Not Your Average Food Fight
“I’m on the hunt for the best Shakshouka in Boston,” she said eyeing me, eyeing her cast iron pan bubbling over with a sticky combo of what I later learned to be poached eggs and tomato sauce. “As of now, Tatte is number one, but this is a hot second contender,” she explained, scooting a utensil out of her iPhone camera’s line of sight as she snapped a pic. She blew gently on the dish patiently waiting for it to cool while I nodded slowly, subtly googling what the heck Shakshouka is.
Frustrated by my broken and flickering phone screen, I accidentally clicked on an Algemeiner article and ended up reading Palestinian’s criticism of the Israeli UN Ambassador, who recently treated UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to Shakshouka as an expression of Israel’s food heritage. Confused, save for the obvious ongoing tensions, as to why Palestinians were so outraged over this gesture in particular, I went on to read that this exchange was not an anomaly. The Palestinian palette has apparently, and maybe unsurprisingly in light of the current conflict, been considered, at least by Palestinians, a target of Israeli theft. The article argued that Israel claims much Palestinian cuisine, such as hummus and falafel, or Shakshouka, as its own.
Professor of history at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, Dr. Riad al-Astal, further explained the reasons why this particular getsure felt so painful to Palestinians. Dr. Astal confirmed that Jewish Israeli groups have in fact been trying hard to convince the world that they are the rightful owners of land in the Arab region—especially the Palestinian land—by doctoring facts of heritage, such as food, to be in their favor. For this reason food, which may otherwise be written off as apolitical, has become a huge source of contention among many other things between the Israeli and Palestinian people.
Dr. Astal went so far as to say that the battle with the occupation over heritage is no less dangerous than the occupation of land. He believes a clear strategy to address these thefts should be required, calling on international agencies like UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) to address the issues of “counterfeiting heritage.”
Israelis, on the other hand, argue that the counterfeiting heritage claim serves as an opportunity to cover-up what would otherwise be considered an explicitly one-state (versus two-state, which would mean somehow evenly splitting territory) agenda. Either way, food enables people to express themselves culturally. This is evident in Palestinians arguing that Israel has co-opted their dish, along with their land, in an effort to further undermine the validity of their identity, cultural heritage, and therefore right to land. Meanwhile Israelis have spoken out about the incident as a false claim to heritage that was never Palestinian in the first place.
In Italy, there has been contention over recent efforts to outlaw any new kebab shops or any other purveyors of “ethnic food.” Forte dei Marmi, though not the first Italian town to ban ethnic restaurants, is currently under fire for trying to implement the ban (the nearby town of Lucca was accused of racism when it did the same thing in 2009). The move is the latest expression of culinary nationalism sweeping the country, as Italians struggle to hold onto centuries-old traditions that they perceive are threatened by globalization and immigration.
While Umberto Buratti, mayor of Forte dei Marmi, has said the measure “has nothing to do with xenophobia—it is about protecting and valuing our culture,” immigrants and activists alike argue that the legislation pioneered by Italian nationalists is evidently an effort to shroud a xenophobic agenda under the guise of the preservation of Italy’s cultural heritage. Lobbyists for the legislation claim otherwise, expressing that the policy is a desperate attempt to preserve Italy’s food culture, which has arguably suffered under the pressures of recent North African migration, and therefore has nothing to do with any efforts to keep anyone out.
Italian nationalists have been getting away with shrouding their implicit xenophobic agenda under the guise of cultural preservation, which has undeniably weaponized Italian food and demonized ethnic food. This has functioned as a form of microaggression in that people are getting away with exercising exclusivity that would otherwise be considered as xenophobic if not supposedly for the sake of Italian culture betterment. What’s scary about this is that microaggressions can actually be more damaging than outright aggressions because they can be harder to name.
Our own college could even be considered responsible for relying on students unawareness of food as a tool to push a certain agenda. The Food and Agriculture Organization subset of the UN defines food sovereignty as “the right of peoples to more than one source of healthy and culturally appropriate food, produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems." Having more than one channel to access culturally relevant food is a requirement that most college campus dining halls do not meet. By denying students more than one readily available channel for their culturally relevant food I would argue that campuses are implicitly asking that their students expedite or even force their assimilation by dictating their diet in a culturally irrelevant context.
Are we food sovereign?
Photography by Olivia Cigliano