Sneak Peeks from ATLA Cookbook
As I promised a few weeks ago, here’s a photo dump of some of my favorites from the Avatar the Last Airbender Cookbook. Swipe for all of them!
While we are on the topic of ATLA, I want to talk about the power of fiction. Even though Avatar & other children’s/YA stories like it are set in fictional worlds, starring fictional characters, the treatment of their personalities & plot lines have real-world consequences. As consumers of this media, we learn to normalize, accept, perhaps even replicate, the behavior we read (and watch) from our favorite characters. One example I still recall vividly more than a decade later is from the Harry Potter series, when Ron berates and humiliates Hermione because he’s jealous of her romance with Viktor. What does it mean, then, that they still end up a pair at the story’s end? What does this teach young girls AND young boys?
Similarly, what is the message sent to youth from marginalized identities when fictional reflections of themselves only exist as afterthoughts, caught between stereotype and trope? (I mean…“Cho Chang”?) This is not some relic of the past, either — the hero in the 2018 Maze Runner film, a white boy named Thomas, just so happens to have BLOOD so powerful it cures the disease that is killing humankind. As he saves humanity by simply existing, his non-white sidekicks & his girlfriend die off — this isn’t exactly a subtle message. (Note this little plot twist is only in the film.)
Writing the ATLA cookbook has prompted me to rewatch the series multiple times, and I have appreciated small ways they’ve subverted certain narratives (e.g., Suki rejecting the idea she can’t be a warrior and feminine) while also grappling with its various shortcomings (a major one being its use of almost all white voice actors). In that vein, it’s also pushed me to keep questioning my own ways of research and recipe ideation, especially for those based on cultures I was unfamiliar with, like Inuit & Yupik cuisine.
I spent a lot of time looking up growing zones of ingredients (like hardneck garlic), what flavorings would make sense in a period before globalization (e.g., using variations of salted, fermented, or dehydrated fish), and thinking about how to juggle Nickelodeon’s requests for “accessibility” with what is representative of foods near the Arctic (e.g., if seal fat is a common cooking lubricant but that is difficult to acquire, should I then encourage readers to use lard instead vegetable oil?) knowing there are larger implications than just sea prune soup. What should the narrative be around kale cookies, when it requires ingredients like white flour that has a violent history with Indigenous populations? How should I incorporate flavors (& describe dishes) inspired from Xinjiang in Earth Nation foods (based on China) during this time of government-sponsored terror?
I know I’m not going to get it all right — there are always more perspectives to learn from and ways to be more thoughtful. I know many will see this project is just a cookbook (and one based off a cartoon at that), but I hope in some small ways these recipes will encourage Avatar fans to think more about representation in food, fiction, and beyond — especially on how we can improve it moving forward. If you’re looking for some think pieces to examine ATLA further, here is one about fans diagnosing Azula and one on the portrayal of Zaheed to get you started.