Perspective: The Cultural (and Emotional) Side of Food; or, “if they complain, I’m never cooking for them again.”

Pigs trotters on the left and posole on the right. Two of the foods featured prominently in this post.

Pigs trotters on the left and posole on the right. Two of the foods featured prominently in this post.

Food is often exalted as an important aspect of heritage, of culture, and even emotion. Yet, many times, underlying this exaltation is an assumption that food, and especially taste, is inherently biological, that what I think is good to eat is the same for all people. What taste good to me, what looks good to me, tastes and looks good to everyone else. Since I like chocolate and milk and bacon, all others must. These things taste good to me, so they must taste good to you. As such, we are quick to call attention to those foods that are strange or seem even inedible to us as disgusting or gross, and we never think twice about it. By viewing food and taste as inherently biological, we treat these negative words as facts, and not what they are–judgements.

Even anthropologists, who deftly use words like “cultural relativism” and “ethnocentric” in everyday conversation, are not exempt from making this assumption. I remember about a year ago, standing in the hall of my department, talking to my advisor about eating hominy. His son had just tried it for the first time, and I asked how he liked it. Before he could answer, a fellow anthropology graduate student chimed in, “Hominy’s gross! It’s just gross!” She was adamant, and while she knew better than to criticize how someone may dress, speak, or what religious rituals they practice, here she was, without batting an eye, admonishing a food as gross. She was exhibiting the behavior we as anthropologist strive to not only extinguish from our own lives but from those around us–ethnocentrism, the belief that ones behavior is not subjective but “right” and thus how others should behave, or in this case, what others should eat. She was completely oblivious to how hurtful such a statement could be. As silly as it is, after five years, I have a deep love for all things hominy (case in point: this blog!), and hearing this food, so close to my heart, called gross hurt in a way I didn’t know I could be hurt. In that moment, I understood the dictum my mother had muttered many times throughout my childhood: “if they don’t rave about the food, or worse, if they complain, I’m never cooking for them again.”

I think this this story from episode 5 of Gravy, the podcast of the Southern Foodways Alliance, serves as an even better example of the dual emotions that can be tied up in food. In it, Lou Mayo recounts an emotional food story from his past in which a deeply important and meaningful dish from his childhood, specially prepared by his mother, is viewed as disgusting.

Right out of college, I took a job in a small town, population 10,000. It was a stark difference from the south side of Chicago where I grew up, surrounded by 20 aunts, uncles, and cousins within four blocks. You could imagine the culture shock: everything was quiet! The Walmart, the town bar, and the spaghetti warehouse were the main attractions. My shade of color was available at the paint store, but that’s about it. On a rare occasion, I would have a nice treat from a trip home to see my mom. If i was lucky, that treat would be posole, a spicy soup with hominy and pigs feet in rich broth. An unctuous bowl of satisfaction–it’s a staple of celebration in my family’s home. It marks the start of the winter season, and makes its return on birthdays and first communions. It’s a special bond between me and my mom. I’d always ask how it was made and stand by her side while she prepared it. I’ve learned and forgotten the recipe so many times just to be close to her. You could imagine how it played out when I brought those leftover back to small town USA. The looks of terror as co-workers saw pig trotter dripping red silky broth. The questions at first seemed innocent and inquisitive–“what is hominy? So it’s like corn?” But then, “why do you guys put chile in everything? Why does it look so weird?” And finally, “that smells bad! How can you eat that?” Suddenly, it didn’t sound like an attack on the dish–it felt like an attack on me. You eat differently when people watch you, but more quietly with your face closer to the bowl. More quietly. I never tested the bounds of lunch there again. I stuck to bologna sandwiches after that.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “but I can’t help it–some foods are disgusting,” by which you may mean you have a physical reaction to them, such as your stomach begins to churn and you get a wave of nausea. I don’t doubt it, but that reaction is still culturally engrained, still a deeply emotional reaction that stems from the experiences you’ve had in life. Likely, you’ve had such intense, physical emotional reactions in other aspects of your life–a terrible breakup, a devastating loss in your life, or if you’re lucky, from laughing so hard (oh, 30 Rock!).

Does this mean you’re bad person if you don’t like pigs trotters, lutefisk, or stinky tofu? No. At least, I don’t believe so. Instead, I believe what this situation calls for is sensitivity–that intensely adverse reaction you may have to a food is usually countered by an intensely loving reaction had by someone else. Lou Mayo’s story is a clear example of that. It means respecting that food preference is not biological but cultural and as such, should be considered the same as different ways of dressing, of speaking, of carrying oneself. And it means respecting the emotion infested in food as well–just as you’d be careful not to insult a five-year old’s artwork in front of her proud and doting parents, you should try to exercise equal sensitivity when it comes to food.

All in all, you don’t have to like it, but you do have to respect it.

One thought on “Perspective: The Cultural (and Emotional) Side of Food; or, “if they complain, I’m never cooking for them again.”

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