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If you have fellow foodies in your Facebook feed, you’ve likely seen this Washington Post piece by Lavanya Ramanathan, "Why everyone should stop calling immigrant food 'ethnic.'" It's not an unreasonable issue to raise: Why are some foods are "ethnic" and others aren't even though, obviously, everything American from pizza to wieners was specific to an immigrant ethnicity at some point (which was almost certainly well after the first bad English cook arrived at Jamestown)? By my calling your food ethnic, on some level I'm othering you, assuming a Norman Rockwell 1950s in which I am normal and you're weird (never mind that there's nothing weirder than the noodles and prunes that people of my Nordic white ethnicity cook up as a meatless dish on Good Friday). So yes, I agree that labeling some of us immigrants as the ones who make "ethnic food" and others as people who just make "food" relies on some false assumptions about the underlying food culture and who's in it and who's out of it. Absolutely true. It's good to be aware of that tendency in oneself. Hear hear.
Now here's why I think this is a dangerous article that will only do harm to the cause of celebrating America's rich immigrant food culture.
The first problem is that the article, written in a baity fashion (which has plainly worked), has its own who's-hip-who-isn't beam in its eye. Ramanathan's unspoken prejudice is that she sees the world as divided, and people who are cosmopolitan enough to be worthy of introduction to her food culture come first:
It’s no longer a foreign concept to lunch at a banh mi carryout and then settle in for a dinner of Filipino sisig and end a night at a gelato shop, splitting an affogato. And that’s true whether we’re in Los Angeles, Minneapolis or Washington.
Three urban areas=America, apparently. But then there are tacky middle-class middle Americans who, oh dear, even write about it on Yelp:
Browsing that vast compost pile of opinion, I learn that one restaurant has “just enough ethnicity to make people feel multicultural.” Another, a Latin American joint that sits on what must be Washington’s gentrification line of demarcation, can still pass one reviewer’s ethnic test. Which is, of course: “Look for patrons of that restaurant’s ethnicity eating there.”
OK, that's pretty naive, as nonprofessional Yelpers can tend to be. But is it really any more provincial than the hipster start-up validation she offers for the right kind of people doing immigrant cuisines the right way?
In any given week, Blue Apron is as likely to deliver the goods to prepare a North African tagine, Japanese soba salad and Vietnamese chicken wings as it is to send good old-fashioned steak.
Yes, all across flyover country Americans are expressing their prejudices by how they view their Blue Apron orders, not to mention the spices they order from Dean & DeLuca and the recipes they get from Leite’s Culinaria. I felt the same way about this observation on the phrase "ethnic food":
It’s not the phrase itself, really. It’s the way it’s applied: selectively, to cuisines that seem the most foreign, often cooked by people with the brownest skin. “Ethnic food” is always Indian and Thai, Vietnamese and Salvadoran.
Maybe so—in Washington, where those are the most prevalent immigrant populations (along with Africans). In Chicago, "ethnic" food is just as likely to refer to pale-faced Polish or Bosnian food, which is more exotic than tacos al pastor or falafel or pho to the average Chicagoan who eats out. But you'd have to get out of Dupont Circle to know that.
So I find her concern about the use of "ethnic" overplayed and selective, even if I agree it has some truth at its core. But my real concern is the consequence of scaring people away from using it for lack of a better term.
There's a claim in the cultural air that we've grown uncivil toward people with points of view that are different than our own. I recommend that anyone who thinks we're genuinely uncivil read Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland and see how hatefully Americans really talked about each other in the days of race riots and antiwar protests. Compared to that, we're not hateful, but we are pettily pissy, ready to one-up anybody who doesn't comply with the constantly changing rules about what's socially acceptable when discussing an ever-expanding array of topics.
What that does isn't so much change minds as lay down a fresh layer of eggshells for everyone to tiptoe over. Make "ethnic food" a hanging offense of racial insensitivity and you won't make people think more about food and culture, you'll tell them it's a whole area to be avoided. You went to a Mexican restaurant, the neighborhood was a little rough but it seemed really authentic, the whole family worked there, the Mama was sweet to your kids, the handmade tortillas tasted like you had in Mexico, the TV played Mexican soap operas, the spicy salsa had real heat, you could taste the lard in the beans, and you sure knew you weren't eating Lincoln Park late-night frat-boy Mex? You racist monster with your bag of stereotypes that show how you were treating it as other! The only acceptable way to experience a restaurant of a specific nationality is by being completely oblivious to how it was different in any way from the sashimi-grade fish tacos on quinoa tortillas at Sackbutt & Boatswain in Wicker Park. In the end, it's safer to just stick to Chipotle and not tell anyone you even went there.
That isn't good for people talking about food online or among friends, and it certainly isn't good for the immigrant restaurants hoping for customers from outside their own groups. Please, call it an ethnic restaurant if you have to—I don't have a better all-purpose word; "immigrant restaurant" is often literally untrue when we have Chinese families who've been in the restaurant business since the 1920s, to name just one. But please, go there, share what you experience with what words you have for it, and I at least will thank you for it. As they come for me.