By Alpha Abebe
As a child of the 80s and 90s growing up in North America, I was rather accustomed to hearing about Ethiopian conflict and famine on the news. However, one afternoon while my mother was watching The Young and the Restless in the living room, something caught my ear. A character casually suggested that the couple head to an Ethiopian restaurant for dinner. My adolescent mind was blown. How did the writers hear about Ethiopian food?! And who among them had the gumption to actually try it? Oh, and I sure hope they didn’t see the kitfo! Hitherto, I had only known Western and Ethiopian social spaces to exist separately, and the notion that the two could overlap truly fascinated me.
On November 13, 2011 an episode of The Simpsons aired, entitled “The Food Wife“. It featured a 3.5-minute segment where the family wearily stumble upon a Little Ethiopia enclave, but eventually find that they thoroughly enjoy the tastes and textures of Ethiopian cuisine. As foolishly entertaining as the show can be, The Simpsons is both a repository and icon of American pop culture and often provides great analyses on issues of contemporary global importance through satire. There’s much to learn from that two dimension dysfunctional family.
The following lines are taken from the opening scene of the segment, where Marge is horrified when her car breaks down in a dark and seedy part of town.
Bart: “Um, mom. Where are we?“
Marge: “Nowhere scary” [as she hurriedly locks the car doors].
And later on in the segment when the family runs into some other non-Ethiopian characters at the restaurant:
Marge: “So did all of your cars break down?“
Lisa: “Mom! They’re here on purpose. They’re foodies.“
I presume that images of the neighbourhood were inspired by Los Angeles’ Little Ethiopia strip, however the details mirror similar establishments found in other metropolitan cities across North America. Fairfax Avenue/Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles, the U Street corridor in Washington, D.C., and Danforth/Greenwood in Toronto. These are all small but vibrant enclaves, lined with Ethiopian restaurants, convenience stores and clubs. Marge’s initial concern when she entered the neighbourhood likely represents the fact that ‘Little Ethiopias’ often pop up in previously downtrodden parts of town – much like the enclaves of most new immigrant communities. While this can be a welcomed change to these neighbourhoods initially, a number of social and economic factors usually help to politicize the issue.
Take for example the push back from black-American community activists in D.C. and business associations in Toronto in response to efforts to have these neighbourhoods officially recognized as ‘Little Ethiopia’; in addition to ownership and infrastructural challenges faced by Ethiopian business owners in Los Angeles. These all raise critical questions about how diaspora populations are implicated in complex processes of gentrification as well as national identity politics. Who was there before the Ethiopians came and why did they leave? Who governs the boundaries of the spaces they now occupy? And how are traditional representations of cities and states challenged by the emergence of new and racialized community enclaves? All this from The Simpsons?!
Now of course, there are some shameless throwbacks to traditional stereotypes about Ethiopia sprinkled throughout the episode. Like when Bart exclaims, “I want to live in Ethiopia!” after thoroughly enjoying his first taste of Ethiopian cuisine. Presumably, the humour is to be found in the assumption that people in the West do not aspire to live in the infamously poverty-stricken country, or – if you’re inclined to give The Simpsons a little more credit – it pokes fun at the people who would find the notion of living in Ethiopia humorous to begin with. There’s also the nod to the classic trope of the African tribe, when Marge gasps and shouts, “That newborn has earrings!”
However, The Simpsons is usually equitable in its assaults. There was also some interesting and entertaining commentary on the Western hipster ‘foodie’ culture:
Marge: “What’s the craziest thing on the menu?” Lisa: [Nervously laughs] “She means the most authentic.”
Lisa: “Exotic. Vegetarian. I can mention it in a college essay… Mom this is amazing!“
Foodies: “Wait, what is she eating? They never served me that dish and I wear indigenous beaded headgear.” […] “Gasp – they have prepared her a dish from the non-translated page!” […] “Our passion is to seek out interesting foods, savour their exotic flavours, then blog about them.“
When one of the foodies suggested that they ‘discovered’ Korean BBQ in that town, Lisa (the proverbial voice of reason on the show) sarcastically asked, “Uhhh, before the Koreans?” – to which another replied, “oh sure they cook it, but they don’t get it.” Surf the web at any given point and you’ll find endless references to Ethiopian food as ‘exotic’, self-congratulatory accounts of people ‘adventurous’ enough to try it, and a never-ending race to ‘discover’ the most tucked away and ‘authentic’ restaurants. It will be interesting to examine the processes of exoticization and appropriation as Ethiopian food and culture moves deeper into mainstream Western spaces. Also, how will diaspora communities respond to, challenge and reproduce these narratives for various social, political and economic ends?
As the popular adage goes, everything is political… even injera.