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Jul 14, 2009 09:05 PM

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

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.


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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.