How can we define the Mediterranean as a unified geographical unit? Is it possible? This is a question I have spent a lot of time thinking about anthropologically. While teaching a course on the ethnography of the Mediterranean a few years back, I came to the conclusion that the Mediterranean is an imagined place. It is culture works like Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad that fuel our imagination about a place unified by this wine dark sea. Even if we see this body of water as the connective tissue between diverse countries, it is hard to deny the cultural contrasts of the countries that surround the Mediterranean–Catholic and Muslim, affluent and poor, Arab and Latin, and the list goes on. Particularly in the kitchen, these differences become strikingly apparent through the flavor of spices, the cuts of meat, and the variety of cooking techniques.
Wheat, olive oil and grapes may be the iconic crops around the Mediterranean, but can these ingredients create a unified cuisine? During week 6 of my culinary course, we focused our attention on dishes from around the Mediterranean. Most of the recipes were Ducasse’s French interpretations of classic recipes such as Moroccan Pastilla, Spanish Caldero, and Italian Risotto. At first, I was taken aback by the disregard for the original recipes of these dishes, as we add butter and jus de beouf as we stirred. To my palate everything tasted French in the end. As the week progressed, I came to see it differently: the Mediterranean is an imagined place for M. Ducasse as much as it is for the cultural anthropologist.
For the chef, the Mediterranean is made-up of the flavor narratives that tell the stories of cultures that are closer together than further apart. This reflection caused me to take stock of my own preconceived notions about the dishes we were cooking. There is no authenticity (a point I am always preaching to my students). The food we made represented a historical mixing together of places, cultures and their changing traditions. When thinking about the Mediterranean, whether in the kitchen or at the library, it is important to take into consideration time, the porousness of cultural traditions and the fluidity of conceptions of place. Looking at the Mediterranean through food allows for a complex and delicious exploration that will always be undergoing transformations as we continue to imagine and reimagine this place.