On the Politics of Food and the Origins of Ice Cream

On the Politics of Food and the Origins of Ice Cream

In his book Physiologie du Goût (The Physiology of Taste), French lawyer and politician Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin was one of the first thinkers to shift from the approach to food as a material concern to place it in an artistic and philosophical framework.

Savarin’s book was published in the early 19th century; he was one of the early few who ventured outside of the dictates of tradition in recipes, approaching cuisine as an art. He considered food as a main criterion in documenting nations’ cultures, furthermore using food to study people’s relationships with their surroundings, and even God.

According to Savarin, the different types and combinations of food could serve as an identity card for every person. “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” he said. Since the universe of flavors is infinite, Savarin saw in food the power and principle of life, “The discovery of a new dish confers more happiness on humanity than the discovery of a new star,” he noted.

The Conflict of Dishes

In time, gastronomy assumed its place in scientific and literary discussions, and nations began to view with pride the dishes they had invented and presented to humanity.

Certain dishes resulted in conflicts between countries that wished to have the exclusive rights to traditional dishes, thus turning a dish into tool of conflict between the occupier and the occupied. From appropriating identities to destroying others, food proved as contentious as  like the falafel feud between Arabs and Israel.

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Lucy Long, a researcher in food science, said, “Food defines our cultural heritage, and can help break down barriers between those from different backgrounds.”

This is attributed to the fact that all humans participate in making food, and unlike other activities, an hour of preparing food is free from boredom.

This was the basis of Long’s project, who is a professor of arts and folklore; she gathered citizens from Asia, Africa, Middle East, Eastern Europe, and several other places to expose the difference between nations through their food, and to establish a common ground to understand these differences and benefit from them.

The project, which was conducted in 2014, was placed in the Library of Congress as a document for the study of nations.

Between Arabs and Europeans

The eating habits of nations have piques the interest of many sociologists and anthropologists; these habits have been linked to the circumstances surrounding every society. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu contended that food and all the customs surrounding it are indicators of personal experience as mediated through social class.

Mamoun Fandy, a political science professor at Georgetown University, recounts how Europeans use forks and knives to eat their food, while Arabs rely on their hands, pointing to the cultural and classist disdain of Arabs implicit within this distinction.

Fandy however explained this disparity through climatic differences; Europeans who live in cold regions avoided washing their hands with cold water, while Arabs enjoyed warm water that would not harm them if they washed their hands several times a day.

In the book Food Politics: The Regional Conflict, researchers David N. Balaam and Michael J. Carey posit food as a political commodity; presidents’ and rulers’ characters can be revealed through what they eat.

Thus, leaked conversations from presidential chefs have been followed with great interest, while world leaders are often keen on publicly tasting the traditional dishes as a gesture of respect, and to break the ice.

Ice Cream’s Persian Origins

In response to US President Donald Trump’s travel ban on several nationalities, including Iran, Iranian blogger Louisa Shafia recalled the Persian origins of ice cream

Shafia contended that ice cream, the most popular dessert among Americans, originally has Persian roots, stating that “ice cream came to Europe (and then America) by way of the Arab invasion of Sicily in the 8th century.”

She contends that the culinary traditions of nations, and their effect on other nations, work to counteract barriers set by politics before the nations. Others have similarly referred to the different origins of art, technology, and the economy and their effect on the US, using the example of Steve Jobs’ Syrian heritage.

Shafia wrote that she had found the “ice cream parlor of [her] dreams” in the Iranian city of Shiraz, recounting the history of Iranian ice cream, referring to a rich pistachio-studded, chewy, stretchy ice cream named bastani. Another style uses saffron as a main ingredient, named Akbar Mashti after the first ice cream shop owner in Tehran.

Further, Shafia adds: “The Arabs took the age-old Persian refreshment known as sharbat; a mix of fruit syrup and honey chilled with snow, and had the brilliant instinct to add milk and sugar.”

In reality, there are several stories about the origins of ice cream; in one theory, it originated in China three thousand years ago, where Chinese emperors gathered ice from mountains and mixed it with different fruits and honey. Advocates of this version of history believe that traveler Marco Polo brought the ice cream recipe to back to Italy from China.

For Italians, ice cream is a landmark of their culture. Meanwhile, the theory of the Persian origins of the ice cream is widely popular, and has historical origins attested to by many archivists, who have documented how it developed later on in the Levant.

Wherever the origins of ice cream, Shafia noted that immigrants have affected the United States in numerous ways. She further recounts the story of a Syrian immigrant named Ernest Hamwi, who is credited with crafting the ice cream cone at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, when he rolled his zalabia pastries into cones.

Some historians believe that Hamwi was trying to help his American neighbor who sold ice cream and had used up all of his bowls at the fair, by making a new bowl that could be used to hold the food and could be eaten itself as well, omitting the need for spoons or plates.

Hamwi founded a company for this industry later on in 1910, before he died in the United States in 1954 after achieving many successes. “Everyone from grandparents to young couples can be seen strolling and sitting in parks enjoying their cones and cups,” Shafia said.

Shafia added that, over millennia, Iranians, who live in extreme heat, innovated different types of ice cream. Presently, all sorts of Persian ice cream can be found in Los Angeles, home to the world’s largest Iranian expat community.

Raseef22

A voice inspired by the Arab Spring, Raseef22 is an independent media platform, standing at the intersection between community, identity, democracy and social justice movements. Raseef22’s editorial line adopts local values with a modern perspective, filling a cultural void evident in the Arabic language media landscape.

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