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Ignorance of Food and Other Peoples Cultures

When I was an undergraduate at Stony Brook University in Long Island, NY, I recall a very funny story that happened to my friend. She was President of Hillel, a Jewish organization on campus. She was eating in the general student cafeteria when someone asked her "Why aren't you eating in the Kosher cafeteria? Aren't you Jewish?" The student meant absolutely no disrespect; he honestly thought that all Jews are Kosher. (If you go by myself, that's definitely not true- I'm Jewish and love shrimp!)
In most cases, I believe in being culturally relativistic in the vein of Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern; to try and learn at least a little about other people's culture & beliefs when it comes to what they eat and why before you judge them. However, some people, whether through disinterest or simply ignorance just don't take the time to do this. Have you had instances of ignorance when it comes to a culture/religion's beliefs concerning food?

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  1. I think if you've traveled the world at all and haven't had these experiences I would be surprised.

    the one that comes to mind was when I was traveling through China. It was subtle but surprising. I was in Shanghai and Hong Kong (this was years ago). In one city it was "awkward" for the host if you did finish a dish since it implied they didn't make enough. In the other it was "awkward" if you did not finish a dish because it meant you didn't like it.

    Ah the shackles of social obligations.

    I wonder if in your example the person may have been confused by Hillel and Halal. If it isn't your religion and you only hear those words in casual conversation they are easy to juxtapose. (not that I'm saying Halal and Kosher are the same thing either. . . . . but just saying we should cut each other more slack when it comes to these types of things)

    6 Replies
    1. re: thimes

      You're absolutely right about traveling. When I wrote "ignorance" I didn't mean to imply that it's always a bad thing. Often it takes ignorance to become enlightened and learn something new:}
      But for the incident at Stony Brook, my friend was sitting right outside of the Kosher cafeteria, so I highly doubt the person in question meant to say "Halal". This reminds me of another incident, also at college...
      My roommate was a very religious 7th Day Adventist. She had just gotten back from the Olive Garden with her family, celebrating Easter Sunday. That year, it just so happened that the end of Passover also was that Sunday... and I had also been at the Olive Garden (this is college folks- the Olive Garden was a 5 star restaurant for us back then!) celebrating the fact that my friends and I could eat bread and pasta again. When she found out we had been to the OG (keep in mind she knew that we're all Jewish here), she exclaimed excitedly "You believe in the Lord Jesus too!" I recall my mouth hanging open, not knowing what to say to that:}

      1. re: NicoleFriedman

        I think with the first Stony Brook story, the student is to be commended for asking about the kosher cafeteria. This would be an example of trying to learn something new and understand something that is confusing to him. A more narrow minded approach would have been for him not to have asked and decide that she was a hypocrite for eating in the regular cafeteria. The second story is just bizarre. I can't imagine assuming that everyone eating out on Easter Sunday is Christian.
        I do think when someone is traveling to another country (or visiting someone with another cultural background), it is wise to learn something about the customs first. The social part of eating can be complex: eating vs not eating with hands, views on taking seconds, finishing vs. not finishing the dish, etc.

        1. re: mountaincachers

          I agree! I think that when the first incident happened my friend and I were just so surprised that we didn't consider how confusing it may have been for this student. I will openly admit to a very strong bias of mine. I don't think that it's realistic for everyone to learn everything there is to know about every major religion and culture in the world. However, I do believe that we should all strive to at least know the basics, if only to better understand each other. That being said, I can see how the idea of kosher law can be befuddling, especially when so many Jews interpret them so differently.

          1. re: NicoleFriedman

            It's the individual interpretations, IMO, that make kosher law so confusing.

            By now, I've got it down to where I don't even pretend to be perfect, but I'm now comfortable that our friends will not leave our house hungry or thirsty...but if I have any doubts at all, I just ask. They're tickled pink that I care enough to ask, and then I don't make a mistake by assuming that something is kosher when it isn't.

            We have a few Muslim friends, too -- and the food rules of Islam are open to personal interpretation, too...so again -- I just ask, and everybody's happy.

            (not that I've never made or will never make a mistake...but it helps cut the probability!)

      2. re: thimes

        Your first line reminds me of a quote by Mark Twain:

        “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

        Back in his day, travel could be a very taxing and daunting endeavor, so for him to get beyond that and actually intellectualize the process of transformation was truly amazing to me.

        1. re: bulavinaka

          What a great quote. I am happy to say that I share an ancestor or two with Samuel Clemens - looks like he got a lot more wisdom and humor than I did our of the ol' family tree! He's a good one to try to learn something from, for sure.

