Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Food as culture

So I was listening to The Splendid Table on the way home from work tonight (remind me to tell you how much I love my iPod Touch) and during the part of the show that has people call in with questions, there was a woman who was doing what I thought was the most wonderful thing. She was compiling for her sons a book (a la Like Water for Chocolate) that documented their lives through food and recipes.

Now most of you I'm sure don't know this but I am something of a (how you say) culture geek. I grew up in a town with a hodgepodge of cultures (everything from African-American to Filipino to old country Italian) (yes I like parentheses so what!) and grew up appreciating different cultures and, more specifically, different cultures' foods (no big surprise there I'm sure). I really came into my own in college where my school, the UOP School of International Studies, had focused their international studies curricula around culture. All students were required to spend at least one semester overseas, had to take language courses, had to take cultural anthropology, etc. The underlying philosophy of the school was if you can understand different cultures then you can be much more effective as a diplomat, international executive, NGO worker, etc. Not such a novel concept these days but in 1988 (for all you youngsters - the Berlin Wall hadn't even fallen yet) this was indeed novel - most similar programs focused on Cold War politics. All that to say that I furthered my appreciation of the differences between cultures.

So back to my original point. Culture is commonly defined as shared knowledge of cultural history, norms and practices handed down to successive generations (or something like that - my memory isn't was it used to me). But what a great way to not only document your child's life but also all the cultural memory of your family. When I think back to my favorite and most vivid memories growing up there is always food involved - it is not always central but it always there. In fact the food that my sister and I insist upon at every family get together is our family's version of focaccia. We grew up calling it (this is phonetic) fugassa and thinking that our grandparents were just a tad forgetful and really meant focaccia. Come to find out that indeed fugassa (actually spelled correctly) was correct and was the way it was pronounced in Liguria where my family is from. It is a heavenly bread drenched in olive oil and liberally salted. Sounds simple but it is oh so delicious. Seem to have drifted from my original point again -assuming I actually started with one. Oh right - culture and memories through food. Well my point is I think the idea of some sort of book that combines food and memories is a great idea and I can't wait to get that project started. Hope everyone has had and will have a wonderful holiday season.


  1. Zach and I love exploring different foods, and of late (to join the bandwagon) have been adjusting ourselves with glee to recommendations in Michael Pollan's wonderful books. Two years in a row now I've failed to launch my project to photograph our cooking processes and final meals to assemble a recipe book for our families. I think this is the year though (2010, I mean) because we've added a little more "seasonal" eating to our diet, and have been learning to cook and to like things formerly unexplored, like kale, turnips, beets and winter squashes. So, come January, I'll be photographing a couple of meals each month for a 12-month recipe book due out at Christmas time next year!

    Thanks for sharing your own thoughts and inspiring me! Your son or daughter is going to love growing up in your kitchen.

  2. I have wonderful food memories. Like the time when my dad used to take me out to breakfast on Saturday mornings (w/o my mom who got to sleep in). He'd take me to this one particular McDonalds with a "train" inside so we'd always sit there and I'd have pancakes and patty sausage in a foam container. Or how about my memories of me and my grandmother making pot stickers and wontons from scratch? And how after wards I'd have an eating contest with my grandfather to see who could eat the most? I'm happy to report that we have now started new food traditions and I hope that one day M will recall them fondly. Come to think of it, maybe that's why I love to photograph the food at celebrations.