Gastronationalism and the cultural conflicts of food

Ashwanta Jackson examined the way some foods become the subject of cultural debates for the sake of protecting their national identities. Who knew hummus could be so controversial?

That light might be shining brightest on hummus. The version of the chickpea puree that comes closest to the modern-day version was a thirteenth-century book, Kitab Wasf al-At’ima al-Mu’tada (The Description of Familiar Foods). But before this printed example, scholars have noted that some version of the dish was seen in both Egypt and Syria in medieval times. And as Ariel explains, “some historians have speculated that the ancient Egyptians prepared chickpeas mashed with vinegar.” But through the years, the modern version of the dish has been claimed as a product of several countries.

In 2008, for example, the Association of Lebanese Industrialists sought to trademark several Middle Eastern dishes with the intention of “stopp[ing] Israel from marketing hummus and other dishes as Israeli.” The Association’s claims relied on the “feta precedent,” explains cultural anthropologist Nir Avieli, “whereby a European court granted Greece the sole right to use the term feta as the name of the cheese it produced.” This claim would also prevent the term hummus being used in other countries where hummus is also commonly eaten. With this claim, hummus became more than a food, it became a stand-in for a long-established conflict, as Avielli explains, “the culinary sphere is among the richest sources of metaphors for social relations and social structures.”

The term ‘gastronationalism’ came from Michael Owen Jones in Pig Tales: Assumptions, Beliefs, and Perceptions Regarding Pork Bans Real and Rumored to describe “the practice of labeling food based on national origins to protect it as part of a nation’s heritage.” An example is how, in Europe, you can’t call sherry “sherry” unless it comes from an area in the province of Cádiz in Spain (known as the “Sherry Triangle”).

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