      3. My FIL is pretty...uh...indelicate, I guess...or you could say he's just plain clueless. He's a very smart man, but lacks common sense. So one day I had worked long and hard to put a multi-course Chinese meal on the table, and as we sat down to eat, he looked at the chopsticks and wondered out loud, "You know, as technologically advanced as the Chinese are, they still don't use forks and knives like the rest of the civilized world...."

        I nearly threw him out of the house.

        10 Replies
        1. re: ricepad

          LOL. My FIL equivalent once saw *Hunan Scallops* on a menu and said, "Human Scallops??? Oh my..." And then immediately went on to order his Egg Foo Yung like he hadn't just learned that the restaurant serves human scallops, whatever he might have thought those to be. :)

          1. re: inaplasticcup

            Oh my G-d! If I actually thought there was a chance in hell that a restaurant was serving "human scallops" I'd run out so fast my tush would burn! LOL

            1. re: inaplasticcup

              This reminds me of my first experience with Chinese food. I grew up in CT, but in the more rural northeast corner, and back in the 70s/80s Chinese food was pretty scare and something you'd be more likely to see in a City. The town where I grew up didn't get their first Chinese take out joint until 1990.

              Anyway, when I was in high school (mid 80s) we were on a school trip down to NYC for a weekend and had been tramping around the theater district for hours and had worked up a ravenous appetite and someone said "OMG Chinese food place, there!" and there it was, dimly lit at the end of a long, dark alley, a pale sign flicking in the gloom that said "Human Eaters." *cue blood-curdling scream*

              Not really. In my hunger-fueled dazed, I misread Hunan Eaters, but still. lol

              As it turned out, that was about the best Chinese food I've ever had. The Subgum fried rice and "Peking raviolis" were awesome.

            2. re: ricepad

              as offensive as this is...are you also Chinese/of Chinese descent?

              1. re: fara

                Yes, partly. Mom was born in China, and came to the US as a child.

                1. re: EWSflash

                  My FIL went through the first 70 years of his life with blinders on. Here's another example. MIL has a dear, dear friend (DDF) who lives out of state. DDF comes to town to visit her son, who is going to college not far from MIL&FIL, so DDF invites MIL&FIL to join DDF and her son for dinner. She also extends the invitation to Mrs. ricepad and me, since we live nearby and DDF hadn't seen Mrs. ricepad in ages and had never met me. DDF selects the restaurant (really nice Chinese place) AND selects the menu (really REALLY nice menu - DDF is Chinese, and knows her stuff!). As it happens, MIL gets hung up at work and can't join us, but insists that everybody else go, and she'll try to meet us for dessert. The rest of us go, and I am flabbergasted at the meal....she ordered stuff that wasn't on the menu...stuff that you'd get at a very fancy banquet for a, say, diamond wedding anniversary or 80th birthday celebration (sans the long life noodles, that is). Since it was 30 years ago, I don't remember what we had, but I knew that DDF had pulled out all the stops to treat her friends to some really good food.

                  Mrs. ricepad and I were in heaven. We were absolutely stuffed. The company was great (DDF's son was like a long-lost cousin to Mrs ricepad, so they had a lot of catching-up to do), and the meal was top notch. Our only regret was that we couldn't eat any more.

                  After we'd said our farewells, however, FIL couldn't wait to get home. We later found out that he desparately needed to have something to eat, and as soon as he got home, he made a cold, dry cheese sandwich and poured himself a glass of milk. It turns out that since he didn't recognize anything on the table, he sort of pushed it around on his plate, but didn't eat a single thing. Mrs. ricepad and I were too busy eating and visiting to notice that he hadn't been eating, and MIL wasn't there to explain to him what stuff was...and he was too mortified at the offerings to ask DDF what had been served. I can' only say one thing in his defense: At least he knew enough not to embarrass DDF.

                  1. re: ricepad

                    So sad...all the things he missed!

                    I figure if everyone else at the table is eating it, chances are it's safe..and probably tasty.

                    1. re: ricepad

                      Sound like your FIL has some issues around this anyway, but to be fair older people do often genuinely struggle with unfamiliar foods.

                      I come from a mixed race family, but my Mum's english parents were both very open and ate all of our "weird" food. However, as he got older my Grampy had more and more difficulty eating spicy food or in fact anything other than very plain foods. His body was more happy with him eating the same things every day! This was easy to deal with at home but eating out was a little trickier. He tended to order from the "English" side of the menu at Indian and Chinese places. He wasn't being rude, he just struggled with food as he got older.

