Who gets to tell the story?

Longthroat MemoirsI've written many times about virtually traveling by means of cookbooks and food. If one cannot visit a land, what better way to get a taste of it than to, well, get a taste of it. While I still believe in this concept, I've come to think that some of the cookbooks that celebrate a culture don't adequately translate the flavors or feelings of the particular area. The flaw is not lack of earnestness or good intentions, but rather of relationship to the subject matter. 

This struck home after reading an article that delved into Anthony Bourdain's "Parts Unknown" episode about Lagos, Nigeria. Written by Tunde Wey, a Lagos-born chef and writer, the piece succinctly explained the pitfalls of explaining a region and its cuisine through the eyes of someone with no experience in the culture. 

Wey posits that although Bourdain holds himself out to be a cultural relativist - offering no judgment save for what is delicious or not - he instead interjects his own bias throughout the program, whether intentional or not. After watching the Lago episode, Wey found that Bourdain's "tired and standard offer of a countercultural perspective, was cloying, and it dissolved - like sugar in garri - to reveal the expansive firmament of White Americanness he represents."

Rather than showing the viewers a faithful portrait of the city, Wey feels that the episode instead provides us with a glimpse into Bourdain's own mind. Rather than acting as a translator, Wey contends, Bourdain plays to what his fans want to see. "Mr. Bourdain's real talent, captured in these sharply edited visuals, is the faithful reproduction of any representation of otherness that permits its consumption," says Wey. "At this work, he is a master, breaking sweet people down from complex to simple sugars, all the more digestible, all the more delicious. This is the modern conqueror."

To find a better representation of Lagos, Nigeria or Africa in general, contends Wey, we should turn to  Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds  by Yemisi Aribisala. The storyteller is as important as the story, and the description of any culture is likely to be more compelling when told by someone who has lived inside of it. 

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