indulgence, with Taipei named as the best city for gluttony?

Also on CNNGo: Asia's most sinful cities

The fury over that rose high enough that government ministers were quoted in newspapers saying that the CNN staff needed to be “educated” about Taiwanese cuisine and culture, when, from my perspective, they seemed to already have it down pat.

I mean, we’re talking about a city with 18 streets dedicated to nothing but food, where you can’t chuck a rock without hitting some sidewalk genius cooking up pork belly buns, night market sausages or deep-fried stinky tofu for the mobs of hungry people passing by.

Taipei is a city renowned for good food. In fact, its tourism and marketing campaigns belabor the point. It's not just a glutton’s city, but a glutton’s Nirvana.

Anyone who says different has obviously never witnessed the kind of human traffic jam that can be caused just by the smell of sheng jian bao in the pan.

But saying so -- just by talking about somebody else’s cuisine in anything but the most careful and undeniably gracious terms -- inspired a Taiwanese Information Office Minister to claim publicly that by using the word “gluttonous,” CNN had damaged Taipei’s image in the global sphere. (Sidenote: nowhere in the original article was the word "gluttonous" used.)

More pronounced and vitriolic was the netizen reaction and wave of protest when, in a CNNGo iReport, a Texas resident said that he did not like century egg.

CNNGo was so moved by the wave of Chinese anger over this dislike of a dish that it issued an apology letter.

Also on CNNGo: iReport: The most 'revolting' food I've had is ...

Also on CNNGo: The great century egg debate

Burn my flag, fine, but don't you dare criticize my mother's wu gai soup

So what is it about food that does this?

Why can a dumpling or a meat pie -- more than a flag, more than an anthem -- cause otherwise rational and well adjusted people to go into paroxysms of rage and patriotism if someone dares to say anything against it?

food nationalismDon't like the stinky tofu? Better keep your mouth shut.Here's my take.

While an anthem may be stirring and a flag might flutter prettily in the breeze, neither tastes very good. Neither gets internalized, both literally and figuratively, the way food does.

To say something nasty, or even something perceived to be nasty, about a country’s food is to say something nasty about its mothers and grandmothers, about its most dearly held traditions and tenderest moments.

We celebrate with food. We mourn with food. We use food to mark both milestone events and plain old ordinary Tuesdays.

And to insult a beloved food is to insult all of this at once, not just the thing itself, but the emotional architecture that surrounds it as well.

And I understand the sentiment tied up in this. Honestly, I do.

There’s a counter-service cheeseburger joint five minutes' walk from the house where I grew up that I swear, against all better judgement, serves the second-best burger on the planet and I am perfectly happy to fight anyone who says different.

I feel this way because it is my cheeseburger joint, the one I grew up with, the one I miss when I am far away.

But the sad, black heart of culinary jingoism is the knuckleheaded idea that none but those who are born to it can possibly appreciate the full, round expression of pelmeni or taco or stinky tofu.

That common blood (and, presumably, passport ink) is the only sauce that can truly bring a dish into perfect focus.

And that, of course, is total rubbish. A lie clung to by those who honestly believe that latitude is the ultimate arbiter of authenticity and that love of food and love of place are the same thing.

But it is precisely this notion of ownership -- my burger joint, their rundown chicken rice palace -- that is so maddening and that exists to hide so much of the good stuff from those easily scared away.

I don’t care if you were born in Moscow or New York or Singapore. You don’t own those dishes that sustained you.

Also on CNNGo: World's 10 best cities for foodies

No one owns homesickness and no one has the market cornered on the comforts of a national cuisine

There is no rule which says that just because you grew up eating carne asada every day, wrapped in handmade tortillas with the indents of your abuelita’s fingers still plain in the masa, you get to be Lord and Mayor of Taco Town.

You want rules? Here are some rules. No great cuisine ever got that way without being able to survive the glare and varied interpretation of international service. No cuisine ever got to grow without being irrevocably altered simply by its passage to some new place.

Also on CNNGo: 6 foolproof rules for finding the best restaurants on the road

And while this should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever eaten their way beyond the neighborhood Olive Garden, it still bears saying -- no cuisine is pure.

Or above criticism. Even criticism by people who are -- gasp -- outsiders.

Just because someone doesn’t like the stinky tofu, it doesn’t mean they’re stupid or uncultured or racist. Most of the time it just means they don’t like the damn tofu.

We're all Iron Chefs

Who gets to decide who is the outsider anyway?

Setting aside any freakishly insular, super-regional culinary tradition which, somehow, might have skated untouched through all the immigration, emigration, wars, migrations, diasporas and cultural re-jiggings with which we hairless monkeys have amused ourselves for the past thousand years, there is not a single canon out there that hasn’t gone through multiple rounds of culinary miscegenation borne of strife, exodus or worse.

No matter how wonderful, the Vietnamese food you eat today in Los Angeles is not the same as the Vietnamese food eaten yesterday in Saigon.

But then, the Vietnamese food eaten yesterday in Saigon is also not the same as the stuff they ate the day before in Hanoi, or during the French occupation, or while the lords and ladies sat in Hue, or when the Chinese ruled the North.

I have spent most of my life eating Vietnamese food. I know it like I know the taste of my own teeth.

But never once have I eaten Vietnamese food -- get it? Though only because I do not yet have my own time machine.

So be proud of your dumplings, by all means. Love your stinky tofu, your chicken rice, your cheeseburgers, caviar and pie.

But remember in the same breath that no one owns homesickness and no one has the market cornered on the comforts of a national cuisine.

Every dish served in every restaurant everywhere must, first, stand on its own merits.

It must be worthy of being loved absent tradition, absent location, absent cultural fiat, because the greatest power of cuisine in this day and age is its ability to move not just those who were born to it, but those stepping through the door for the first time, too.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jason Sheehan.

First published May 2012, updated February 2013.

Jason Sheehan is a former chef and current food editor at Philadelphia magazine. He was given a James Beard Award and his work has appeared in the Daily Beast, Cooking Light and Best Food Writing. His mom still thinks he should have been an orthodontist.

Read more about Jason Sheehan