The End of “Ethnic”

I hate you, ethnic. Not linguistically, where in a different form you're an anchor for ethnography, ethnomusicology, and ethnobotany. I hate you when you show up to describe a certain class of restaurants, or worse: when you take the form of a noun to indicate some vast, amorphous category of food that isn’t cheeseburgers, chili mac, or potato salad, as in: “Let’s do ethnic tonight.”

Actually, "doing ethnic” is essentially impossible here in San Francisco, a city too diverse to have any sort of ethnic majority. (Just about 48 percent of San Franciscans describe themselves as Asian or Hispanic, roughly the same percentage who say they’re African American or white, a virtual 50-50 split.)

And yet, walk into the Whole Foods Market in the city's South of Market district, look up in aisle 3, and you see it: a sign that dangles, announcing that this is where you will find something called “ethnic foods,” right after “pasta” and before “beans.” But scan the shelves, and the line of demarcation between ethnic and nonethnic isn’t so neat. Cans of enchilada sauce, boxed Vietnamese pho kits, and jars of Soy Vay kosher teriyaki marinade: ethnic. But bags of Italian farro and imported chubs of slice 'n' serve polenta? Not ethnic.

But don’t Italians comprise an ethnic group, same as Vietnamese? And as long as we’re using ethnic, shouldn’t it have a high authenticity threshold? Besides, how could anybody with even a vague connection to Viet culture ever think that pho from a box (just add water and “fresh ingredients”!) has any connection whatsoever to Vietnam?

It’s not Whole Foods’ fault. A lot of Americans rely on ethnic—hell, I used to use ethnic, back before I thought about it much and realized how meaningless it is as a description. It’s part of the puzzle over American food. James Beard once defined that as anything Americans eat—a liberal definition by any standard—then went on to write James Beard’s American Cookery, where the definition largely shrank to fit the nation’s Anglo-Germanic heritage.

The problem is that ethnic implies other: the food of some shadowy minority that's not quite—us. It demeans, diminishes. A lot of us use ethnic as one set in a food duality that sees “normal”—that is, “American” food (spaghetti, steaks, and Caesar salad)—in opposition to foreign, i.e., “ethnic” food (Korean tofu soup, saag paneer, and goat-meat birria). In my parents' white-flight suburban circle, it has the ring of negative value judgment, like the wink-wink dismissal in the expression gay lifestyle. For some Chowhounds and other passionate eaters, the connotation bends in the opposite direction: "Ethnic" eating is a mark of pride for those whom a CHOW coworker calls "collectors of cuisines," happy to show off their knowledge of Sri Lankan liver curry or Senegalese millet balls.

As a food writer, I know it’s not so easy to scrape ethnic into the pulp mill of linguistic history. As much as pho and chicken biryani have melted into the greater American culture, there are times when I do have to make a point about the otherness of certain foods. Like some other food writers I know, I tend to use the janky non-Western, which has a lingering Cold War rattle that makes it tilt into anachronism.

What you’re left with, after realizing you can’t lump all the cuisines of the world beyond U.S. borders into one convenient category, is the non- construction. Non-Anglo. Non-Northern. Hell, nonstandard. They all suck. But fortunately, just like gay lifestyle seems more and more the relic of a particular age in America, ethnic has the dying resonance of a time when hot-and-sour was the exotic alternative to Mom’s cream of celery.

Image source: Flickr member ferret111 under Creative Commons

John Birdsall is senior editor at CHOW. You can follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW, too, and become a fan on Facebook.