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"To understand a culture, you must accept their food"

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Andrew Zimmern said that on one of his shows the other day (there's a chance I misremembered and the quote is actually a loose paraphrase, but I digress ...).

Do you agree with that notion?

Can a person understand a particular culture without coming to grips with that culture's food?

For example, could a person truly grasp what "Americana" is all about without accepting the burger, hot dog, the backyard bbq, oversized portions, Coca-Cola, french fries, etc.?

It would be difficult, if not impossible, in my opinion.

Maybe there are certain cultures that are easier to understand without first accepting their cuisine, but to totally disregard the food makes it impossible to fully understand a particular culture.

Thoughts?

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  1. I don't think we have to "accept" to "understand" , but I agree that cuisine is the best and quickest metric of a culture.

    1. I can see where it helps to reveal cultural identity but I don't think it's mandatory. Was he saying you have to ACCEPT their food? What's that even mean? That I can't fully appreciate nor understand "Americana" if I don't eat meat? Zimmerman also makes his living by having you believe that food reveals more about a culture than anything else. Well, who decides what to reveal and who is slapping on the labels? If I lived in Kansas I might say Americana is revealed in your bbq example. If I live in CA I could say fast food because it speaks to our highways and how we love to drive. If I lived in New York though I might say it's all about pizza and bagels and the global bounty of food on offer.

      What if your palate doesn't prefer certain foods and textures but you're boned up on other aspects of a particular culture. Couldn't you detest Indian food but still pick up the culture through study of history, travel, art appreciation, yoga practice and secret fetish for Bollywood films?

      1. sorry to hit it again...for me it really makes a difference who the people are, how important food is to that culture (beyond the whole "everyone eats" thing), and how and whom is defining said culture. You can't say Americana and have that mean burgers and fries. Americana could mean something totally different to someone from Maine and someone from Oklahoma. You could use food though to reveal the Low Country or the Texas/ Mexico border.

        1. I think you would be doing a disservice to the culture if you did not try to embrace, if not sample their food. To go to an area and not eat their local food might mean you stay at tourist spots, eat at McDonald's or the like. How could you join in a party, dinner in someone's home or get off the trodden path if you didn't at least sample and find in their food something to like? So often people's lifestyles and how they interact and communicate is intertwined with food and the dining experience. This post has reminded me of some fantastic interactions I've had with Spanish, Italian and Greek people, like when we went to a small tavern in central Spain. It was so festive, with everyone in the place interacting and they would not leave us out of it! Then there were the Chinese-Americans in Seattle, who insisted that we all sit together and they wanted to share their food. We all shared everything we had as we spinned it around the table. It was an instant Chowhound experience with strangers!

          The road trip Passadumkeg and I did encompassed 17 US states and numerous distinct food styles. There were various styles of Mexican food, BBQ, raw and cooked seafood, vegetables and widely ranging breakfasts. We didn't "supersize" anything. I think you might want to try a hot dog or burger, but it doesn't mean, for me, that I have to accept it or learn to like it.
          In S. Korea, unlike Mark (aka Passadumkeg), I might not eat too much raw octopus, for example. I know I like other Korean food I've had in the US so I'd be willing to try anything.

          1. It is a bit of an odd statement. What he means buy "Accept" seems somewhat vague. Does accept mean love/enjoy/embrace or does it simply mean understand what it is and how it got there.

            It's certainly a very self serving statement. After all, he is a food celebrity.

            My personal feeling is to understand a culture you have to understand it. Food is a big part of culture but so is art, literature, history, et al. To simply say you can understand a culture buy understanding one aspect of it is fool hearty. And to get to understand it, you have to embrace it. Go there. Eat where they eat. Go where they go. Watch what they watch. Well, you get the idea.

            DT

            1. How can anyone really disagree with the statement (although I won't be using Zimmern as a guru anytime soon)?

              I think I've learned a lot about a lot of different peoples around the planet sitting and eating together, learning how to cook their foods in their kitchens, and shopping togehter in local markets. That doesn't mean that all cuisines are equal: there are cultures where cooking and eating reigns supreme and there are cultures for which cooking and eating are almost boring.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                You are so right (reigning supreme vs boring/tasteless); I forgot that aspect of it!

