A Brief History of Food, or, Why we Should Leave Jamie Oliver Alone
During his excursions in Greece and the near-east, John Montague, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, observed local culinary traditions such as pita bread and other hand foods. Obviously, a meal that could be held and eaten in a single hand presented a convenient alternative to traditional knife-and-fork meals common in Britain at the time.
Thus, the Earl brought the idea back home, and popularised the sandwich amongst the English gentry as a food that could be eaten without leaving the gaming table.
Of course, Montague certainly didn’t invent the concept of putting meat between bread; he simply adopted and adapted a foreign recipe to suit the British palate of the time. As a result, one of the most widely-eaten dishes was born, and led to other culinary creations such as the Hamburger or Hot-Dog.
But what if this had happened today, rather than in the 18th Century? If modern events are anything to go by, he would have been a perpetrator of the crime of cultural appropriation.
It is sadly no longer permissible, it seems, to experiment with another culture’s recipes and ingredients. Just look at poor Jamie Oliver, a man who I wouldn’t usually side with but now has my complete sympathy.
After putting his name to ‘Jerk Rice’, a microwaveable rice-dish inspired by the Jamaican jerk-style cooking, Oliver is now feeling the wrath of social media. Why? Because jerk is traditionally only used for meats such as pork or chicken; applying the seasoning to rice, it seems, is something of an affront to Caribbean cuisine.
As a result, Oliver now faces accusations of not understanding of Jamaican food, appropriating culture, and even outright racism. Quite the list of charges for a ready-meal.
But has Oliver done anything wrong, or even out of the ordinary? Absolutely not.
In fact, pretty much all modern foods have been the result of little additions and adaptations to existing dishes. The Chicken Tikka Masala, for instance, finds its origins at the hands of a Pakistani chef in an Indian restaurant in Glasgow, most likely with Punjabi origins.
Even the humble pairing of Fish and Chips, known globally as a British staple, represents a fusion of Belgian, French, and Iberian Jewish culinary traditions. Undoubtedly had the dynamic duo been paired today, the social media firestorm would be catastrophic.
These two examples, along with the iconic sandwich, are merely three out of a plethora of dishes which owe their origins to experimentation, fusion, and cultural exchange.
But are these dishes appropriative or racist? Of course not. As different cultures begin to mingle, it’s to be expected that their traditional foods will begin to evolve and merge. Sometimes this will produce new delights and culinary classics. Other times it’ll produce Jerk Rice. Neither of these warrant such an uproar as Oliver is facing today.
Naturally, this isn’t to say that Jamie’s Jerk Rice is going to be the next big thing – for all I know, it tastes awful – but to accuse Oliver of appropriation or racism isn’t just harsh; it ignores a great deal of culinary history.
Far more troubling than Jamie’s rice is that accusation came from a Member of Parliament, Dawn Butler MP. While causing a fuss over something as trivial as a ready-meal is expected from certain online pundits, it’s more than a little concerning that an elected official has the time and the drive to do so.
In any case, such accusations serve only to sow division. It shouldn’t be necessary to write an article about the prevalence of cultural exchange and foreign inspirations in modern food, simply because this is something most of us know already. At the very least, it shouldn’t be newsworthy.
Let’s not kid ourselves that Jamie’s rice is anything new; this is how food has always been treated, regardless of the culture of origin. Rather than looking for controversy, let’s just enjoy some rice and leave Jamie alone!
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