Globalization: Good for Local Cuisines?

An Aztec figurine holds a cacao pod
An Aztec figurine holds a cacao pod Wikipedia

So I'm catching up on my Current Anthropology, and suddenly I'm craving something I never knew existed: tejate, a cold, frothy, corn-and-chocolate drink from Oaxaca, Mexico. Put it down to a recent brush with a silky, nutty Oaxacan black mole sauce, but suddenly I am really interested in chocolatey Mexican cuisine. I'm also curious because dark tejate sounds like the mysterious twin of horchata, a milky rice-and-cinnamon drink that is my current favorite Mexican refresher. But tejate may also tell us a story of both caution and hope for globalization, say researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara. They take issue with the popular notion that global commerce is destined to blend the world's cuisines into some kind of bologna sandwich of a common denominator. In one of the best opening salvos I've seen in a scientific paper, the first line reads:

Leaving out massive fragments of the past to discuss globalization as a unique contemporary event is not only shortsighted but often ethnocentric and limits our understanding....

After all, they point out, Oaxacans in open-air markets were selling something very like tejate when the conquistadors arrived. Globalization may be accelerating, they say, but don't pretend that trade routes are something new. Daniela Soleri and her coauthors have staked out a position that isn't easy to defend. Industrial agriculture has put many small U.S. farmers out of business and replaced the heavenly squishiness of peaches and tomatoes with something more suited to firing out of a cannon.

And with the advent of the North American Free Trade Agreement, our prodigious ability to grow corn has flooded Mexican markets with cheap, generic cobs, to the detriment of local varieties that are centuries old. And in surveys of two Oaxacan villages the researchers did find that more contact with "the outside world" - as measured by literacy rates and proportion of people speaking Spanish versus the local Indian dialect - translated to less tejate consumption, less home-made tejate, and fewer local ingredients used in the brew. Tejate isn't easy to make (the article includes a recipe), requiring not only corn and cacao but other local ingredients with names like pixtle and cacahoaxochitl, as well as wood ashes. But here's the twist: globalization works both ways, invading the villages at the same time it chases local secrets out into the world. As mass-produced corn barges into Mexican neighborhoods, wistful immigrants in Oaxaca city and even Los Angeles create a far-flung demand for the lesser-known varieties. Tejate may be experiencing a downturn in its homeland, but suddenly there's a market for it in L.A.

The researchers found a thriving home-brewed tejate business there that uses pixtle mailed from Oaxaca, maize from a pet-food store, and ashes collected from a local barbecue restaurant. You can see this agricultural diaspora for yourself at nearly any farmers market: all those Peruvian and Russian fingerling potato varieties, lemon cucumbers and striped beets - all the way to rare triumphs like wasabi root and the infamous durian. (Going a bit farther, the New Yorker recently expounded on a few cherished varieties of medical marijuana.) A pizza restaurant near my home sells handmade El Salvadoran tamales, advertised on a handwritten sheet of spiral-notebook paper taped above the cash register. As a half-Southern, half-English military brat, I say "Bienvenidos!" My culinary inheritance centers around fried chicken and Marmite sandwiches, and I'm grateful every time I find a good pasilla pepper. I can't wait till tejate arrives. I just wonder what it tastes like.

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