              2. mmmmmmmmmm…. I think the premise is a bit (a lot?) overstated. I’d be more comfortable with “understand” their food as opposed to “accept” their food. Maybe I’m splitting hairs, but to me “accept” means you have to eat it and like it. “Understand” means you can put someone’s or an entire culture’s diet into a frame work that helps with understanding the overall person or culture.

                For example, the Inuit, and other “Far Northern” cultures of North America once (and may still) considered whale blubber with maggots growing in it a great delicacy, and their sole eating utensil was a very sharp knife shaped similar to what we would call a “mezzaluna”. Even small children used the knife to cut away the part of their food they couldn’t get into their mouths in a single bite. Now, I can understand how, in a hostile climate such as the far northern climes of North America, the nutritional value of both the whale blubber (the fat content works for people similar to the way antifreeze works for your car; it helps you keep from freezing) and the increased protein value of the maggots would be a valuable dietary scheme. And I can understand how, with the passage of time and cultural isolation, such a people might convince themselves that this is a great delicacy. Do I have to accept it (eat) to understand it? Not on your life, Bubby! ‘-)

                But for a more contemporary take on the question, and a real life personal example, about a week or so ago, I fixed hot dogs for lunch. My housekeeper is from Chile, and she was delighted! Once the dogs were boiled (her preference), we both “dressed” our own hot dogs. I put a little sauerkraut on mine, she put some on hers. I put a little mustard on mine and headed for the patio table. She was still dressing hers… When she finally came out, her “dog” and bit of kraut were buried under chopped tomatoes, a whole mashed avocado, and (I kid you not!) about a half cup of mayonnaise on top of the avocado! I thought she was nuts! Then I watched Anthony Bourdain’s program on Chile the other night, and found out the whole nation is nuts! It’s the ONLY time I’ve seen Bourdain not finish something. Which is not to say he finishes everything on camera, but he made a point to show he wasn’t having a full go at that dog! So how does this fit in with the culture of Chile? Well, my take on it is that Chile has recently come out of a really dire political situation, not entirely dissimilar to what Germany went through under the Third Reich, and has finally emerged into political and cultural sunlight. To say the Chilean hot do is a bit over-the-top in the live-for-today-and-the-hell-with-tomorrow side of life is probably worthy of consideration.

                In anthropology, studying kitchen middens to help understand the diet of a culture is an SOP. We know, for example that the ancient Egyptians had a brewing and distribution system for beer that rivals what we have today when it comes to making that beverage widely available to all. It also helps us understand that safe drinking water was probably not all that available, with only one river as the sole source of water and zilch for annual rainfall.

                How much can we tell about one person, or indeed one family, in today’s world? Depends entirely on where they are from, whether they still live there, and what their discretionary income is. I have a friend from Nigeria, who is hooked on pho. Does that make her Asian? Not a chance! I have another friend who doesn’t like dessert. Does that indicate a culture where sweets are uncommon? Nope, She is diabetic. On the other hand, I have a friend who is openly diabetic with whom I now refuse to eat out with. We used to enjoy dining out together, when he would religiously and with great polished halo order a vegetarian burger with a side salad he dressed with lemon. Then, when the server asked if we’d care for dessert, he would order a triple brownie on ice cream with hot fudge and caramel sauce on the side. I refuse to aid and abet such behavior! But his diet, as well as my Nigerian friend’s proclivity to pho, DOES help me understand them. And, depending on the individual, also to accept or reject them.

                Once again, Ipsedixit, for me it all boils down to, “It depends….” ‘-)

                4 Replies
                1. re: Caroline1

                  Dogs and burgers are hugely glop laden throughout mosty of Latin America.

