Is there any such thing as non-ethnic food? I’m going to say no. I’m going to say that any food, however plain and middle of the road, has to be some kind of national, racial or cultural expression.
I’ve been thinking about this since I had lunch last Friday at a rather good diner in Santa Monica named Coogie’s Cafe. (Not to be confused with Googie’s).
Before I lived in Los Angeles, when I used to come as a tourist, I spent a certain amount of time in Santa Monica – and I ate at Coogie’s once in a while. I even saw David Warner in there, one of my favorite actors, though he was reading the paper and looking grumpy, not that I’d have approached him anyway. He didn’t look in the least like this:
These days I hardly ever go Santa Monica, much less Coogie’s, but driving past there last Friday it seemed as good a place as any to have lunch. The first thing I noticed was that most of the clientele was white and old, while the staff appeared to be entirely not white – a mixture of Latino and Asian. Now this is not very surprising - we know that if you peered into a great many Indian or Italian or even Japanese restaurant kitchens in Los Angeles (I have) you’d find Mexicans running a lot of the stations. These guys are nothing if not versatile.
And so even though the menu at Coogie’s had a few Latino influences – nachos, quesadillas and what not, it was the meatloaf, the open-face turkey sandwich, the patty melt, the grilled three cheese sandwiches that really seemed to define it.
And so I ordered a tuna sandwich (that’s it above) – sourdough bread with lettuce, tomato, Monterey Jack cheese, served with a slice of pickle, a spear of carrot, and coleslaw on the side. It seemed to me that on that day, in that place and at that hour, nothing could have tasted cleaner, fresher or better, and that nothing could have been more all-American. We know they serve tuna sandwiches all around the world in one form or another, and yet this was a sandwich that couldn’t have belonged to any other ethnos.
And now I see that the Waitrose supermarket chain in Britain has decided to “rebrand” its range of “British” ready meals. It turns out that some of them are made with New Zealand lamb. They’ve decided to call them “Classic” instead.
Now this strikes me as essentially nuts. If you go into an Indian restaurant in London, you don’t expect the chicken in the curry to have been flown in from the Punjab, do you? But it still constitutes Indian cuisines as far as I can see. Maybe it even counts as classic.