Ethological Variations on Leftover Turkey and Other Matters: Singularity and Relationships in Cuisine as Morph Culture by Gerald Iguchi

Introduction: Turkey Pozole and Turkey Udon

Not long after Thanksgiving, 2011, I saw a recipe for “Chipotle Turkey Pozole” posted by someone named Elise on a recipe website called “Simply Recipes.”[1]  It brought tears to my eyes. I choked up because it reminded me of how my Japanese American mom would make turkey udon the day after Thanksgiving.  I saw a connection between what Elise’s family (which I am imagining is Mexican American) did with their leftover turkey and what my family did.  They combined the food associated with the quintessentially American, extremely problematic holiday with a Mexican soup that predates European contact, and we combined that same turkey with a Japanese noodle soup.

Beyond personal memories – however – the recipe for turkey pozole moved me so much because it caused me to see in a flash that food shows us how culture and history work: everything changes and everything is always already hybrid, or put otherwise, culture and cuisines equal combinations and relationships that develop over historical time, and in any given instance the combinations involved are specific singularities.  A particular bowl of soup, for example, is unique and strictly speaking unrepeatable, but it is also a manifestation of relationships between oneself and a history encompassing the entire planet.  Culture, as I am thinking of it here, does not involve homogenization; it involves connections between and across difference.  Understanding such relationships constitutes an ethics vis-à-vis one’s relationship with others past and present.[2]

I.  Modernity, Denial of History, and My Thanksgiving

In many ways, modern societies have long been concerned with the denial of history and the denial of culture as process.  The typical “invention of tradition” at the bedrock of modern nation-states involves a secular biblical narrative: there is the Eden of a past golden age, the fall of medieval dark ages, and the renaissance forming the modern nation, which is also something like the gospel of Christ’s incarnation.[3]  Modern states then invent traditions that are supposedly integrally connected to the past golden age, and everything between that past and the present – hundreds or even thousands of years of history – is derided as irrelevant.  This kind of ahistoricsm is not limited to thinking about one’s own nation-state, as when Americans in the wake of 9/11 sought explanations for what had happened by purchasing translations of the Quran instead of by taking into account the last several decades or centuries of Middle East history.

With regard to modern states, their denial of the immediate history and apotheosis of distant pasts has often gone hand-in-hand with the very formation of nations.  The country I study as a historian – Japan – is a good example.  The post-1868 Meiji State pretended to restore the past while staging a revolution that actually destroyed the myriad singularities of local instances of culture that existed in the archipelago previously.  These cultures, which the Meiji State’s Charter Oath of 1868 indicated as “evil customs” were fluctuating, changing, shifting entities at every level, for example, linguistic, religious, and culinary.  The Meiji state attempted to dislodge these cultures in order to replace them with one centered in Tokyo, in order to insofar as possible create a unified, homogenous set of people called the Japanese who would fight, kill, and die for something called Japan.[4]

Similar processes occurred elsewhere, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly.  The Meiji state and similar states have been largely successful, but they have never been completely successful.  In Nietzschian language appropriated by Gilles Deleuze, sometimes writing with his intellectual partner Felix Guattari, the modern state has as much as possible attempted to arrest becoming or process and instead facilitate being or stasis.[5]  On the other hand, modernity also emphasizes change, but only as a disciplined process experienced by collective unities.  The protagonists of Marx’s progressive narrative were of course social classes, Hegel’s was Spirit, and other forms of collective unity, as protagonists are possible.  But the overwhelming collective unity as protagonist of progress in history has been the nation.

Nation formation and the identities to which such processes are heir, such as “Japanese American” and “Mexican American,” depend upon misrecognition of cultural process as change and history as process.  In other words, nation formation and the ethnic identities that departments of motor vehicles and bureaucrats concerned with university admissions depend upon are grounded in lies in a sense.  This is where food can help us perceive otherwise.  Food does not lie, and adequate understandings of food and cuisine can help us overcome culture imagined as homogenous and fixed.  Fixed and homogenous culture is dead.  I call it mort culture.  Understanding how food belies our categories can help us to imagine culture and ourselves as living, breathing, changing entities that are in flux and always already hybrid.  I call hybrid culture in flux morph culture.

