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Geographical determinism and food

(post, Joan Menefee)

Is the phrase “geographical determinism” an off-putting mouthful? Perhaps. But it’s also useful for people interested in food and history.

The idea of geographical determinism, though distressingly abstract in its expression, is simple: Material conditions (such as soils, weather, and naturally occurring plants and animals, to name a few) influence people’s thoughts, words, and actions. And cooking is certainly an action. 

Earlier this month, I marveled at the number of common food items that appear to have a Tatar lineage: tartar sauce, cream of tartar, steak tartare. For a relatively obscure (at least to us geographically challenged modern Americans) people in that transition zone between Europe and Asia, the Tatars have left more of a mark on the United States than, say, the Uyghur or the Starchevo. 

Mongolians, I’ll grant you, are also omnipresent culturally and culinarily. Still, they have not attached themselves to anything so banal for generations of Americans as tartar sauce. 

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="A delicacy from the Tatars."] And I am not alone in puzzling over this coincidence; Straight Dope does too.

The Straight Dope-sters argue that “Tartar” is simply shorthand for “primitive” or “rough” in western European cultures. When a cook came up with a dish he feared would meet disfavor, he served it anyway, slapping the “tartar” label on it as a mark of crudity, since it was common knowledge that everything east of Alps was hopelessly gauche and nasty. Think of it as dinnertime slumming.

Having lived in Central Europe for a couple of years, I can affirm that broth with chunks of pork fat floating in it is hard to get used to. But I also feel that the labels, if truly negative, are unfair. As the lovely blogger Pilli Petersoo at Nami-Nami has proven, there is much to adore in Eastern European cuisine. And I, for one, still hanker for Czech beef with cranberries and cream sauce.

My hunch, though, is that other analysts of this question have failed to see the pickle connection. Tatar cuisine relies largely on a small number of ingredients: beef, onions, eggs, and pickled cucumbers. While I am more than willing to believe that French chefs of the 18th century looked down their noses at pickle sauce, I also think they associated it with the Tatar because they knew more about the centrality of pickled vegetables to this cuisine than most of us do.

Likewise, in a culture as proficient in cattle raising as the Tatar culture seemed to be, meat is very tender and flavorful. Fresh raw meat was almost certainly used for celebrations right around the time of butchering, with the rest of the meat being preserved through drying and smoking. The rawness, then, was not a sign of crudity and blood-thirstiness; it was a sign of skillful work on the steppes with those balky, succulent animals.

And this is what made me think of geographical determinism. When you live in a cold, continental region (as I do — temperatures here in the Midwest recently dipped to minus 30 degrees), you face certain challenges.  The growing season is short, which makes inventive and reliable food preservation crucial. 

In the case of many Tatars, the mountain soil was poor. The ruggedness of the terrain prevented regular trade, so spices were few. (If the recipes I have studied are any indication, Tatars were lucky to get salt and pepper.) So the sour taste of brining or fermentation would have dominated the cultural palate. 

And when you allow yourself to really let that sourness roll to the back of your tongue, you realize how pleasant it is. A sour taste tightens the mouth and makes you blink. At the same time, when that food is fresh, you do a little happy dance and enjoy it to the hilt.

I think it’s fitting that two peoples whom some western Europeans have labeled "crude" and "boorish" should so fully embrace each other’s food. The next time you whip up a batch of tartar sauce (with crab cakes, perhaps), please give those Tatars and their rugged continental landscape a grateful nod.

(With thanks to Mike Tarr for raising the Tartar issue. And Wikimedia Commons for the photo.)

reference-image, l