Theory Teacher's Blog

“African” Food in the American Cultural Imagination

In my postcolonial literature course, we are reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun. Published in 2006, it’s about the Nigerian-Biafran civil war that took place from 1967 to 1970 shortly after Nigeria’s independence from colonial rule. Repeatedly in the first half of the novel, one of the main characters named Ugwu talks about Igbo food — food from his village, food he prepares for his “master” and his wife, food that his master’s mother makes. This includes jollof rice, ewa beans, pepper fish soup, chicken soup with bitter herbs, and of course the classic Nigerian food that another Nigerian author Chinua Achebe famously talks about so much in Things Fall Apart, yams and yam fufu. I suspect Adichie talks about food this much in the first half of the novel because in the second half many of the characters are close to starving to death in the midst of a brutal civil war. They are lucky when they can get a few mouthfuls of simple gari (a flour made from cassava) and dried milk. The contrast between the first and second halves of the novel is striking and powerful.

While I was reading the first half of the novel, my stomach would growl. I began to desire the food I was reading about, and my students told me they had the same feeling. A couple of them are even planning to try to make some of the dishes themselves. So while I was visiting Washington D.C. during my spring break, I looked up some West-African restaurants. There was one Nigerian place called Wazobia Restaurant and Bar. The name is significant in the context of the novel I was teaching about the civil war because “wazobia” is a made-up word derived from the three major languages in Nigeria: “wa” is Yoruba, “zo” is Hausa, and “bia” is Igbo. All three words mean “come” so the name of the restaurant literally translates as “come, come, come” and figuratively suggests Nigerian unity. In the context of the novel and postcolonial theory that I’m teaching, the name of the restaurant signifies a multiethnic Nigerian nationalism (in contrast to an ethnic Igbo or Hausa nationalism.) Unfortunately, the evening when I planned to go turned out to be the date of a special event at the restaurant, so I couldn’t eat there during my brief visit to D.C. I figured my slight misfortune was no big deal because when I was searching the internet I had seen a couple Nigerian places in Minnesota, including a Wazobia and also another place named Three Crowns (a name that seems to carry the same nationalist significance as Wazobia), so I figured I could satisfy my gastronomic craving after I came home.

Here’s the sad part of this story and the discovery that prompted the topic for this blog post. Every single one of the West-African restaurants in Minnesota had closed down within the past three years, so I was completely out of luck. Interestingly, when I e-mailed my native-Minnesotan friends to see if they knew of any places still open, they all replied with suggestions for a few Ethiopian and Somali restaurants. This is interesting to me because Ethiopia and Somalia have about as much in common with Nigeria as Norway has with Italy. I couldn’t imagine someone recommending to me a German restaurant if I had asked about Greek food. And so I wondered, what is it in the American imagination that acknowledges the national differences among European countries but so thoroughly conflates the wide array of nations and cultures in Africa under one category? Why do national differences in Europe seem to matter more than national differences in Africa? Obviously, the American imagination of the world reflects a Eurocentric bias, and one might argue (as some such as the philosopher V. Y. Mudimbe have) that this bias extends beyond food to other things such as culture, philosophy, and science.

But for me, an even more interesting question than Eurocentrism is why there are so many Ethiopian resturants in Minnesota and not a single restaurant with food from West, East, Central, of South Africa. What made Ethiopia so special? I personally have been to six of them in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and there are many more I haven’t been to. I hypothesize three different explanations. First, demographically, perhaps there are simply more Ethiopians in Minnesota. Second, perhaps Ethiopian food is more popular becuase people just really like the way it tastes. But third, perhaps there is a deep bias within American culture. To test my three hypotheses, I went on-line to do some research, and here’s what I found.

