Feta and the Fatwa

July 19, 2022

How far should we go to ensure that food is "authentic"?

How important are feta cheese exports to Denmark?

This important: They made Denmark hesitate to allow Salman Rushdie into the country during Iran’s fatwa against him, for fear it would disrupt Denmark’s sales of feta to Iran. As Rushdie puts it in “Joseph Anton,” his memoir of the fatwa: “The Danish government was obliged to choose between cheese and human rights, and at first it chose cheese.” (Rushdie eventually was allowed in.)

If Denmark was ready to bar a distinguished author over feta cheese, what chance does the European Union think it will have?

The EU ruled July 14 that Denmark has been violating its rules for location-specific names for food. Feta is, of course, of Greek origin, and the EU holds that calling cheese made outside of Greece “feta” goes against its regulations for protected designation of origin.

Lotsa luck, EU. Danish cheesemakers have been calling their briny sheep’s- or goat’s-milk cheese “feta” for more than half a century, and I predict that the EU’s ruling will not make them change.

This is, of course, part of the larger problem the EU faces when it comes to the concept of protected designation of origin: Too many people, and countries, don’t respect it, starting with the United States. That’s why we have things like Parmesan cheese made in Wisconsin and chianti bottled in California.

Well, this may be chauvinistic Americanism, but I think the U.S. and others are right not to let the EU have its way here.

You can argue that it’s the soil, the climate, etc., of a given region that give certain foods their unique taste, and in a subtle way you might be right. But let’s be real: What we’re talking about is recipes, which can be followed anywhere the raw materials exist. So why shouldn’t they be followed elsewhere? It’s doubtful at best that Greece could, by itself, satisfy global demand for feta, or that France’s Champagne region could supply all the sparkling wine in the world. Confining those products to the regions of the world where they originated just makes it harder for the rest of the world to enjoy them.

This especially resonates with me as an American. Through much of its history, this country has had a proud tradition of welcoming immigrants from every part of the world. With that came their cultures, their languages and, yes, their foods. As cheesemakers, winemakers, etc., came to America, they brought their recipes and methods with them, finding new possibilities in the fertile soils and rich materials of their new country.

A country that lets in lots of immigrants has to have some way of absorbing them. America settled naturally into a sort of comfortable co-optation in which immigrant lifestyles, including food, get gradually tweaked through the generations into versions that work for us all. We were lucky that way.

If we’re really lucky, someday we’ll get back to that again.

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