                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                    Interesting. Which poses the question: How much glop can you put on a dog or a burger and still taste the meat? Or is hiding it the objective? But we do it here too! And then there is Japanese pizza, with squid ink, Tater Tots, and mayonnaise...! '-)

                    1. re: Caroline1

                      When I am eating a hot dog, I admit that I do not so much want to taste the meat.

                    2. re: Sam Fujisaka

                      Yes. Somewhere I have a picture of me biting into a "completo" (the Chilean hot dog meal described above) when we were in Santiago, Chile, about a dozen years ago. It was breakfast, I didn't have as much on it as Tony and it was damn fine. Along with a cup of INSTANT coffee. Not so fine.

                  2. Understanding the cuisine can provide insights into agriculture (the types of ingredients that go into their foods) and trade (the origins of the ingredients if they were not originally grown there).

                    1. In this case, I think the word "accept" means that you simply have to think outside your culinary parameters; if your initial reaction to a food is "HOW can they EAT that??" there is obviously something about their lifestyle/culture/environment that you are not understanding. I don't think Zimmerman would say you have to LIKE everything (after all, he's certainly spit out a food or two on-air) but that you have to understand how someone else might.

                      1. Giving Zimmerman the benefit of the doubt, I think he is referring to passing value judgement on other people's foods. In anthropology, the term is called ethnocentrism. It means making value judgements of other cultures based upon your own value system. It was a common flaw of early reports of contact with native people by Europeans e.g. "godless savages" "barbaric practices" etc. Soooo, instead of outright rejecting food, Americans would consider unfit for human consumption, Zimmerman samples it and tries to understand the cultural context in which a particular dish or food was developed. For example, in cultures where protein is scare, people have had to turn to bugs, insects and larve for nutrition. Not because they want to but in the past, it was a matter of life or death. Within that context, Zimmerman "accepts" the fact that people eat bugs, etc and does not past value judgement about it other than it may taste like rotten meat.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: bgazindad

                          Thats how I read it, too. After all, even in America there is a wide variety of regional/cultural foodstuffs that might seem strange to us if we are not from that area/background. My best friend loves gefilte fish. I don't like the taste. I can, however, understand that she grew up with it and that it is a part of her palate. I think that kind of acceptance is what Zimmerman is getting at.

                          A long winded way of saying that I agree with you!

                        2. "America" is not a culture - it's much too big and diverse. America a conglomerate, a mishmash, a stewpot, a lump of 'huddled masses yearning to be free'; but it's not a single culture. Neither is France, or Germany, or Switzerland, or Great Britian, although they come closer.

                          The Marshallese; now there's a culture. Tuareg. Basque. Chamorrow. Jamaican. Mayam. Those are cultures. And you, IMHO to understand those and other cultures, you need to "accept" or "appreciate" or "come to terms with" the things they eat and the way they eat them.

                          1. FYI, on the Taiwan episode, I am pretty sure he said "to experience a culture, you must try the food." This was right before he tried 2 week old fermented raw pork which he said scared him.

                            1. I've always felt that the food and music are the best parts of any culture.

                              1. Don't you think a Chowhound (AND Zimmern) has a hugely different take on a "culture" than a non-CH? I have friends and neighbors who travel and never mention the food when I ask them about their trip. They've gone to museums, churches, cultural and sporting events, etc. And I think they really do understand the culture. Then I know other people who go on cruises. They get to a port, shop for trinkets, maybe take a bus tour, never talk to any locals AND go back to the ship EVERY DAY for lunch. They could never understand the "culture." So I don't think there's one answer for everyone. But I do believe that there's only one answer for someone who loves food like we do :)

                                1. I think it's important to experience and be aware of food of a culture but as a long-time (though not life-long) vegan I don't think it's necessary to taste any animal products to understand a culture. I'm also gluten-free. I lived in Paraguay for a year and traveled to Brazil before going vegan and gluten-free. I travelled to Mexico after becoming a vegan and GF and my husband and I have spent time in Vancouver, Toronto, Budapest, Vienna, and London as vegans.

