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A brief rant on Anglocentrism

Rick Stein walks into a Hamburg market, ogling the eels. Not the setup to a joke, believe it or not. It’s also not something you often hear stuffed into one sentence: eels and Hamburg. That was the point, really. To shine a light on the incredible depth and diversity of German cuisine.

A few minutes later, the gregarious Stein shifted to inspecting the sausages at a nearby stall: mettwurst, weisswurst, knackwurst. “What’s that red stuff there?” he prodded, not a German word in the mix. “Rotkohl – red cabbage,” the chef noted, rolling into the litany of spices and herbs simmering away.

And then, it was off to the next shot, the next town, the next market, transitioned by a car breaking away into the countryside, Stein behind the wheel.

Stein is a celebrated chef in UK circles, and the host of a handful of well-known cooking shows. He travels the world for most of them, docking at culinary capitals from Paris to Mumbai. And while his gustatory curiosities — intermingled with genuine interest in the cultural context of the dishes he enjoys — are commendable, there’s one part of his exploits that grates: I seldom hear him attempt to speak the local language.

Calling on the Hamburg market scene again: Stein approached the vendor without so much as a “Hallo” before pointing at the eels and asking, “Can I have a taste?” English, without apprehension. There was no shame in it; he simply kept pointing until the vendor got the gist.

I bristle when I hear this. To me, it reeks of arrogance — the Anglocentric tendency to assume that everyone in the world speaks English, whatever their native tongue may be. It’s particularly ironic in Stein’s case, given his efforts to uncover the history, culture, and provenance of the food he eats.

Some may say there’s an argument to be made for going through the painful motions of attempting to speak a foreign language when, frankly, you can’t. It delays communication and might even confuse things. But does that preclude a courtesy greeting? How hard is it to start with a “hello” in the native tongue? That may seem trivial but it sends a message: “I acknowledge I am a foreigner, and want to respect the language, customs, and traditions of the local people.” This avoids the perception of Anglocentrism that can put people off. “The sun has long since set on the British empire,” my friend used to quip. So it has — and that should be understood.

I’m not saying Stein is flippantly dismissive of the cultures around him. His genuine interest in people, ritual, and food tell an opposite tale. But language is our gateway to relationship. And relationship is the gateway to culture. If he is (and we are) so invested in understanding culture, why not make an effort to greet locals in their own tongue and open the door to mutual understanding with greater ease and respect?

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