Saturday, January 28, 2012

My Food History

I usually don’t write long pieces in my blog but I recently wrote an account of my personal food history for a class and thought I’d share it with you all. Don’t worry, I put in a picture to keep your attention.

I have always dreamed of having a sweet and warm Italian grandmother who cooks dish after delicious dish and teaches me to cook all of her recipes as we look out into the sprawling Tuscan landscape. Unfortunately, the closest my family will ever come to being Italian is where we live, the Venice Canals…in California. My family’s cultural roots are not something that is evident in either our food or our everyday life. Only recently has my mom begun to piece together where exactly we are from. We have never had our “signature” dishes, grandma’s famous meatballs or really any cultural family traditions. As I grew older and went over to friends’ houses, I would notice how their cultural backgrounds affected the food they ate. I began to wonder what type of culturally rich food I had been missing out on. This led me, for most of my eating life, to explore how food and family history seem to be so tightly interwoven. This resulted in my being a “culinary tourist” of sorts, attempting to find my own culture in the food that I ate.

I have always been an adventurous eater. Whether it was trying snails in France when I was 8 or eating “uni” or sea urchin straight out of the ocean in Hawaii when I was 10, I never feared the unknown when it came to food. Funny enough, I have anxiety about most things in life but when it comes to food, my fearless side prevails. Growing up I visited many countries, Thailand, Japan, Italy, France, England, Mexico and Guatemala to name a few. Although young when visiting some of these countries, my most salient memories are of the food I ate. My parents raised me to always try foods, and for the most part, I enjoyed the food I ate. Unfortunately, I never had family or cultural reasons for visiting these countries; it was always for vacation or business. I’m not complaining and feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel, I just felt like I was missing out not being able to trace my cultural food roots. I think what’s so amazing about cooking and food history is that although individual products have an expiration date, recipes never die. I could still eat the same food my great, great, great grandma ate…if only I knew. There is something about that idea that feels really special. Food is a direct connection to one’s history. Although saddened at the idea that I don’t have a family food history, I feel determined to find other ways in which my family could build our own food culture.  

A photo of Uni in the shell

            In the article “Food and Eating” by Mintz, he discusses the conundrum that although food is a key need for survival it is often thought of as “prosaic” and “everyday”. This rang true in the sense that as many times as I exclaim, “I’m starving” I truly don’t know the meaning of a dire need for food. Although eating to survive is important, there is another reason to eat. Author Léon Abric once said, “We eat to live? Yes, surely. But why then did the immortal gods also come to the table, and twice a day?” Food isn’t just about nourishment; it’s about the social aspects as well. There is something about coming around a table to enjoy food that is so important. Although my family doesn’t cook food from a family recipe book, we do come around a table every night to eat. Adam Gopnik wrote a book specifically dedicated to this idea titled “The Table Comes First”. In the book he discusses our relationship to the food we eat and how it is usually more meaningful then we might think. The many situations and scenarios that happen while eating food, whether it’s a date, a holiday with family, a gathering of friends, they all happen around a table. Knowing the importance of the act of sitting at a table I began to wonder if it was the food or the act of eating that was most important to building my family food culture.

            Over time I have grown to be more comfortable with the idea that I don’t have a strong family food history. In the article “Culinary Tourism” by Lucy Long she discusses this idea of eating the “other” and that when you are a culinary tourist all food that isn’t “your own” is ethnic. For me, being a culinary tourist has given me culture. Maybe my family food tradition is going out and being adventurous eaters. I have found happiness and fulfillment through sitting around the table and eating good food, whether it’s from Thailand, Italy or Japan. It is the experience of sharing stories, food and happiness that really makes up my food culture, and who knows, maybe when I am older I can share recipes with my grandkids while looking out at the Venice Canals.