The turkey udon my mom made, for example, was not “Japanese” and it was not “American.”  It was not even precisely “Japanese American.”  It was singular.  Like many, I think I can say that nobody else can cook like my mom cooked.  However, a turkey pozole recipe moved me to tears because its way of relating Thanksgiving turkey and an ethnically specific soup was structurally similar.  In reality there is no “turkey udon” and no “turkey pozole.”  Other families – Japanese American, Mexican American, and others – have their own ways of making the dishes they term in such ways.  There is continuum, never binaries. I might even add a little chipotle powder to my udon next time I have it.  But what we share, what we all share, is culture as process and combination.  We share a “continuous variation” that at the same time links us.[6]

II. Bacon Fried Rice and You Must Be One Of Us If….

Culture is funny.  Atlanta standup comic Jeff Foxworthy built his career on his “you might be a redneck if” routine, a sample line of which is: “if you own a home that is mobile and fourteen cars that aren’t, you might be a redneck.”[7]  Several years ago, I was looking for a recipe online for the kind of fried rice my mom made with bacon and I found a list of 101 statements by writers Jenni Emiko Kuida and Tony Osumimade titled “Ways to Tell if You’re Japanese American.”[8]  The list – which I imagined was based on Foxworthy’s comedy had this: (you might be a Japanese American if) “You grew up on rice: bacon fried rice, chili rice, curry rice or red rice” (#66).  I realized what I had not realized during four years of living in Japan in the 1990s: making fried rice with bacon is something only Japanese Americans would do.  Bacon – at least the kind in my family’s refrigerator – is American food.  What I realized was the particularity of the culture I knew, which was not Japanese or American.  In fact, because my on mom’s version of fried rice was particular to her – like all instances of culture it was strictly speaking singular; every time she made it in fact, it varied, even if this continuous variation was hardly perceptible.

However, despite the fact that nobody else made or makes fried rice exactly like my mom did, I was also moved by my discovery of the list because it demonstrated my connection with others, with Japanese Americans.  Food culture like all culture is singular in every instance or performance, perhaps, but it also connects us to histories that are more-or-less shared.  In addition to item # 66, I was also moved by # 1: “You know that Camp doesn’t mean a cabin in the woods.”  For Japanese Americans, “camp” means the concentration camps otherwise known as internment camps or relocation centers, the places they or their families were sent after the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  My dad was 14 at the time and my mom was 15.

It is significant that Kuida and Osumimade’s line about “camp” is the first item on the list.  Internment formed Japanese American identity.  It was extremely painful, and yet “camp” made them who they were forever afterwards.  Internment was motivated by a kind of thinking that did not only result in Japanese or even only Japanese American (and US citizen) adults or adolescents and their families being interned.  The law was such that people who only had as little as 1/16th Japanese “blood” in the western states were incarcerated for no crime.  The War Relocation Authority – the US Army organization charged with removal and internment of “enemy aliens” arrested infants of whole or partial Japanese ancestry who were in orphanages or in the care of White families that had adopted them.  These babies were then taken to and interned in a nursery behind barbed wire in the desert in eastern California’s Manzanar.  This was the degree to which people like my parents were treated like a disease that had to be, if not eliminated, quarantined.[9]

I will never forget my dad’s 1975 high school reunion.  He graduated from high school in 1945 in a concentration camp in Poston, Arizona, another desert.  At that reunion, held at a hotel in downtown San Diego, there was dancing, and I got to see my dad “boogie” to Glenn Miller.  There were jokes about playing basketball with Native Americans (who themselves had been interred in nearby reservations), but there was very little discussion of the fact that the adults around me went to, and in the case of my dad’s class graduated from, a high school in a concentration camp.  I believe it was always “camp” to people like my parents because calling it that concealed reality and distanced pain.  This is why it is funny.  The best comedy, as Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and other great comedians have known well, also often hurts.

