Food, Culture, and the Ozarks

My mother can tell you the first time she went to a Chinese restaurant. It was on a school

field trip where the students were taken to a Chinatown. I don’t know what the highlight was of the trip, but from the sound of her voice, it sure sounds like the trip to the Chinese restaurant was it! For her, the exoticness of being handed chopsticks and offered new food is something she has never forgotten.

Today, it’s weird to think about such an experience standing out since Chinese food is

everywhere and such a common part of our lives. However, growing up in small town Indiana in the 70s, there apparently wasn’t much in the way of international food. Globalization has

changed the way we eat, perhaps in ways we either don’t (because we don’t think about it) or can’t (because it’s always been this way for some of us) appreciate. And as governments,

academics, and people all over the world are starting to realize, food offers a powerful way to

connect people, both to one another and to their respective cultures.

Over the next few months, Ozark International Outreach is going to explore the

international food scene within the Ozarks by highlighting not only the food, but the people and places behind it as well in the hopes that we can share their stories, help others expand their horizons, and just share some good food. In this month’s article, however, we’re going to highlight the rising star of international food, both in terms of how it directly affects us, as well as in terms of international relations.

The Rise of Gastro-Diplomacy

In 2002 the Thai government launched an unorthodox approach to public diplomacy

(public diplomacy, simply put, is interacting with the public rather than a state actor) by

unveiling the “Global Thai” program. The purpose of the innovative Thai program was twofold: improve the recognizability and perception of the country’s culture by spreading its cuisine around the world, and increasing economic exports of food products. Offering loans and training for Thai nationals to set up small businesses across the world, the program demonstrated its success by increasing the number of Thai restaurants from approximately 5,500 across the world in 2002 to over 10,000 by 2011.

The Thai proved that they were on to something, and several other countries quickly

followed suit. In 2009, South Korea – a country which was well known for its organized efforts and success in exporting its culture worldwide – launched “Global Hansik” (Han meaning Korean and sik meaning food). In the following years, countries such as Taiwan, Malaysia, Peru, India, and North Korea have all launched similar programs, attempting to use their cuisine to spread culture, bolster country’s recognizability, and possibly earn a little money at the same time.

Picking up on the trend, in 2012 the United States joined in on the gastro-diplomacy

craze when the State Department initiated The Culinary Diplomacy Partnership Initiative. The

partnership offered select chefs the ability travel to different countries and not only connect with locals and learn about their cuisine, but also teach them more about American cuisine. The inclusion of the United States in the gastro-diplomacy leads to a rather interesting observation by Paul Rockower. For middle power states, such as South Korea or Thailand, gasto-diplomacy allows the state to distinguish its culture from its more powerful neighbors; Korean or Thai food (and eventually culture) becoming distinguishable from, say, Chinese food (and thus culture). Using more common terms, Johanna Mendelson Forman of American University describes the South Korean policy as conscious effort of “branding” itself.

The United States, however, is not a middling power. Rather, as a “great power” its goals

are to create nuance - to demonstrate that American food (and by extension, culture) is more than just fast food. One of the ways the program does this is by highlighting the regional variations within American cuisine. For me, Rockower’s point not only demonstrates a very interesting element of gasto-diplomacy, but it also emphasizes that it’s a growing aspect of public diplomacy in today’s world.

The Personal Connection

Food as a tool for diplomacy may seem like a surprising choice, but it works precisely

because food is so deeply engrained in us as human beings. Simply put, food is an important connection to identity.

One of the best examples of this can be found in examining immigrants. Amy Choi

points out that food is one of the last elements of identity that immigrants lose as they assimilate into a foreign culture. It’s likely not something you’ve actively thought about, but it quickly makes sense the more you think about it. Every day – multiple times a day - we go through the ritual of preparing our food and then consuming it. Every so often, we make conscious decisions about what food we wish to purchase at stores, to either be consumed immediately or used for future cooking session. Even knowing which foods to purchase and what can be done with them says a lot about us, how we were raised, and the decisions we made growing up. More intimately, food is connected to emotion, whether that be a dish reminding of us a happy time or place, or simply bringing us comfort as we eat it. When all of these are taken in combination, it’s easier to see the deep connection between food and identity.

Let’s use a personal example. My family lived in the Southwest through much of my

childhood, and as a result items such as tortillas, refried beans, pinto beans, and salsa are

absolute staples. If you wanted to, you could even more specifically place us as having lived in New Mexico because of our love of green chile. To this day, venturing into my mom’s kitchen and not being able to find the ingredients to make bean burritos is a shock that never fails to prompt a question from me. Odds are good there are some types of food items that are always kept in your house, and you probably don’t even think twice about it unless they’re not there.

This combination of personal, cultural, and diplomatic interests is almost certainly why

the study of food and its relation to politics has grown so much recently. As Carole Counihan

and Penny Van Esterik point out, the dramatic increase in academic food studies is undoubtedly linked to its connection to so many subjects: nationalism, globalism, feminism, race, and more. It successfully bridges that gap between complicated, elite subjects that often dominate diplomacy, and personal, everyday elements that we can all understand.

Impact in the Ozarks

So, what does all of this mean for us in the Ozarks, and why is OIO interested? While

not every country or culture’s food may have representation, there is no shortage of international food within the Ozarks. Although they may not be perfect replicas of the native food, we should still keep an open mind when eating at these locations. In some cases, states or people open these restaurants with the deliberate purpose of getting people interested in their country and culture. Food can be the first step in a larger journey.

As OIO explores the international food of the Ozarks over the coming months, we

encourage you to do the same and to actively think about the richness these unique dishes,

cultures, and establishments offer to you.


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