The relationship between food and identity, or simply food and a sense of belonging, is well-known to those of us who have sought out Hass avocados or Toll House chocolate chips (often in vain) in places beyond the United States. For me, there is something ultimately gratifying, even safe, about opening that jar of Adam’s peanut butter or letting the smell of buttermilk biscuits fill my Berlin apartment. At once, giving in to ‘old urges’ is washed with self-realization. I also just really love buttermilk biscuits.
While critically testing Berlin’s newest ‘American breakfast’ joint a few weekends ago, I had the overwhelming sense that “hey, I’m allowed to do this [more than anyone else here]!”. These are processes of identity and belonging at work.
The California Breakfast Slam, or CABslam, originally a pop-up breakfast establishment celebrating Americana classics like hash browns and maple syrup-drenched bacon, now hosts an unassuming ‘Beta’ restaurant space at the far edge of Neukölln’s Reuterkiez. A visit allows for the giddy return to childhood memories that lead to goosebumps and pride or a combination of both. Let’s call this the California Breakfast Slam effect.
Not all patrons of CABslam’s new digs are from the Western coast of the United States like myself, but there certainly exists a clientele of the North American variety, motivated more by feelings (or longings) than by taste, I dare to conjecture. Put simply, who knew that a plate full of pancakes, browned potato shavings, bacon, and a fried egg would make one feel so secure? So ‘you’ in your own maple-craving skin? This is the CABslam effect.
Anthropologists would suggest that our food choices constitute a large part of how we position ourselves in the world, particularly in a foreign context. In a country for which one possesses no legal or innate right to reside, one learns to miss the general social acceptance and security provided in that place left behind. Ethnographical studies* of immigrants around the world – Turkish immigrants vending kebap to keep the nostalgic grill burning, taco trucks re-connecting small towns to distant landscapes, Punjabi import shops outlining a community in the anonymous city – form an extensive literature in support of this role of food as an identity-maker. Food ways, what and how we eat, often serve to reclaim a definition of self that may be threatened by the indifferent surroundings of the foreign.
Interesting to reflect upon, however, is how much of these positive associations are, in fact, related to the food itself. In other words, is it the constitution and consistency of the yogurt that reminds the Turkish immigrant of home (see the Chobani story)? Is the sugar content of my peanut butter a key determinant of my sense of belonging – of how I affirm and embody my American identity in Germany?
One of my father’s favorite activities, as of late, is going to the local mom & pop diner located just around the corner from his home. He has always loved waffles, bacon, eggs – preferences I inherited, minus the bacon for environmental reasons (goodbye bacon bowls).
At this local breakfast spot in Vancouver (WA), one sits in a cozy corner – on that particular kind of squeaky upholstery reserved for diners – and receives bottom-less coffee and a pint of the good, brown sticky stuff within moments of arriving, without needing to have asked. Luxury and simplicity come together in a routinized ritual that completes a Saturday morning.
A visit to Neukölln’s diner-ish mock up, CABslam, offers a similar experience, albeit with wood in place of the traditional synthetic materials. The waitresses greet guests in English with a smile, a touch of accent on the tongue; plates of meat, starch, and sugar pass through the spacious, half-finished space, disturbed only by the squeal of espresso. Oh, American breakfast in Europe: such a strange delicacy, indeed.
If I were to come upon a similar diner anywhere in the Pacific Northwest, I would be confused by 1. the small portions, 2. the texture of the syrup, 3. the small portions, 4. the fancy coffee, and 5. the small portions. But while in that strange space of not always quite fitting in and not being quite sure how to amend the problem, one takes any moment of assured (if strangely assembled) belonging and identity one can get.
And so I ordered French toast, Juri ordered the original California Breakfast Slam, and I ate his pancakes and felt thoroughly pleased with the entire situation.
Glancing around the perhaps far-too spacious-to-be-cozy restaurant-in-progress, plates of beans and eggs (Huevos Rancheros!), yellow sauce and bread (Eggs Benedict!), and hearty scrambles made it all just believable enough…even if it is not possible to get a side of sweet ‘Amish bread’ here, as is the case with my favorite diner in Seattle, Beth’s Cafe. Beginnings are always a bit modest, anyway.
