Which Food Culture Are You From?
“Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are”. Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1775-1826; French gastronomy writer)
What are your favourite foods and associated memories? Let’s say you enjoy eating and preparing Italian dishes. This is far different though to thinking and identifying as an Italian. If you are unsure as to the true nature of your food culture, then examine your behaviour when under pressure. Psychologists state that under stress we revert to the familiar. Out may go noble aspirations and in come the takeaways, packet biscuits, or microwaved frozen slab.
Or do you reach for something seemingly basic and history-ratified such as cheese on toast? Appearance may disguise the reality of its hidden laboratory-based heritage. Turn to the small print on the back of the bread label. A handful of once-were-foods will be present in excessively processed forms, along with thoroughly artificial components. All this tells a contrasting story to the large print on the front declaring, “Back to Nature Wholegrain Goodness”. And don’t get me started on the highly manipulated status of modern dairy products (see TIPS for: Modern Milk – No Longer A Natural Food).
Learning from Observation
Hardly one day goes by when I am not reading scientific research. One of the significant developments of the modern age is the focus on rigorously and repeatedly testing hypotheses before they can be claimed as facts. However, some things are obviously of factual benefit long before published research has certified them so. The Mediterranean diet is an example. A recent study has shown that it lowers the likelihood of diabetes by an impressive 83%. Yet the diet’s many merits accrued for centuries before science gave it approval.
Apart from research, one of my other great teachers is the study of history. By looking for repeated patterns we can see what works and what does not, especially for large population groups over time. The groups with the greatest health and longevity are the Japanese and the people of the Mediterranean. On the surface their dishes look and taste very different. If you have eaten these foods before and were presented with a table devoted to the classical dishes of each, you would differentiate between them immediately.
At their core though, these cuisines use a similar range and proportion of foods. It is the seasoning and presentation styles that sharply differ. Their meals are similarly bulked up with frugal legumes, vegetables and grain; with a focus on fish for animal protein; small amounts of meat, eggs, nuts, seeds, dairy or soy, fermented foods, seasonal, dried or pickled fruits. Plus there is the equally prioritised way in which these cultures honour and identify with their cuisines. From two different sides of the world this approach seems a substantiated success.
Diet Fads Come and Go but the Core Values of Culinary Traditions Endure
Fads and their anxious proponents also share qualities. Perhaps as a way of getting attention, validation, and claiming some sharply defined territory, they tend to refer to absolutes such as ‘always do this’ and ‘never do that’. Culinary traditions – and other forms of a balanced life – are more about ‘most often’ and ‘least often’. One mark of a faddist is how they like to show off their labels to others. “Hi, I’m Susie and I only eat broccoli”. Having many such people as clients and students over time I have noted a punitive pattern behind such lifestyle choices that seeks to punish self and/or others. In contrast, when a way of eating is seamlessly and pleasurably a part of your life there is no strong urge to declare this, or to convince people of its superiority. Food choices give evidence of integration, rather than separation.
A representative joke is, “How can you tell when someone is on a special diet? Just wait 5 minutes and they’ll tell you”.
Individual foods and nutritional components exist within the complex matrix of a person’s diet and culture. Some studies, impressed with French health statistics, have isolated one antioxidant in wine – resveratrol – and touted this as the possible reason for their success. Yet, guess what, when this is put in a pill and served as an adjunct to our fast food/highly processed Western diet the results are not the same!
Another telling study asked American women to look at a photo of chocolate cake and describe their reactions in a word. The most common terms were: guilt, indulgence, temptation. However when French women were shown the same photo their consistent response was: celebration.
Instead of just narrowly focussed scientific reductionism, our dietary emphasis should include understanding and respecting governing contexts: culture, community, and the physical environment that generously enables food production. People’s attitudes and sense of identity arise out of these templates, which give the parts meaning and relationship. The demonstrably failed Western diet is the only one borne out of technology, rather than terroir (terr-WHAR): French for soil, both as a physical and metaphorical underpinning.
Geographically, cuisine has been generated by the nature of the land, what it readily yields, its proximity to water, patterns of season and climate, and trade with other nations. This has coloured and created a way of eating that is an interwoven part of a person’s physical and social eco-system. Unsurprisingly, this relational approach to food seems to nourish its advocates biologically, psychologically and socially.
My parents are each from different cultures and this story is the same for both sets of my grandparents. Which one of these traditions should I and my offspring draw upon? There is no one clear path for many of us. But if our forbears dared to move to distant shores then they gifted us with optimism and resourceful adaptability. We can honour this heritage and the scientific spirit of the modern age, by evaluating and experimenting with our choice of foods (see The Shape Diet to determine your metabolic body-type). In the New World nations we must discern and generate our own food awareness and ethos, congruent with our terroir. We can look to many cultural traditions for guidance, but not duplication. And without conscious effort it is easy to lapse into the default, technology-driven approach.
This is the way of eating that dominates in the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand. These countries also share the worst statistics for modern scourges such as cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. We can’t blame genes. People from other cultures who move to these nations and adopt the Western diet, then share the same disease incidence. In contrast, if they immigrate but remain true to their original food traditions, they live far longer and healthier than their high-tech neighbours.
Growers who sell potatoes can only make money according to their crop yield. But manufacturers who can entice us to purchase a pack of frozen, processed and flavoured Tater Tubbies can add a substantial mark-up and develop ever new products. It involves more time, money and uncertainty to grow and sell a whole potato than it does to concoct something out of off-cuts mixed with pre-fab starches, overheated fats, denatured proteins, and industrial additives.
Read every label. Avoid unpronounceable – often biologically averse – ingredients. At first, keep a small shopping companion book with you, The Chemical Maze by Bill Statham (available from book sellers and online). You will soon learn to spot the key gremlins, or make this a detective assignment for accompanying children. Buy whole foods that are as close to their natural state as possible, as local, seasonal and organic as possible. Unlike lab facsimiles, real food that grows in a real environment helps us grow in turn. Plus every time we shop we cast a vote for the kind of world we want to inhabit. Each purchase is intently scrutinised by the food industry keen to discover, and cater to our preferences.
Especially for our children and grandchildren we should invite them – and all others in our circle – into an attractive food culture of many interactive strands. We should be enthusiastically talking about food, meal planning, celebrations, and global politics; while growing food (a few herbs in pots makes an easy start), selectively shopping, adventurously cooking, setting the table attractively, and eating together as an appreciated event. This becomes part of the rich but simple, sustaining mosaic of social, family and philosophical life – not a hurried, begrudged chore viewed, if not accomplished, in isolation.
Parents with small children will need to set an example with little hope of obvious effect for some years! However the imprint of civilised food culture does eventually imbue the young. My mother will confirm that I was once a fussy, vegetable-phobic child, but my parents’ love of cooking compelled me into a passion for its art and science.
Many age-old cultures regard cooking and eating as reverential acts: both spiritual and culinary practices weave together in seamless symbiosis. A meal is viewed as an opportunity to honour and illustrate this union through the coordinated contrasts of hot and cold, crisp and unctuous, sweet and sour, bland and bitter, soothing and stimulating. Could the post-modern world’s superficiality and rootless ennui be connected to a paucity of such ritual observances? Is it suffering from a governing context too narrowly limited to science and materialism? Let’s dine and discuss it.
For more on this subject I highly recommend Michael Pollan’s book: The Omnivore’s Dilemma.