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Buford Highway is America

The perils of culinary elitism and exoticism

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We are no doubt a nation of gluttonous consumers. But even as we inflate ourselves to become the world's most obese people, we cling to an oppositional founding belief that values asceticism above all. Whereas our colonial masters in Europe cultivated luxury, we saw ourselves from the start as rugged, no-nonsense frontiersmen. Hedonism was so taboo, the Puritans outlawed the growing of flowers.

In his March 9 Freakonomics column in the New York Times, James McWilliams argues that asceticism has lately become especially influential in our attitudes toward food. He describes the current organic and local foods movement as a "strange form of primitivism" whose advocates are driven by a moralistic yearning for simpler, healthier pre-industrial times. The same people also often idealize "less advanced" cultures. McWilliams basically debunks the narrative's claim to originality by noting that it has arisen repeatedly in our history.

I think he overstates the case and fails to account for the simple role of taste. But he also misses the fact that the sustainable food movement advocates a diet that costs significantly more than most spend on food now. Further, it has mainly been an interest of pleasure-seeking gourmands, not pure ascetics. The Yale Daily News published an article about the need for the movement's leaders, including Alice Waters, to confront their "elitist roots" if they really want to improve our eating habits.

It's the other aspect of so-called primitivism that especially fascinates me. I'm talking about the growing interest in and romanticizing of ethnic cuisines and culture. Population fluctuations account for some of this change. Even suburban Gwinnett County is now more non-white than white. While African-Americans account for most of the non-white population in Atlanta, anyone who has driven down Buford Highway knows that other ethnic groups have also vastly multiplied in number.

Recently, the highly regarded Southern Foodways Alliance hosted its 10th annual "field trip" here. It involved two days of grazing on Buford Highway under the guidance of "Sherpas." The certainly worthwhile goal was to look at the interaction of ethnic and Southern cuisines. Besides the grazing, Eddie Hernandez of Taqueria del Sol prepared a meal of his well-known Mexican/Southern fusion dishes and Abattoir hosted a "Deep South Dim Sum." There were also a few talks.

I didn't attend the event. Nor did several full-time foodies I know, partly because of the $315 cost. While I think that was a fair price, considering the breadth of activities, there's no doubt that shelling out $630 for a couple, especially in this economy, is pricey enough to keep out the hoi polloi.

The SFA is located at the University of Mississippi and aims to "document, study and celebrate" Southern food. (It's even well-reviewed in the Food Snob's Dictionary.) Since it's academically based, I have no doubt its leaders ask themselves how to analyze an ethnic community's dining culture without the primitivism that McWilliams cites.

Nonetheless, there are hints of the same. For example, the SFA brochure says this: "Although much of our time will be spent exploring working class eateries, we plan to eat high on the hog, too, courtesy of a dinner at Taqueria del Sol ... and a dim sum luncheon at Abattoir." What makes dim sum at Abattoir more "high on the hog" than at a Chinese restaurant on Buford Highway?

Further, dinners the night before the official event began were not on Buford Highway, although the hosting hotel was just a block off it. Participants could choose (at additional expense) a "Southern Supper" at a mainstream, comparatively pricey intown restaurant such as Miller Union, Restaurant Eugene, Pura Vida or Shaun's. Why would foodies on an ethnic adventure start their weekend at these restaurants? Perhaps to get to know one another before the work began, or maybe some of the chefs developed fusion dishes.

One explanation I've heard is that it would be "too intimidating" to dine on Buford Highway without guides. True of the SFA group or not, the intimidation factor keeps many people out of restaurants there to begin with. But this itself should be a subject of inquiry. There are ways the area's restaurants demonstrate how the dominant and ethnic cultures interact to produce fusion. But there are also ways that they demonstrate estrangement.

Just as the sustainable food movement needs to examine its elitism and primitivism, we need to recognize that the words "white majority" are oxymoronic. I've been eating on Buford Highway for 30 years. In that time, I've seen how entering the door of an ethnic restaurant has changed from being a transit to another world to being a transit deeper into America.

To experience the reality of America's shifting ethnicity through dining, we have to give up our tendency to turn a visit to an ethnic restaurant into a risky anthropological expedition or journey into exoticism. We forget that the people who open these restaurants are themselves already issuing an invitation to us and, believe me, most of them do everything they can to bridge the language gap. They are Americans.

Of course, in the meantime there's also been a resurgence of xenophobia. At one point there was an effort to force Buford Highway businesses to use only English on their signs. Such discriminatory efforts — like Arizona's new law — attempt to maintain the dying dominance of white culture.

But those days are over and it's time to break bread as equals.

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