Food and Identity: The Stories Behind the Foods We Crave
16 Oct, 2009 - Rebecca Horton
Ever heard the phrase “you are what you eat”?
Believe it or not, the food that we eat provides a significant impression of who we are – as products of our families, communities, and heritages. Take, for example, the increasingly popularFood Network, which broadcasts chefs from around the country who spotlight their “unique perspectives on food” or regional dining preferences. These chefs express their lifestyles and backgrounds through the foods that they prepare. Whether Mediterranean, Southern, Latino-Fusion, or ancient Japanese, the kinds of foods we choose to cook, eat, and share with our friends present a picture of our cultural being.
Give me some grilled seafood, a salad with fresh greens and unconvential twists, and a hint of bacon here and there, and I am a happy camper. What do these things say about who I am? Surprisingly, a lot. Here’s a snapshot.
Seafood: I spent much of my childhood vacation time on the coast of North Carolina, eating home-cooked or locally prepared shrimp, crab, and shellfish. Of course, corn on the cob, baked potatoes, and hush puppies were always welcome additions.
The Salad: I love fresh, local ingredients that have a nice, crisp bite and leave me feeling healthy and refreshed. Fresh salads are a reflection of my desire to remain rooted in the land and find unique, quality ingredients at my neighborhood farmer’s market rather than the local superstore.
Bacon: I grew up in the South, where everything from fried eggs to green beans is flavored with the stuff. This appreciation for bacon showcases my penchant for both southern cuisine and southern culture, where life is a bit slower and conversation more casual.
What does the food that you eat say about you?
What we eat evokes memories of things that shape us: roasted ham and the family dinner on Christmas Day, tart lemonade and afternoons trying to make a few dollars at the end of the block, hot cheese-oozing pizza and long-lost evenings with the babysitter. Whatever the flavors may be, our impressions and perceptions of our circumstances can take root in certain foods, flavors, and cooking styles. We associate foods with particular places and experiences,and sometimes a bad experience can leave a bad taste in our mouth for a food we might otherwise have loved. Seafood may remind us of trips to the beach; watermelon, the Fourth of July; or pancakes, lazy Saturday mornings.
By participating in a meal, we participate in a moment, an experience, a sliver of life. The meals we make and consume serve as markers for the relationships and memories built around those meals.
It should come as no surprise, then, that one of the particular ways we remember various cultures is through their foods: Mexico’s spicy sauces and tacos, Italy’s cheesy meat and tomato creations, France’s crepes and croissants. A few years ago I studied in China for six weeks. Looking back, much of what I remember is based around the food: hot and spicy noodle bowls, steamed pork dumplings,tie ban niu rou (a hot skillet with sizzling beef and vegetables). Spending time with Chinese friends from my university almost invariably involved going out for food, and was almost always an adventure, as my palate sampled new flavors and textures. These flavors and textures become a part of the storybook written into my mind’s eye about the people I met, places I experienced, and new adventures I embarked upon.
Share a home-cooked meal with a friend, and in the process you may learn a thing or two about who they are and what makes them tick – something that words alone might never articulate.The meals we eat, where we eat them, and with whom we share them tell a story – one that becomes an integral part of the much bigger story of our lives. Some chapters are filled with bold flavors, or intriguing spices, and others carry more subtle aromas and tastes. What does your food say about you?