When I teach world history courses I inevitably tell my upper-Midwestern students from mostly rural Wisconsin about bánh mì, the Vietnamese sandwiches I fell in love with in San Diego.  Bánh mì are typically made with barbecued pork or chicken flavored with what seems like fish sauce or soy sauce, along with a sugary something, resulting in a savory sweetness found in much Asian cuisine.  Along with a protein, bánh mì include cilantro, jalapenos, and do chua, which is carrots pickled with the kind of radish known to Americans by its Japanese name, daikon.

I tell my students that when and if they ever bite into these delicious sandwiches, they are eating world history, but I also tell them that they are eating imperialism.  A bánh mì may be Vietnamese in a sense, but the French bread came to Southeast Asia with French imperialism.  Even the jalapenos (and all chili peppers) originated in the Americas and only entered the cuisines of Eurasia and Africa via the transcontinental imperialisms of European powers, which does not make bánh mì any less delicious.

Bánh mì and our world’s myriad cuisines and cultures are a product of all of history, which includes imperialism, but does not necessarily make imperialism good.  Culture is of a separate order than morality.  Culture is not judgment, or at least at its best it is not; it is constant creation in shared “continuous variation.”  Cultures shift, change, and interact, making them not absolutely good, evil, or absolutely anything else.  Knowing the processes and relationships that made and make the cultures we live and the food we eat, however, involves an ethics of understanding relationships with others and our pasts.  Internment camps and World War II created Japanese American culture, my family’s culture, and my culture, as I know it, which does not make the camps or the war good.  My culture includes Christmas even though I do not believe in Christianity.  My culture includes Thanksgiving even though that nationalist holiday is grounded in the lie that people of European ancestry and indigenous people in North America lived in harmonious coexistence from the start.  Turkey with gravy and stuffing (and in my family with Japanese white rice) tastes delicious.  Culture and food are neither good nor evil, which is a concern of morality; they are good (if enjoyable) or bad (if not), a concern of ethics.[10]

III.  Tonkatsu and Alienation

Tonkatsu is boneless deep-fried pork.  My family would eat it with a side salad or vegetable and rice, along with a kind of sweet and sour, thick, soy sauce-based sauce.  It is coated with the breadcrumbs now preferred by gourmet cooks everywhere, panko (which literally means “bread powder,” with the word “pan” or bread traceable to Japanese relationships with Portuguese during the sixteenth century).  When I lived in Japan for four years, there was a restaurant near my place that specialized in katsudon, which is tonkatsu topped with eggs and onions poached in sweetened dashi, Japanese soup stock generally made with dried bonito.  Tonkatsu and katsudon are widely available in Japanese restaurants in the US, although increasingly one sees offerings of “chicken katsu” or deep-fried boneless chicken served with tonkatsu sauce.

I have long known that “ton” means pork, but I had not realized until recently that “katsu” is English, or rather a Japanese abbreviation of an approximation of “cutlets” (katsuretsu).  I was eating Western food, in a sense, at various points of my life and never realized it.  Tonkatsu is what food and culture always is, hybrid.  Japanese during the early twentieth century were culturally importing an enormous number and variety of things from the West, and food (and drink) were some of the most prominent items.  Tonkatsu was a Japanese attempt at something Western.  It was quite probably a featured recipe in women’s magazines of the period, and it became a hit.  In that context tonkatsu was “Western.”[11]  However, the Japanese attempt to make Western “pork culets” produced something entirely new.   This is similar to how the Rolling Stones originally attempted to sound like Howling Wolf and other African American blues musicians, but ended up sounding like the Rolling Stones.

As far as I know, my parents never knew the history of tonkatsu.  In an important sense, however, it did not matter.  Cuisine and culture actualize creativity through temporal, historical processes involving borrowings and appropriation.  As such, attempts at culinary and cultural imitation often result in inadvertent creativity, despite the fact that sometimes we are alienated from that creativity.  We forget – or never know – that, for example, “katsu” is “cutlets” and tonkatsu originated in a Japanese attempt to make “Western” pork cutlets.  However – and this is important – cuisine and culture do not care: they still embody what they are, which are ongoing results of such processes as dialectics of connection and continuous variation.

