Distinguishing Nationality and Ethnicity: The Food Factor

Where does nationality end and ethnicity begin? On the surface there seems to be an easy answer. Nationality is expressed in the form of governmental controls in which the individual pledges some type allegiance and in turn receives protections and other social services. Ethnicity on the other hand seems to supersede those limitations by including anyone who speaks a particular language, shares in origin beliefs or customs, and/or claims heritage in similar roots. Ethnicity when framed in this way seems much more inclusive.

Foods, and more particularly food ways, seem to challenge the broad sweeping inclusiveness of ethnicity. Nearly all of the restaurateurs gracing our study area seem to strive to stand out as individuals while simultaneously maintaining an adherence to the broader expectations of their potential customers.

Part of the dinning decor at El Rinconsito 216 S. Carrollton Ave.

I began recalling that the meals I have eaten at El Rinconcito – Breakfast, lunch, or dinner – have all been served with soft warmed tortillas. This did not seem out of place prior to my Colombian trip– hence the lack of blog entries – where I feasted on amazing national and regional foods. None of which included even a single tortilla shell. There were close equivalents, of course, known as arepas, but their function seems closer aligned with the pita. Arepas are often stuffed with a meat, cheese, or egg, and either grilled or fried pre or post stuffing. The breakfast ones served on the coastal regions often contained fish or shrimp and were by far my absolute favorite.

Excited to share in this cuisine with my wife I quickly looked over the El Rinconcito menu when I got home and found that despite the obvious Colombian influence, the menu was lacking in the unique food stuffs I found in either urban or rural dinning. Warm tortillas now seem out of place when I go there. Despite their lack of belonging in the South American foodways, however, I do still eat every one.

La Taqueria Guerrero at 208 S. Carrollton Ave. New Orleans

Some locations, like Taqueria Guerrero Mexico, Angelo Brocato’s Italian Ice Cream & Pastry, and soon an Italian Pie, are able to easily present national, and even regional, foods because ethnicity and nationality have become synonymous within some categories. Other places, like Theo’s Pizza, Mandina’s, and Juan’s Flying Burrito all claim a type of individuality by expressing a possessiveness over their cuisine variations. Whether the claim is to a particular lineage or place many of the restaurants in our study area claim a similar possessiveness.

Menu for Fiesta Latina of New Orleans

Among the restaurants I am currently studying –Fiesta Latina, El Rinconcito, Taqueria Guerrero, and WOW Café and Wingery – each applies differing regional ties to their menus. Fiesta Latina claims to specialize in Mexican and Central American foods, while Taqueria Guerrero offers more familiar Mexican cuisine. El Rinconcito defines itself as serving Central American and South American dishes. And WOW Café and Wingery – a Louisiana original – has sauce selections named on ethnic expectations – Asian, Bombay, and Polynesian – as well as more regionally specific selections – Texas, Acadian, and Kansas City.

What I want to know is this: what are some national and ethnic foods that you are most fond of? How do the versions of those foods stand up when exported out of their original place of consumption and creation? Do restaurants need to adopt some form of homogenization in order to be successful?

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