Thursday, January 3, 2008

Ethics for Dummies

Okay, let’s start the year out right with an ethics discussion--and maybe one on international diplomacy while we’re at it.

The following comes from an e-zine posted by the food and travel writer David Rosengarten ( last fall. His advice made me cringe (I have highlighted the most egregious statement):

People on the Road Don't Take You Seriously in Your Quest for Authentic Food

There's a whole world out there just itching to ignore you when you say, “I want to taste authentic local cooking." That's why you have to repeat it over and over again, like a mantra. If the person you're talking to speaks reasonable English, explain your quest in detail, supplying the emotional history behind your need. Make an impression. Lie if you have to; tell him or her that you're a journalist, on assignment to taste the real food of the country.
Do whatever it takes--but make it clear to restaurateurs, or to people from whom you're seeking restaurant advice, that you want the real thing! Initially, you may have trouble getting anything at all. A few years back, I led a group of Americans on a gastronomic tour of Thailand. We arrived late Saturday night and went to bed champing at the bit to taste Thai food in Bangkok. When we boarded our tour bus the next morning, we asked our Thailand guide, who knew full well we were a gastronomic group, where lunch was going to be. "Well, during lunchtime we're going to a jewelry workshop," she said. "If you want lunch after that, back at the hotel you can get anything you want."

Sensing trouble, I said, "Most of us would rather skip the jewelry and go to an authentic Thai restaurant for lunch." She looked perplexed, then said, "Thai restaurants aren't open for Sunday lunch." This contradicted what I'd read in my books, but I couldn't budge her. Finally, amidst the beautiful temples and pagodas we were visiting in the morning, I managed to get a consensus from the group: everyone in it was willing to boycott the tourist-trap jewel shop and to set off with me looking for lunch. When I told her, she caved. "Okay," she said, "I'll take you to a place I know." She did, it was fabulous, and our trip was off to a great start. Had I not persisted, however, my first meal in Thailand might well have been southern fried chicken.

Something else frustrated us in Thailand, as it does in all countries with spicy-hot cuisine: they never trust that Americans like it hot. Once again, you have to say over and over: "Please serve us the food exactly the way you like to eat it. We like really spicy food." I was a dinner guest once in Goa, one of India's spiciest regions, at a private home; despite my letters to my hosts, the letters of the travel agency that set the dinner up, and the exhortations of our local tour guide (whom I lectured in advance of the dinner about my desire for authentically spicy food)--well, you guessed it. The food had not a lick of spice in it, and many of the dishes were Americanized versions of the local food. This was a meal to introduce me to Goan food--and there wasn't even any vindaloo on the menu. When I discreetly inquired about vindaloo, they said, "Vindaloo? Oh, you wouldn't like vindaloo." Aaaargh!

One reason this happens is that people in foreign countries want you to like them--and their food. It's not hostility that's messing up your quest--it's ill-placed niceness. Remember that all they know of American food may be McDonald's, and they can't begin to imagine that you really want something else. It's your job to convince them!

Once, I was on a wine writers' trip in northern Italy, and we were given a lunch at one of Italy's largest wineries. Food-wise, they did well; they prepared a wonderful meal featuring local cuisine, including a hand-rolled pasta called bigoli that I shall never forget. We couldn't wait to see what they drink with bigoli in the region--so our jaws (and spirits) dropped when they served us an American Chardonnay. "We just acquired this American winery," they told us, "and we thought you'd love to taste something from your own country." Don't they get it? No, they often don't. Remember that.

Another factor that mucks up your quest for authenticity is the internationalization of food and your host's well-intentioned desire to show you what he or she considers to be the most up-to-date cooking of his or her region. Unfortunately, today, the most "impressive" restaurants in some regions are fusion-confusion, one-world kind of deals. I'll never forget arriving in Vigo, a lovely town in Galicia, in northwest Spain, with the largest fish market in Europe and a great tradition of Gallego seafood cooking. My hosts promised me that dinner would be at the best restaurant in Vigo, and I couldn't wait to get myself around those local shellfish specialties. I couldn't believe it when I wound up at a place that was serving foie gras with a fruit sauce, fish fillets with potato scales, and beef tenderloin with a wine sauce. And, oh yes, crème brûlée. The locals didn't realize that you can get this kind of food in any city in the world today. For them, truly, this restaurant was a big deal--something new, something cutting edge. For me, unfortunately--despite the sweet people I was with--it was a big drag. Be careful! Be clear about what you're looking for! Remember the mantra: "I want to taste authentic local cooking! I want to taste authentic local cooking! I want to taste authentic local cooking!" Sometimes I feel like wearing a badge with those words on it. Translated into local dialect. Oftentimes you need it. –end--

My comment:

I don’t have a problem with anyone seeking out local cuisine — just don’t lie about being a food journalist! We don't muscle into a country and demand special treatment. You’re a guest in that country. It is your job to be polite, learn their customs and make friends with a trusted local source. Organizations such as the Association of Food Journalists have strong codes of professional standards and ethical conduct. Rosengarten's instructions are an insult to working journalists covering food and any other subject.
--Patty LaNoue Stearns, Traverse City, MI, food and travel writer

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