                                  My husband translated a polenta pizza recipe from a Hungarian veg cookbook today before heading to the store. My husband lived in the Bahamas (not in the tourist areas), has been to Israel, Germany, Netherlands, England, Scotland, and Australia as a vegan. We always try to learn at least a few phrases in the local language.

                                  1. We can't discuss culture via food on this not about food board. It's "tangential"! Everyone knows that a person's culture or the understanding of it have nothing to do with the food they eat. I'm being totally sarcastic, of course. I just put up a post asking for insight into the food culture here in my working class Southern town (USA) and my post was quickly deleted. Yay for censorship... especially for me, a younger person who is desperately searching for some answers or explanation of why things are the way they are - why the culture here supports what it does. The food culture says a lot. I think the statement would be better said, "To know a culture, you must know their food." I can't see accepting the food here in my town, but I do want to understand it and the underlying culture - hard to do around these discussion boards though. :(.

                                    The food culture of this town is fast food, chain family style restaurants, homecooking from convenience and homecooking from scratch (very very rare).

                                    The prevalence of the first three comment for me the acceptance of convenience and size over quality, the lack of interpersonal interaction (drive through windows), the marketability of ANYTHING (poor quality) (you could sell dehydrated water here, LOL), cultural isolation (dumbing down of ethnic dishes even though the economic resources exist here to do an amazing job with them), a love for salty, sweet and sour (which culturally comments a less cultivated interest for food, since many people believe that the taste for bitter foods is learned culturally and not innate)...

                                    1. I would be wary of people who naively thought that they actually DID understand an entire foreign culture based on understanding its respective cuisine. A culture's cuisine is accessible to foreigners in a much simpler way than a cultural world view, for example. By the way:

                                      "Americana" is all about without accepting the burger, hot dog, the backyard bbq, oversized portions, Coca-Cola, french fries, etc.?

                                      At least burgers, hot dogs, Coke, Pepsi, fries, Basikin Robbins, and a lot of other American foods are highly available and well liked across the world. You can get all of these items in Saudia Arabia and Pakistan, for example. Does that mean that the Saudis "understand" the Americans? Or is it just that Chili's and KFC are popular food chains there because of the global dominance of American pop culture and commercial culture including fast food and franchise chains has made these foods available and the cultural onus of trend setting and is Western so people around the world are open to these foods?

                                      1. As much as I'd like to think that's true, and have said it myself, in truth I'm not too sure you'll really know a culture very well simply from its cuisine. Now how they go about producing/acquiring their basic raw foods, that might actually get you closer. How do they treat their animals? How do organize themselves to gather and grow things? How do foods get from farm to table--what kind of market system do they use? I suspect answers to those sorts of questions will get you closer to a cultural understanding.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: johnb

                                          Some old African American con in the Oregon State Penitentiary once said to me,"An thro POL ogy! An thro POL ogy! The Study of MAN! You can learn a lot from An thro POL ogy!"

                                        2. Having lived abroad long enough to (I think) at least begin to understand another culture, I'd have to say this is pretty much bullshit. You can learn about (and accept) the food of a country without ever setting foot in the place. But to truly understand a culture you must live there, and for long enough to get a feel for the daily rhythms of the place and the ways of thinking that underlie their worldview. Food is a part of that, certainly, but no more important or central than dress, shopping habits, modes of transport, standards of hospitality, and a thousand other quotidian aspects of life.

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: BobB

                                            I totally agree with you BobB: to truly understand you do have to live there and not for 2 weeks on a vacation.

                                            We had family in Italy and visited frequently, We stayed for 2-3 weeks at a time. Of course, we cooked and ate the food of the family members we were visiting while there.

                                            But I really did not understand Italy or Italians until we went to live there and even then it took a year to really get it...and even then I understood the food and people of the Abruzzo and Apullia and maybe a little Sicily, only...certainly NOT Tuscany or Emilia Romagna etc.

                                            Food is just one path to understanding but it is VITAL to getting the whole picture of Italians. And you have to immerse yourself in it...(the culture, that is, not the food LOL)

                                            As a Canadian, I am not nearly as sure that we are well explained by our cuisine (such as it is...)