Friday, May 29, 2009

Local is the new exotic.

French cheese, Italian wine and Belgian chocolates. These three foods show a unique decadence that has come to demonstrate classiness, and perhaps even show off cultural awareness in American food culture.  Of course the grass is always greener on the other side, and that guy’s car is always better than yours, and certainly any spiked fruit that comes from an unpronounceable country is delicious—it doesn’t truly belong to you.  It’s exotic.  This is not a unique American phenomenon.  In fact, exotic foods, pomp, and circumstance date back to the Roman Empire.

In lieu of airplanes filled with “fresh” produce, the Romans had military triumphs.  Caesar and Pompey used to hold military triumphs when conquering a new foreign land, and this city-wide party was not surprisingly popular among citizens. They paraded not only tasty food (usually new types of fish) but different species of animals and even dancing women from these foreign conquered territories.  But one day circa 80's BCE, Pompey, always trying to show up Caesar, decided to make his grant entrance by marching into the center of Rome with (perhaps atop) an elephant from a recently conquered territory.  Pompey had taken the exotic a bridge too far, and the oversized creatures were unable to fit through the city gates.  He had to dismount said elephant and walk in stag. How embarrassing for Pompey.

So, French cheese, Italian wine, and Belgian chocolates.  We may not think of them as carrying any sort of cultural or social stigma, but instead as a privilege that comes with new developments in our globalized age .  But now that we've consumed pounds upon pounds of them, a Hawaiian pineapple and a Colombian banana may evoke different feelings in some of us, and make us grab an apple instead.  American consumers are gradually learning that appalling working conditions, harmful pesticides, and environmentally detrimental byproducts are all condoned when purchase and consume bananas and some other exotic foods. Perhaps the structural issues and resulting embarrassment presented by Pompey’s elephants are being mirrored, two thousand years later, when we hold our imported foods, grown in lands we’ve never seen by people whom we’ve never met.

 I know that I haven’t eaten any fruit grown in Chicago.  But the thought of it seems appealing… maybe even exotic.

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