As I watch TV, I hear the familiar commercial jingle: "I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony" and see the trademark-red Coca-Cola logo before it even flashes on the screen. In my heart, I feel the swell of so much goodwill toward my fellow human beings that I must, absolutely must, run out and buy a bottle of the syrupy pop. And as I drink it I will know that by my very purchase, I have contributed to the elevation -- and perhaps even evolution -- of mankind's basically generous and loving nature, all while conveniently satisfying my sugar-addicted taste buds.
At least this might have been the scenario a few decades ago, when that slogan was the soda industry's hole-in-one. It might have even still been applicable up until a couple of years ago, when the word "global" entered our gastronomic glossary. Thanks to technology that enabled us to expand our minds and palates, not only were we privy to culinary influences from all over the world, we had a keyword for it. And from chef to diner we readily embraced it.
Not so today. Now, I can just imagine some ad exec pitching this campaign to Coke bigwigs. "Well, we like the idea of it," they might say. "But we don't want the whole world singing. Just parts of it. Drop Iraq, lose Afghanistan, do something with North Korea, and see if you can gloss over Germany, France, and a few Third World islands no one's heard about since geography class. Come back in a week and we'll talk."
Yup, our perspective is shrinking. Not for all of us, of course. Norman's chef-proprietor Norman Van Aken, for one, says, "My attitude hasn't changed in 30 years of cooking. We just released a cookbook, New World Kitchen, which covers more than 30 countries, from Cuba to the tip of Chile and all points in between."
Still, aficionados or no, many of us food-eating Americans have banned beef from other countries, poured French wine out into the streets, boycotted Chinese restaurants, and committed innumerable other ethnic food-cleansing offenses. Mad Cow Disease! Operation-Iraqi-Freedom! SARS! But frankly the world, as small as it's getting, is still too big for personal boycotts to be effective. And renaming French fries to show patriotism and avoiding contact with Asians for fear of contracting a disease -- in a country where tuberculosis, mind, has effectively defeated most of the treatments that used to eradicate it -- is not a revolution, but an atrocity of the cooking kind: ethnoculinarism.
Not that we have to roll over and accept it. "It is our responsibility to our currently confused planet, and as parents of North American children, that we nurture and produce the smartest, most enlightened kids we can, if we have any hope of [having] a united world and caring planetary society," Jonathan Eismann, chef-proprietor of Pacific Time, says. "Call it 'culinary diplomacy.' Exploring different cultures by seeking out and enjoying their different cuisines is a wonderful way to keep our children's (and adults') minds and palates open to the idea of a diverse and ever-changing world."
Some industry colleagues advise supporting American restaurants and drinking domestic vintages. Others say that's impossible -- what is an American restaurant, anyway? And should we suffer California wines 100 percent of the time? The horror! Several advocate doing absolutely nothing at all. "Just wait for it to pass," advises Carafe publisher and editor Todd Wernstrom. "Like everything in this 24-hour-per-day, real-time, [news]-dominated world, it surely will."
Public relations executive Larry Carrino, who represents restaurants, concurs -- with the collected wisdom of prophets. "Refuse to succumb to the hysteria and paranoia that the current state of affairs has generated. Accept that in times of upheaval, the backwash of negativity affects everyone but eventually the tide recedes."
Calms in storms aside, not everyone agrees that we are actually closing in on ourselves. Rudi Sodamin, Royal Caribbean corporate chef and president of Miami-based Food Sensations, says, "The 'global' trend is here to stay, brought to us through the ever-expanding age of the Internet and air travel ... Sushi has come to the heartland. Indonesian-Mexican, Cuban-Hebrew, and other exotic trend-blends abound. We are surrounded more than ever by a sense that our cultures as well as our food interests are melding together." He adds, however, that it is "not surprising that our politics have begun to show themselves through the metaphor of food. I must admit I had to laugh when I heard about freedom fries. That's one of the reasons I love the world of food and beverage -- it's so expressive. Food speaks! It tells us about ourselves -- both the good and the bad. Our acceptance of this fact encourages the expression of greater diversity."
Others, like Simone Zarmati Diament of The South Florida Gourmet, dismiss the debate entirely. "How can anyone think of food as [either] the expression of ethnic diversity or as a political statement? Should we even consider letting politics dictate which ingredients to choose? We all know that the process of cooking and eating begins in the marketplace. Should ingredient-crazed Americans whip up the smorgasbord du jour according [to] or against homeland security guidelines?... Any consideration other than creating a delicious dish according to one's taste and pocketbook is of the realm of irrelevance, ignorance, and downright stupidity."
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Philosophically, it's easy to take a moral stance as high as the temperature in a microwave oven (or fire pit, for the purists). I don't think many in our community would disagree with Myles Chefetz, proprietor of Nemo, Shoji Sushi, and Big Pink, who tosses off, "Don't let our tongues be ruled by CNN." Or Kevin Aoki, vice president of marketing for Benihana Inc. A first-generation American, he "grew up with a culture and a family heritage that was not accustomed to so much influence from the media. We were inspired to adhere to our own thoughts and values and not to be swayed by public opinion. The media should not rule our lives and certainly not our palates. My father's (Rocky Aoki) credo has always been 'One planet, one people' and I agree. Our family and our corporate goal is to enrich the lives of our patrons and friends by exposing them to all the beauty of the Japanese cuisine and culture and we hope to continue doing so without having to pay heed to what is politically correct at this moment, as it will surely change in the next moment."
But in practical terms, what can we do to encourage others who may not be so inclined to ease up on the gastronomic ethnocentrism? An answer doesn't come readily to mind. "I haven't a clue of what to do," admits food writer Viviana Carballo, "except to do what I do. Eat everything, and damn the torpedoes!"
Aside from keeping politics out of the kitchen completely, which in realistic terms may not even be an option, we can build up instead of tearing down. Rather than forgoing the escargots as a way of showing patriotism, head to Doraku on May 17 for "Armed Forces Day," when any diner with a military ID receives 25 percent off the check. And while I'm not much of a flag-waver, even I think I might be able to swallow the Titanic Brewery's "Brewmaster Dinner" on May 22, the theme of which is, owner Kevin Rusk notes, "a salute to our European allies with a five-course food-and-beer-pairing dinner. We've selected unique dishes from five different European countries that we felt would pleasantly match with select Titanic beers." For instance, a first course of gazpacho is being matched with the Triple Screw Light Ale, and a mid-dish of pan-roasted filet mignon, cooked with Scotch whisky, mushrooms, cream, and grainy mustard, will be complemented by the crisp Britannic Best Bitter Ale.
Meanwhile, on a regular basis, we can be proactive in our dining choices. Go ahead and order the Burgundy -- the already-at-poverty-level workers who pick the grapes for that bottle of French wine aren't the targets at which anyone should be aiming. But they're the ones who will be hit. Quietly continue to buy caviar (if you can afford it), even though Iran might be the next Operation-Freedom domino and Russia, well, that country's got its own problems to worry about. Be like Mike -- Michael Jackson, that is -- and wear a mask if you have to. But absolutely go to as many immigrant-run Asian restaurants as possible and hope that they send their money back to relatives in the home countries for healthcare. Then, even if we can't teach the whole world to sing via a single can of Coke, at least we can all be on the same plate.