IV.  Beyond Fusion and the Becoming-Living of Food/Culture

These days fusion cuisine is all the rage.  Restaurants around the planet typically combine elements of various Asian cuisines with the various cuisines of Western Europe (especially French), North America, and Latin America.  The results are often delicious.  However, the impression that fusion is new is false.  My mom’s bacon fried rice and nearly everything she made in the kitchen was fusion, whether she realized it or not.

“Fusion” cuisine is perhaps a misnomer.  The “shiso crusted salmon” with “bacon wilted spinach, caramelized onion polenta, and roasted red pepper dashi” at Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion restaurant or my mom’s bacon fried rice are combinations of ingredients and cooking techniques historically associated with the cultures of different regions of the planet.[12]  They are not fused together in such a way that these identities are lost; they are not unified as a blender homogenizes ingredients. Each instance of such combination in the kitchen of a given restaurant or mother (or father or son) is singular.

The particularity or singularity of given sets of relationships is key. Spam musubi, for example, is a food item that is popular in Hawaii.  From the Japanese verb musubu (to gather), musubi refers to the gathering of rice grains together to form a ball.  In Japan today one can buy musubi (also known as onigiri) at train stations or convenience stores stuffed with salmon or pickles and various other savory things.  “Spam” is the etymological fusion of “spiced ham” and it is a product of the Hormel Corporation of Austin, Minnesota.  During World War Two, US servicemen carried canned Spam into the Pacific theater, and it became a beloved element of Hawaiian cuisine.  Spam musubi is a slice of Spam fried in sweetened soy sauce placed on top of a rice ball; the rice ball (actually in the case of spam musubi it is more of a square) and Spam are then fastened together with a strip of nori (seaweed).

Despite the superficial similarity, Spam musubi is not sushi.  Spam musubi is a singular and specific combination of ingredients and techniques originating in Minnesota and Japan, which only came together when US servicemen brought Spam to Hawaii.  The majority of the population of Hawaii is of Japanese ancestry. This is largely the result of the immigration of indentured Japanese laborers who worked sugar cane fields in Hawaii in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  These laborers or their descendents combined Spam with rice in the form of a Japanese food item.

In contrast, a California roll is sushi because of the way its rice is formed into a roll (“makizushi” in Japanese, with maki from the verb maku, to roll) and because the rice is flavored with seasoned vinegar.  A California roll’s ingredients – however – include avocado, which is largely a product of California, as well as crab or fake crab and cucumbers.  Both Spam musubi and California rolls are specific instances of combinations of differing cultures, regions, and histories (which is made all the more complex if one factors in the actual ingredients of a particular instance of each dish; “Japanese” rice, for example, may come from California, Japan, or elsewhere).

Conclusion: Abstraction and Singularity

Orientalist discourse commonly claims that non-Western people are incapable of abstraction.  Without a doubt, the forte of Western and dominant modern thinking since the eighteenth century has been abstraction.  An example of such thinking is the systematization of nature Carolus Linnaeus first published in 1735, the origin of the taxonomy we all studied in high school biology classes.  Linnaeus was able to class inanimate and animate entities by abstracting from common characteristics; for example, mammals are those creatures that are born alive and not laid as eggs, and which breastfeed their young.  The West has tried to correct Oriental thinking by schooling others in abstraction.  For example, the British told people in South Asia that the wide variety of beliefs, texts, and practices many of them engaged in was first a religion and secondly something called “Hinduism.”[13]  They also told South Asians that the wide variety of dishes involving something like spicy gravy that they ate was called “curry.”[14]

This essay suggests, however, that abstraction along these lines may not be such a wonderful thing after all.  The culture or cuisine that might move somebody to tears because of a fond remembrance is not abstract, but rather singular.  The singularity of culture and cuisine is not, however, a matter of isolation.  In each instance of their actualization, specific relationships and histories are embodied in the manner that Spam musubi incarnates Minnesota, Japan, Hawaii, and a not always pleasant history that brings those places together in a slab of rice with a sweet, soy sauce-seasoned piece of Spam, held together with nori.  Perceiving this and making these connections in one’s mind is first of all a creative act in itself.  It is also a creative perceiving that allows one to make new connections and combinations, enabling one to not only cook and eat previously uneaten things, but also to think previously unthinkable thoughts and do previously undoable things.  Doing so does not obviate critical thinking about oppression associated with imperialism, for example, but an ethics of understanding historical and creative processes can also involve us in creatively constructive approaches to the present and future.



