Thursday, February 09, 2006

Food and Globalization

“Let me see,” I said to myself as I looked at the menu board in front of me, “what am I hungry for?” There was an assortment of platters: Aloo (potato) Tikki, Biyriani (rice) Combo and the ever popular Pratha (flat bread) N Curry. Since I had my fill of Indian food for the week, I opted for the local made chicken burger.

As I stood in line at the noisy food court in Hyderabad, I observed my social context. Those gathered on the top floor of the mall were young, mostly under 30 years of age and middle class. The price, as well as the quality, of goods sold at the mall is much greater than the street market or bazaar. The music blasted a few decimals short of a jet engine and the kids looked like any other group of kids at any food court. That’s when it struck me…globalization!

Globalization does mean the blending of customs, language, dress and music. Like MTV, which is Rock no matter where you are, though sung in Lao or Latvian, food courts are a global/local phenomena. The new term for today’s trend is “glocal.” Whether the favorite dish is hot dogs (with only mayonnaise) in Santiago, or red chimchi and squid in Seoul, or the fajita wraps in Dallas, fast food at shopping malls is now a part of the international scene.

Those who resist globalization point to food courts as a prime example of the deterioration of culture. Stuart Miller writes in UNDERSTANDING EUROPEANS:

“With some exceptions, Americans are not very interested in the things they eat or in eating itself...we tend to be swallowers rather than tasters. In Milan, the most modern of Italian cities, the business lunch is still virtually unknown. Instead, they have their attention on the moment and they dedicate it to the food and the ceremony of eating. At the table, the food is discussed and food of other meals is remembered and compared with what one is eating now. Often, half the meal is taken up with talking about the food one is eating, the food one ate, the food one will eat, even how food is grown.”

Most people, especially in this hectic fast pace lifestyle of today’s world, treat food more as feed, not something to be savored. However, even in food courts, it’s not what we eat that is the issue but the social context of our dining experience. Anthropologist Mary Douglas states, “Food is a system of social communication...Food may nourish us, but we do not eat in order just to be nourished. Most people do not usually eat alone at irregular times and without the paraphernalia of seated eating. Nor do we eat what is best for us. Food events are like little rituals, [and] like rituals they involve communication.”

My epiphany in Hyderabad was that fast food is today’s version of the “raw,” of ancient man. Raw (or fast) food is for the informal, whereas cooked food is for meaningful communication. Okay, perhaps the food court is a pre-dating ritual for teenagers and therefore important for the socialization of raging hormones. In today’s glocal world food courts symbolize, what Thomas Friedman (THE WORLD IS FLAT) calls, the flattening of the earth.

My thoughts are interrupted as the kid with the funny hat behind the counter says to me in broken English, “Sir, would you like fries with that burger?” No wonder I like this place, it’s just like home.