With regards to African immigrant populations, I discovered that most demographic studies of Minnesota such as [this one] and [this one] focus on Somalis. This makes some sense; since the Somali Civil War began in 1991, the population in Minnesota grew from almost zero in 1990 to more than 11,000 ten years later according to census data. Ethiopians have been in Minnesota longer, since its civil war and revolution in the early 1970s, but even though Ethiopia had a second revolution in 1990s which prompted another wave of emigration, the 2000 census only puts them at about 6,000 in Minneapolis. This number is problematic, however, since some people from Ethiopia do not identify themselves as Ethiopian but instead identify as Oromo, Tigray, Sidamo, Afar, etc. So, the actual number might be a little bit higher. I know that Minneapolis has the largest population of Oromo outside of the boundaries of Ethiopia, which might explain why it’s easier to book a flight to Ethiopia from Minneapolis than from other American cities (as I recently discovered.) However, since the Somalis are the largest and also the most recent group to come to Minnesota in large numbers, it is perhaps understandable that most of the information I found on-line focuses on them. The most interesting and comprehensive document that I found is this Minnesota Banker’s Association “African Immigrant Resource Guide” published just last month. As every good Marxist scholar knows, often the best data comes from those with a vested economic interest. The Minnesota Banker’s Association notes that the buying power of African-born people in the United States is now about 45 billion dollars, which is bigger than a lot of the GDPs of the countries that they emigrated from. Notably, inside Minnesota, the banker’s guide estimates that the buying power of Somalis is 216 million, of Ethiopians 203 million, Kenyans 167 million, Liberians 157 million, and Nigerians only 71 million. Buying power reflects the size of populations and is perhaps even more important than population data when considering why there are more restaurants. However, while this data helps explain why there are a lot of Somali and Ethiopian resturants in Minnesota, it doesn’t explain why there are so many Ethiopian resturants and zero West-African restaurants. One might expect there to be simply one third as many Nigerian as Ethiopian, but that is not the case. It also doesn’t explain why there are more Ethiopian restaurants than Somali, though this could be explained by the fact that Ethiopians have been in Minnesota for longer.

The other explanation is that Ethiopian food simply tastes better. Indeed, if we make an analogy to European food, most Minnesotans are ethnically German and Scandanavian, but there aren’t so many German restaurants and hardly any Scandanavian ones. Most popular are Italian restaurants even though there aren’t so many Italians, perhaps for the simple reason that Italian food is both really delicious and cheap to prepare. In contrast, Scandanavian food is somewhat unimpressive, I guess. Because of Ethiopia and Somalia’s location by the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, they have historically been located at an important nexus of Muslim trade networks from Arabia and India. This network also has for centuries included Christian traders from Europe. Combine this trade with the indigenous flora and fauna of the Nile River valleys in the Horn of Africa and the result of all this economic and cultural mixing is a lucious variety of flavors and a long culinary tradition. But is this not also the case with West Africa? West Africa is, historically, where Europe got most of its pepper. It was also part of the Muslim trade in the 12th through 17th centuries. In the 18th century, at the height of the transatlantic slave trade but before Europe’s real conquest of African territory, West-African kingdoms were exporting to Europe huge quantities of tasty spices and fashionable textiles. Nevertheless, despite Nigeria’s long culinary history, I might agree that the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia) can rightly boast having the best food. And I say that based on my experience in West and East African restaurants. So, does this explain why there are so many Ethiopian restaurants and no Nigerian ones? It does partly, but I’m not sure Ethiopian cuisine’s appeal to American taste buds is enough of an answer.

Now for my third explanation that Europeans and Americans have a cultural bias towards Ethiopia. Historically, Ethiopia is the only African nation that is mentioned in classical Greek, Latin, and Hebrew literature. In addition, some of the ancient kingdoms there became Christian before most of the kingdoms in Europe. Therefore, it has a long historical presence within European and American literature and culture, and along with this presence comes an exotic appeal and all sorts of positive cultural connotations. Indeed, European and American literature has for centuries given Ethiopia an exceptional status. While the rest of Africa is represented in racist language as culturally backward, Ethiopia is sometimes characterized as more culturally and ethnically white than black. (And many Ethiopians themselves claim they are more Semitic than African.) Because of Ethiopia’s Christian tradition and representation in the Bible, the Europeans never felt quite justified enough to fully colonize it the way they colonized other African nations. From the late 18th centuries to the early 20th centuries, “Ethiopia” gradually became an important symbol for Christianized blacks in North America and the Caribbean for the possibility of liberation from slavery and a free African empire. The Rastafarian religion emerged in Jamaica in the early 20th century as part of a pan-African black nationalist movement that identified the king of Ethiopia (named Ras Tefari at that time) as a potential force of liberation for all black people (both symbolically and politically), especially since Ethiopia had defeated Italy’s army in 1897. Hence, when independent African nations emerged from colonization in the 1960s, the African Union headquarters was located in Ethiopia. Paradoxically, as I’ve argued elsewhere [here], Ethiopia was culturally constructed in the African-American and Afro-Carribean imagination as the most representative African nation precisely because it was the exception to colonialist ideology. Could this bias within American and European culture be one explanation for why Ethiopian restaurants are so much more successful than other African restaurants? The theoretical point that I am implying here is that our enjoyment of exotic food is as much about our imagination and cultural connotations as it is about nourishment and flavor.

Which of the three explanations that I’ve investigated seems to be the most convincing for why there are so many Ethiopian restaurants and no West-African ones? Ultimately, I don’t think any single one of them is enough of an explanation for the reality that we encounter. I suspect all three factors together have played a role.


March 15, 2010 Posted by | food | 1 Comment