Yes, White People Like Spices

I get asked this question at least once a year.

Photo by Marion Botella on Unsplash

I teach a relatively diverse group of students. They come from several ethnic backgrounds and cultures. We sometimes get into great discussions about race, culture, stereotypes, etc. It’s one of my favorite parts of my job, as it gives us a chance to dispel misconceptions and talk about issues they are concerned with.

Whenever the topic turns to food, I know I will get asked the question. The most recent was when two of my students watched a Youtube video of a guy cooking hamburgers. Their immediate issue was that the cook did not put any seasoning on the meat. One of the boys looked at me and asked the inevitable question.

“Mr. Howard, do you use seasoning?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Not just salt and pepper.”

“No, I use…” and then run off my go-to seasoning/rub mixture. (If you’re curious: Salt, black pepper, brown sugar, garlic powder, cumin, paprika).

This led to a discussion on why people think white people eat bland food. Given that there are people out there that enjoy unseasoned chicken breasts, macaroni & cheese (unseasoned), and mayo. I will also admit that I enjoy some bland foods (I have been known to eat a bowl of plain oatmeal).

And I should note that I am in no way offended by the line of questioning. As stereotypes go in general, it is probably the least offensive.

I personally love spicy foods, even if I regret them later. However, if you look at the traditional cookbooks from different parts of the world, European and European-American food traditions can be lacking.

When you think of food from Latin America, Africa, the Caribbean, India, the Middle East, and Asia, various dishes use all kinds of spices. A lot of this has to do with climate. For the most part, these regions are perfect for growing many spices we use every day. As a result, these spices were easy to get to and played a significant role in the food culture.

On the other hand, Europe did not have the availability of a lot of spices. However, the wealthy could afford imported spices, and records go back to the Roman period of imported spices used for the tables of the nobility. So, it was not so much that Europeans had an aversion to spices as they just couldn’t afford them.

With the empire-building of several European nations, colonialism allowed for more availability of these spices. As the middle and lower classes were able to begin to season food, the upper class shifted direction. Instead of seasoning their food, they simply used stocks and gravies to hide the blandness of their food. As bland food became haute cuisine in several countries like England and France, more people shifted away from spices as they wanted to appear higher class.

The Great Depression can be seen as a factor in the American love of bland food. During the Depression and the World Wars, people were looking for food that could be readily stocked and had a long shelf life. There were also concerns about the conditions of factories and slaughterhouses (Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was a significant blow to the meat industry).

A focus went more on what was available and nourishing, net what tasted good. This is where we get the rise of starch-heavy casseroles, creamed chipped beef, and Kraft macaroni & cheese.

Some religious people thought a bland diet was good for the soul. The idea of clean living and eating was supposed to keep good Christians free from temptation. All those spices could raise the blood and get you in all kinds of trouble. This is where we got cornflakes (luckily, Kellogg’s brother had the sense to add sugar later).

So, some of these older food movements defiantly had their imprint on the food culture here in America. The generation that grew up in the Depression served the same food to their kids, and these food traditions still persist in some ways.

But now, as a society, we have access to a world of flavors. Not only that, but most of them are very affordable. Some people say if they went back in time, they would show people their cell phones and blow their minds. I could just take my spice rack back 200 years, and people would freak out.

We live in the most diverse country in the world, and as a result, we have access to tons of great food cultures. And I can see that there is probably a shift in American food where the stereotype of white people only liking bland food will fade sooner rather than later.

So, yes, I will probably be answering this same question with my students next year. And I will gladly run down my love for hot wings and tell them my chili recipe. Then I’ll warm up my leftover macaroni & cheese bowl for my lunch.

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