On many levels, food is much more than a source of nutrients and energy. Humans tend to assign a symbolic meaning to even the most mundane and ordinary of life aspects, and food is not an exception. On an individual level, individuals grow up eating particular types of food, which drives them to form habits that persist well into their adulthood. Each family has its own traditions and rituals, invoking a wide range of emotions associated with certain products and dishes. Even away from home, grown-up children return to their beloved food for comfort and pleasure while reminiscing the simpler times.
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On a larger scale, food is an integral part of cultural identity. Every dish or method of cooking is yet another symbol in the cultural code that is passed down the generations. The present essay explores the themes of culture and identity in the movie Smokin’ Fish and compares them to those in the book Stealing Buddha’s Breakfast and related articles on food culture from mass media.
Smokin’ Fish: In Search of the Self
Smokin’ Fish is a 2011 movie produced by Native American Public Telecommunications, Inc. that explores the issues of culture and self-identity. The film speaks at length about the complexities of being an indigenous person in the modern world that is plagued with colonialism and capitalism. To communicate its point across, Smokin’ Fish takes up an interesting approach. Instead of going for a big dramatic demonstration of the ills of the system, it showcases the life and the struggles of a single person who is so likable that it is difficult not to sympathize with him.
It all starts with Cory Mann, an entrepreneur from Juneau, who recounts the story of his return to the town of Klukwan, Alaska, where he spent only a small part of his childhood. The man seeks to reconnect with his past by staying in Klukwan for the summer and reconnecting with his past while running his businesses remotely and avoiding the IRS.
What is interesting about Cory’s identity is that it is dual: he was born to a Tlingit (one of the First Nations) mother and a White American father. Soon after his birth, Cory’s family moved to San Diego where he spent the majority of his youth. Since early childhood, Cory felt confusion around his cultural identity. He could not even pinpoint his exact origins, and based on his looks, he thought that he was Mexican.
In the movie, these moments of him recollecting his childhood perceptions of ethnicity are very endearing, but at the same time, it is readily imaginable how straining these emotions must have been for a young kid. Another endearing scene from the film was when Aunt Cookie picked Cory up to hitchhike all the way back to Alaska. Upon arrival, the boy met his grand-grandmother who was appalled at how different he had grown to be. One thing that appalled the old woman is that Cory had no recollections of snow that play an important part in the Alaskan culture.
As it turned out, even the grown-up Cory had a lot to discover at his birthplace. Probably, the most pivotal episode of the movie is when the man experiences a cultural wake-up call after spending some time in nature. In San Diego, a true concrete jungle, Cory could only bond with humans, and they were the only creatures that he considered to be living and feeling. However, in Alaska, the man came into contact with the rich shamanic and animalistic legacy of his ancestors. He felt the presence of animals and even spirits, which scared him at first. After some time though, he was able to accept his new reality.
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Throughout the movie, Cory provides a very personal narrative, allowing viewers to have insights into the complexity of maintaining two identities at once. Experiencing his long-forgotten Tlingit identity happens through becoming familiar with the ethnic food traditions. As the title of the movie suggests, Cory spends a lot of time catching, gutting, and smoking fish together with other family members. The women take him to the forest to pick blueberries.
He also travels to Yukon to trade for moose meat. It becomes obvious that the most important part of his food experience is not appreciating the taste of the products and dishes. It is rather about bonding emotionally with family members, learning from the elders, and coming to accept oneself. The latter was probably the most challenging task but proved totally worth it.
Stealing Buddha’s Dinner: Preservation of Culture
The main themes of Smokin’ Fish are very similar to those of the book Stealing Buddha’s Dinner by Bich Mihn Nguyen. In Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, the main character, Nguyen herself, escapes war-torn Vietnam with her family. They start a new life in the United States, and Bich Minh grows up surrounded by three distinct cultures: Vietnamese, American, and Mexican (Nguyen 102). Relocation to a new place is a stressful experience, and it is even more stressful when so many cultural codes to comply with are involved. Bich Minh has to resolve two overarching conflicts of her life. The girl has to find her place amidst the cultural house and the tragedy of leaving her home country. Just like Cory from Smokin’ Fish, Nguyen tries her best to integrate her diverse identities with both their positive and negative connotations.
Another similarity between Cory’s and Bich Minh’s stories is treating the food as a means of cultural preservation. Both people have spent the majority of their lives away from the places where they were born. If they had not cared to make a conscious attempt at reconnection, the cultural legacy could have as well died out without being passed down to the subsequent generation. At some point, Cory and Bich Minh return to their hometowns – Klukwan and Saigon respectively. Bich Minh enjoys the sense of rediscovery and excitement at the Saigon Market that symbolizes the Vietnamese culture. Similarly, Cory treats the act of smoking fish as a cultural marker.
Food and Racism: “Ethnic” Food Aisle
The reason why Cory and Bich Minh found it challenging to accept themselves is the otherness that they felt due to their belongingness to the United States’ minor ethnicities. The US imposes a hegemonic culture of White European ideals that marks anything that strays away from the standard as strange and exotic at best and unacceptable at worst. Carman argues that racism finds reflection even in something as mundane as food aisles at the grocery stores.
Ethnic food is often found in specialized aisles and marketed as “different” and exotic. However, for many migrants and minorities, the products presented at ethnic aisles are ordinary and familiar. From their placement, migrants and minorities understand that their food culture is pushed to the periphery of the norm and seen as something to try for a change and not a daily habit (Suvir). It becomes obvious that given the racial power dynamics in the US, Cory’s and Bich Minh’s choice to uphold traditions was an act of bravery and resistance.
Food and Mastery: On the Problem of Cookbooks
A not-so-obvious topic that can still be pinpointed by a careful viewer is the culture of cooking food. Nowadays, many people prefer to eat out or order in instead of cooking food from scratch. However, even if they decide to have hands-on experience, they often get frustrated and discouraged. Bourdain addresses the main issue with the cookbooks these days: according to the expert, they provide straightforward recipes lacking detail and consideration (Connor). These books do not mention that cooking is a skill to be refined and that requires failing and making mistakes to learn something meaningful. It seems that spending time with older members of the family and taking lessons in cooking from them directly might be a good solution.
Nowadays, maintaining the food culture of the ethnicity that one belongs to seems to have become as challenging as ever. Some people choose to branch out and try other cuisines, which is understandable since the variety, diversity, and availability are extremely tempting. Others begin to see negative connotations tied to their culture and would like to get rid of the label to become a person with a rather international identity. In Smokin’ Fish, Cory Mann, a young Tlingit-White European entrepreneur, goes on a nostalgia trip to his hometown where he reconnects with the Alaskan culture.
Akin to Cory, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner’s Bich Minh also uses food as a means to accept her diverse identity. Both the movie and the book show how food can help with the preservation of culture and personal healing. This is especially relevant in times when food racism is still present, and home cooking is in crisis.
Carman, Tim. To David Chang, the “Ethnic” Food Aisle is Racist. Others Say Its Convenient. Web.
Connor, Jackson. Anthony Bourdain Explains One of the Biggest Problems With Cookbooks. Web.
Nguyen, Bich Minh. Stealing Buddha’s Breakfast: A Memoir. Penguin Books, 2008.
Smokin’ Fish. Directed by Luke Griswold-Tergis, performance by Cory Mann. Native American Public Telecommunications, 2011.