[1] simplyrecipes.com/recipes/chipotle_turkey_pozole/ (accessed January 15, 2012).

[2] C.f. Rick Dolphign, Foodscapes: Towards a Deleuzian Ethics of Consumption (Delft, Netherlands: 2004), especially 9-10 and 30-31.  Dolphign uses “ethics” and “ethology” in ways related to how Gilles Deleuze uses the term in his study, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, trans. Robert Hurley (San Francisco: City Lights, 1988).  Deleuze draws from Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics (1677).

[3] Invention of Tradition is the title of a volume edited by Eric Hobsbawm (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), but the notion that many putatively ancient or at least premodern traditions were invented in recent times has become widespread.

[4] See for example, Allan Grapard, “Japan’s Ignored Cultural Revolution: the Separation of Shinto and Buddhist Divinities in Meiji (shinbutsu bunri) and a Case Study: Tonomine,” History of Religions, 23:3 (1984:Feb), 240-65, on the Meiji Period (1868-1912) reformulation of Japanese culture in terms of religions; see Stefan Tanaka, New Times in Modern Japan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), especially, Prelude: Time, Pasts, History, 1-26, on premodern culture – especially ways of reckoning time – as “evil customs” of the past.

[5] Nietzsche’s opposition of being to becoming is most developed in the notebooks eventually published as The Will to Power, Walter Kaufmann trans. (New York: Random House, 1967).  In A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Brian Massumi trans. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), especially in the part titled “1730: Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-

Imperceptible,” Deleuze and Guattari develop nuanced conceptions of becoming in which subjects enter states of flux between fixed positions such as animal versus human or man versus woman.

[6] The phrase, “continuous variation” occurs at many points in A Thousand Plateaus, as well as elsewhere in Deleuze and Guattari’s work and Deleuze’s solo writings.

[7] I accessed a video of Foxworthy’s routine on You Tube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T7E-isbgwpk&feature=related (accessed January 20, 2012).

[8] The list originally appeared in the Japanese American newspaper Rafu Shimpo on March 23, 1996.  See: http://www.kuidaosumi.com/TOwriting/101Ways.html (accessed on January 20, 2012).

[9] On the 1/16th rule see “Short History of Amache Japanese Internment Camp,” a webpage maintained by the state of Colorado at: http://www.colorado.gov/dpa/doit/archives/wwcod/granada3.htm (accessed January 17, 2012).  Regarding the orphans at Manzanar see http://hirasaki.net/Family_Stories/Manzanar.htm, which reproduces a Los Angeles Times article, “Childhood Lost: the Orphans of Manzanar,” by reporter Renee Tawa that originally appeared March 11, 1997 (accessed January 12, 2012).  The article featured photographs by Ansel Adams.

[10] The opposition between oppositions I am using – good/evil versus good/bad – is traceable to Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, Walter Kaufmann trans. (New York: Random House, 1966).  However, Dolphign uses the same framework; see in particular Foodscapes p. 99.  Dolphign, drawing from Deleuze, links good/evil with morality and good/bad with an ethics that connects with the thought of Spinoza.

[11] On the emergence of Japanese interpretations of Western food after the beginning of the twentieth century, as well as the influence of women’s magazines in popularizing such dishes, see Katarzyna J. Cwiertka, Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity (London: Reaktion Books, 2007).

[12] Shiso is a Japanese herb.  See the description of Roy’s salmon entrée at in their prix fixe menu at: http://www.roysrestaurant.com/cuisine/prix_fixe_menu.asp (accessed February 29, 2012).

[13] See Brian K. Pennington, Was Hinduism Invented: Britons, Indians, and the Colonial Construction of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), especially 3-7.

[14] See Lizzie Collingham, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), especially 115, where Collingham states, “The idea of curry is … a concept Europeans imposed on India’s food culture.  Indians referred to their different dishes by specific names….  But the British lumped all these together under the heading of curry.”