After our plates had been cleared, all sauces sopped up with available eatable utensils, I pondered my just-consumed identity and belonging with a nice long sip of espresso. Though perhaps still a bit hungry for American-diner standards, the starvation for the validation that comes from truly fitting in – in this case, the belonging that comes from just understanding the absurdly starchy rituals that constitute American breakfast – was momentarily gone.
This felt quite good.
While consuming something in the morning hours that would otherwise be reserved for a combination of dessert, second dessert, and holidays in Germany, the recognition that “yes, this is perhaps not the healthiest but yes, this is delicious, and I will enjoy it” bubbles up, almost unexpectedly.
American food culture is shaped and even manipulated by advertising’s exploitation of this very urge to give-in, indulge, and consume ‘freedom’ as embodied in a fried-chicken-pizza or a Big Gulp – as nicely laid out in an article on the success of such fast-food antics in America in this past week’s issue of The New Yorker.
But looking around at the improvisational furniture and faux diner fixtures at CABslam, the abstract and even fictive nature of such an experience became strikingly clear: The setting did not necessarily fit my expectations, but the frame was just large enough to allow textures, smells, and memories to gently assemble a replica of ‘home’. Minus the Amish bread.
If one were to survey immigrants and/or expats around the world, one thing would surely be held in common – a lust after the foods of whence one has come. This does not mean that these foods are objectively good or even at the top of my list. But this is not the point. Even though the mere idea of many American delights makes me a little uneasy and sad for the state of national nutrition (see “A Place at the Table” for the full story), I delight just a little in being associated with such a cuisine. Because it is familiar and mine, in a way intimately intertwined with memory and what identity makes of it.
More than anything else, the moments at my childhood-dream-table, where chocolate-chip pancakes were the best reward and hash browns the coveted snack, are the things that bring me the simplest of glee in a situation that is often colored by uncertainty. And that, folks, is the CABslam effect.
– By Kelly Miller
Cabslam is located at Innstraße 47, 12045 Neukölln, open (now also for lunch and dinner) Mo-So 11:00-midnight. Their official website is currently under construction, so best use the facebook page for more information on their rotating menu, as well as to make reservations. Long live American breakfast! All photos by Juri Gottschau.
*If the mention of ethnographical studies sparked your interest, here is some further reading on immigrant identity, diaspora memory, and – you guessed it – food, brought to you by the wonderful discipline of sociocultural anthropology:
Bahloul, J. 1989, “From a Muslim banquet to a Jewish seder: food ways and ethnicity among North African Jews”, in Jews Among Arabs: Contacts and Boundaries, ed. Cohen, M. Camp; A. Udovitch.
Buckser A. 1999, Keeping kosher: eating and social identity among the Jews of Denmark, Ethnology, vol. 38.
Chapman et al. 2011, “Meanings of food, eating and health in Punjabi families living in Vancouver, Canada”,Health Education Journal, vol. 70, no. 1.
Harbottle, L. 1997, “Taste and embodiment: the food preferences of Iranians in Britain”, in Food Preference and Taste: Continuity and Change, ed. MacBeth, H.
Holtzman, John D. 2006, “Food and Memory”, Annual Review of Anthropology, no. 35.
Mankekar, P. 2002, “’India shopping’: Indian grocery stores and transnational conﬁguration of belonging”, Ethnos, vol. 67, no. 1.
Lee, SSJ. 2000, “Dys-appearing tongues and bodily memories: the aging of ﬁrst-generation resident Koreans in Japan”, Ethos, vol. 28, no. 2.
Ray, K. 2004, The Migrant’s Table: Meals and Memories in Bengali-American Households.
Şebnem, Timur Ögüt 2008, “Turkish restaurants in London: An ethnographic study on representation of cultural identity through design”, ITU A|Z, vol. 5.