Incorporating food plays a role in constructing individual and collective identity. We are, in part, what we eat. Food culture infers a collective sense of belonging and a sense of otherness, too. Our eating habits are markers of a collective identity.
In his book L’Homnivore, Claude Fischler writes that, while cuisine is universal, cuisines are diverse. Each food culture provides eaters with reassurance on what they can eat. It determines what is suitable for eating among what is naturally edible, separating pure food from impure or taboo food. Not only does it dictate how food should be prepared, but also the order and context in which it should be eaten. Any change in this culinary order may unsettle us and cause unease or even anxiety and revulsion for a foodstuff from a different food culture. These reactions are related to food neophobia, characteristic of childhood, and may appear in adults in situations where they encounter culinary ‘otherness’.
During colonial conquests, explorers undoubtedly confronted otherness. The success of their venture often depended on their ability to adapt to the unknown. Braving the elements and overcoming their misgivings about the food of the unknown ‘other’ were part of their everyday reality, as for James Cook (1728-1779), for example, who wrote, “ I intend to go not only farther than any man has been before me, but as far as I think it is possible for man to go.” In Tahiti, on Tuesday 20 June 1769, the natives encouraged the captain and his crew, although hesitant at first, to taste dog meat. Cook thought this experience significant enough to record it in his logbook and not only wrote about the event, but also about how the meat was prepared and cooked.
The taste for foreign cuisine may wane during times of political crisis and resurgent nationalism. Xenophobia and food neophobia are closely entwined, as sharing a meal and adopting foreign recipes seal the recognition of otherness, whereas refusing to share cuisines, and fear and contempt of another’s food are emblematic of times of turmoil and war.