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Moroccan Disneyland

August 6, 2007

Over dinner last night, my friend Mustapha and I had an interesting conversation about going to restaurants serving cuisine from our homelands. I'm always curious to try out British specialty eateries in the Bay Area. Whether it's taking tea at Lovejoy's in Noe Valley or eating bangers n' mash at The Pelican Inn at Muir Beach, I delight in seeing how Americans (and expats) interpret the food culture of another country (or back home.)

Lovejoy's for example, provides more authentic an English a teatime experience than many places in the UK today. The tradition of taking tea in England is largely a thing of the past, but Lovejoy's (which is owned and run by Americans) lovingly preserves the experience of going to a country teahouse for high tea in many ways, from the mismatched porcelain and lace doilies to the clotted cream and delicate cucumber sandwiches. I love going to Lovejoy's because it's such an eccentric place. It's more than a taste of home. It's a taste of the past.

My friend Mustapha, who emigrated to the U.S. from Morocco around ten years ago, takes a different view to eating out at Moroccan restaurants. He rarely frequents them. I asked him why he chooses to stay away from these places. Surely, he'd be curious to taste the Bay Area's idea of Moroccan food? He explained his disinterest in two ways: For one thing, he cooks great Moroccan food at home. For another, he considers Moroccan restaurants in the U.S. to be little more than theme parks. Every time he reads about or walks by a place serving Moroccan food, he is appalled by one thing in particular -- the appearance of belly dancers on the menu. He says he's never seen a belly dancer in a Moroccan restaurant back home. In fact, belly dancing is not a Moroccan tradition. Regardless of the quality of the food, this simple lack of attention to cultural facts is enough to keep Mustapha away from these places.

The lack of cultural authenticity doesn't bother me. I thrive on it, actually. After a particularly eccentric English high tea experience at a tea garden in Los Angeles (where the tea was a self-service buffet and featured many non-standard items such as sweetened mascapone cream) I even thought about doing a book on how Americans interpret an institution like English tea. The idea would be to travel the country tasting teas all over the place and doing a sort of culinary travel guide, the sum of which would be to answer broader questions about the appropriation of cultural traditions and the ways in which different people interpret foreign ideas.

American tearoom owner Bruce Richardson wrote a book quite recently entitled The Great Tearooms of America. This book is a beautiful, colorful guide to some of the best places in the country to take tea. (San Francisco's Samovar Tea Lounge makes an appearance in the book.) But it's not a cultural analysis. Maybe I'll get around to writing this study someday. It'd be a fun project, though probably not very good for the waistline.

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