Tuesday, September 13, 2011

On Food and Culture

I developed a passion for food and cooking at a young age when I realized that food is the center of life.  Food is everything.   Food can induce any emotion, bring people together or divide them apart.  There’s food in your yard, the gas you put in your tank is ancient, geologically fermented food, not to mention we are all participating in one grand food chain that binds us all together under one universal consciousness, or something.  That was my teenage idealism, which I still believe in, but it’s developed with age.   This food passion is what drove me to become a Biology major and I have a sort of constant meditation churning away inside my brain contemplating all things food.  I had an experience earlier this year that shook my beliefs on food and I realized on my bike-ride to work today that I need to address this, so here it is.

I generally pride myself in being simultaneously conscious of the things I eat, while respecting and partaking in the food of others.  “You are what you eat” is a common saying that I take seriously, in two ways. First, the molecules that make up what you consume will be used to create and re-build your own flesh.  Secondly, we all have an emotional relationship with our food and I believe that we all take pride in or at least enjoy food to some extent.  Therefore, what we eat is also an outward expression of who we are and by sharing food, we are sharing ourselves.  This is why I don’t push my own food beliefs on other people.

Whenever I hear someone reject food that is offered to them, I am instinctively offended.  I feel like the person rejecting is somehow culturally disrespecting the person who is offering food, even if that’s not the intension.  I’m generally talking about vegetarians, vegans, raw-foodists, etc. - people who have chosen a diet for reasons other than an allergy or diagnosed medical condition.  However, this raises the question of what is the difference between food and medicine, and then how do we culturally deal with the difference, if there is a difference?  I eat the way that I do because it makes me feel good and healthy.  When I went to visit family earlier this year I spent the week generally eating the way that they eat and I ended up getting incredibly sick.   Asian cultures (Chinese, Indian, Japanese…) tend to blur the lines much more between food and medicine than we do here in the US.  National Geographic recently reported on a new archeological find from some ancient European civilization (Rome?): medicinal pills made out of onions, celery, and other common vegetables that we would probably consider as food and not medicine now.

So how do we develop and share a vibrant culture of food, if everyone has their own individual eating habits?  I think what I’m beginning to realize is that it is about communication.  Communicating with yourself to gain an intimate understanding of your body’s needs so that you can communicate with others to let them know what you do or do not need.  I think the key is going about it respectfully, though, and discussing any foody disagreements with the understanding that everyone’s body chemistry and culture is fairly different, and that’s okay.