8 Chapters
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2 The Social Dynamics of the Home Meal

Nir Avieli Indiana University Press ePub

2    The Social Dynamics of the Home Meal

In this second chapter on the Hoianese home meal, I expand my analysis in two directions: the first deals with the dynamics of the home-eaten meal, stressing its flexibility, variety, and ability to encompass change; the second sets the ground for the discussion of the interrelations between foodways and other social and cultural practices. I first classify the culinary process into stages, examining how each stage reflects, maintains and, at times, defines intra-family roles, statuses, and hierarchies. Specifically, I examine the conventional view of women as having a lower status, which appears to be in keeping with their identification with the low-status kitchen and cooking. An analysis of the changing roles of Hoianese women with regard to the culinary sphere at home reveals a much more nuanced and dynamic picture, however. The chapter concludes with an analysis of the tensions between the individual and the collective, as they materialize around the Hoianese table, emphasizing elements of social competition and conflict, which are essential though implicit aspects of the Hoianese meal.

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Conclusion: Food and Culture—Interconnections

Nir Avieli Indiana University Press ePub

FOOD AND CULTURE—INTERCONNECTIONS

I began my research in Hoi An thinking that the local foodways would merely reflect the existing social order and cultural arrangements, but my fieldwork frequently demonstrated that, on the contrary, the culinary sphere was not a passive mirror image of other social and cultural realms but, rather, an arena of cultural production itself.

A good example of the challenges to my early theoretical assumptions brought about by fieldwork observations would be the various modifications to the script of the Hoianese festive culinary scenario. While this scenario clearly reflects the prevailing social order and cultural conventions, the meaning of significant changes to that script—such as the addition of expensive seafood, or the buffet-style wedding feast—had to be more complex.

To engender a more accurate and sensitive analysis of the culinary events I witnessed in Hoi An, I turned to Handelman’s (1998) scheme of “Models, Mirrors and Re-presentations,” which better accommodates contradictions and incongruities such as the ones described above.

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3 Local Specialties, Local Identity

Nir Avieli Indiana University Press ePub

3    Local Specialties, Local Identity

Whenever asked by a Hoianese what exactly I was doing in Hoi An, I would answer that I was studying the town’s eating and drinking culture (van hoa am thuc Hoi An). The common response would be: “Ah, have you had cao lau yet?” For most Hoianese, researching the food in their town meant exploring their local specialties (dac san Hoi An), among which cao lau, a unique noodle dish, is the most prominent.

A book about these local specialties, titled Van Hoa Am Thuc O Pho Co Hoi An (The Culinary Culture of Ancient Hoi An), was published by Hoi An’s municipal research center, stirring some controversy (Tran 2000). Local critics argued that many of the thirty dishes listed were neither unique to Hoi An, nor to Quang Nam Province—and some were not even unique to central Vietnam. There were also debates over dish names, food terms, and even modes of preparation. Yet what I found most intriguing about The Culinary Culture of Ancient Hoi An was that a relatively small town could boast more than thirty local specialties. I later realized that some dishes are considered unique not merely to the district or town but to specific villages (e.g., banh dap Cam Nam [“Cam Nam broken crackers”] or mi quang Cam Chau [“Quang Nam Province noodles in Cam Chau village style”]). Some of the dishes described as unique to Hoi An can in fact be found in other places, where locals are quick to dismiss Hoi An’s claim for exclusivity.

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1 Deciphering the Hoianese Meal

Nir Avieli Indiana University Press ePub

1    Deciphering the Hoianese Meal

It was 11:30 am and Quynh said that lunch was ready. We sat on wooden stools around the circular table: Quynh, her husband Anh, his mother, sister, Irit (my wife), and I. The dishes were already on the table: a small plate with three or four small fish in a watery red gravy seasoned with fresh coriander, a bowl of morning-glory soup (canh rau muong) with a few dried shrimp, and a mixed plate of lettuce and herbs. There was also a bowl of nuoc mam cham (fish sauce diluted with water and lime juice, seasoned with sugar, fresh ginger, and chili). An electric rice-cooker stood on a stool by the table. We each had a ceramic bowl and a pair of ivory-colored plastic chopsticks.

Anh’s mother sat next to the rice cooker, and as we handed her our rice bowls in turn, she filled them to the brim with steaming rice with a flat plastic serving spoon. I asked Quynh what we were going to eat. Quynh pointed at the dishes: “com [steamed rice], rau [(fresh)] greens], canh [soup], kho [‘dry,’ indicating the fish].” Then she pointed to the bowl of fish sauce, adding “and nuoc mam.

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6 Food and Identity in Community Festivals

Nir Avieli Indiana University Press ePub

6    Food and Identity in Community Festivals

Community festivals in Hoi An are celebrated by social groups larger than the household (nha) or the extended family (gia dinh), but the actual number of the participants does not exceed several hundred. Participants in community festivals know each other personally, at least to a certain extent.

I have opted to present four feasts that represent the wide range of communities in town: the meal served at the Tran clan ancestor worship ceremony, the Protestant church’s Christmas picnic, the Cao Dai annual communal feast, and the banquet prepared for the Phuoc Kien Chinese community festival. Just as in life-cycle events, community festivals consist of two parts: a formal, ritual stage and a feast. Here too, much of the preparation, effort, cost, and time are invested in the festive meal.

While the eating arrangements at community festivals are remarkably similar to those defined by the family-oriented “festive culinary scenario,” the dishes and menus are diverse, with each communal meal featuring a specific set of dishes that distinguishes it from the others and imbues it with particular meanings. The menus and dishes mainly concern the collective identity of each community, or, rather, the complex, multileveled and often contradictory identity of each group, as well as their positioning within Hoi An, the nation, and beyond.

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