                      1. re: Muchlove

                        He wasn't always 'older'. Even as a much younger man, he'd refuse to eat anything he didn't recognize. He has always claimed to be allergic to fish, but over the years I've seen him eat dishes that had seafood in them - without his knowledge - with nary a reaction. I've concluded that he has always claimed the allergy so he wouldn't have to eat fish of any sort.

                2. I was talking to a Jewish patient in her 60s yesterday and discussing Kosher food. I told her that despite no longer keeping kosher I still don't eat pork and shellfish. She said she ate both and then said 'why not shellfish, I didn't know it wasn't kosher?'!!

                  It seems that some are ignorant of their own cultures.

                  20 Replies
                  1. re: smartie

                    my mil, also in her 60's keeps telling me about the sales on swordfish at the supermarket...we don't eat treif at home...

                    1. re: fara

                      "we don't eat treif at home..."

                      that sort of implies that you do eat treif. . . outside of the home. not trying to be attack-y in any way whatsoever, just pointing out the possibility that if your relative has seen you eat and enjoy treif outside of the home, then she may also assume you cook it, or would have an interest in cooking it. she may not realize you have house food rules/restrictions, and then different eating habits outside the home.

                      1. re: soupkitten

                        i know, i should've clarified that we live together, and that she knows we don't eat it at home, i've never cooked any non-kosher animal for her, we've talked about this etc...sorry if that wasn't clear :)

                        1. re: fara

                          doh! yup, that's a detail that, had i known it, i wouldn't have gone around giving the benefit of the doubt, quite as much. sorry about that situation, maybe she'll get it one of these years :)

                          1. re: fara

                            My MIL continually offers her daughter ice cream, milk, etc. She's been off dairy for years. It's not cultural ignorance, just... stubborn refusal to retain this detail? For innocent reasons, or something subconcious about not respecting her daughter's choice (it's not so much an allergy as a mildish intolerance)? We are not sure.

                            1. re: julesrules

                              "My MIL continually offers her daughter ice cream, milk, etc. She's been off dairy for years..." I think it's a Mum thing. I remember visits to my mother where she commented that I'd put on a bit of weight and then offered me biscuits and snacks and urged me to eat up!

                              1. re: julesrules

                                You know, jules, my mom thinks that everyone should drink lots of milk and that it cures everything and makes you healthy. She still chugs it at 78 (and would be better off without it, digestively, but convince her of it).

                                You just can't change some of those ingrained ideas!

                                1. re: sandylc

                                  Just curious, does she know any Chinese or African/African-American folks?

                                    1. re: sandylc

                                      Ah. So perhaps she may not know that folks - such as many of those I asked about - could be lactose intolerant.

                                      1. re: huiray

                                        I was severely lactose intolerant for years. So, yes, it is likely that she has never heard of it - sigh. A bit oblivious, she is!

                            2. re: soupkitten

                              Showing my ignorance here - I just googled to see what kind of fish a treif is.

                            3. re: fara

                              That made me curious, so I looked it up. It would not have occurred to me that swordfish were not kosher. To summarize, what makes one type of fish kosher and others not, is amazingly detailed. It is a very tricky area for someone not well versed in the subject. I learn a lot from these topics.

                              As for your MIL, well I guess you will just have keep on gritting your teeth and saying "Thanks for the info Mom, but you know we don't eat that."

                              1. re: fara

                                I thought all fin fish were kosher. Not so?

                                1. re: pikawicca

                                  no pika, they must also have scales

                                  these fish are not kosher
                                  Non-Kosher Fish (this list is not comprehensive): Catfish, Eels, Grayfish, Marlin, Shark, Snake Mackerels, Squab, Sturgeons, Swordfish. Also Turbot and Monkfish.

                                  1. re: smartie

                                    Pardon my ignorance, but what is squab (fish-wise)?

                                    1. re: bulavinaka

                                      had a quick google, looks like pufferfish and blowfish.

                                      1. re: smartie

                                        Thank you - Wise on the part of those keeping kosher not just for the scaleless issue - they're both poisonous. I don't think either of these fish should be included on anyone's diet (except you blowfishiacs!;)) Even the smallest most seemingly benign puffer can wipe out a whole aquarium of organisms if they get bothered enough to release their toxins...

                                        1. re: bulavinaka

                                          Our family just finished consuming two giant platters of fried blowfish, with no ill effects.

                                          BTW Puffer and blowfish are the same thing. And squab seems like a play on "chicken of the sea" which is what some around here used to call them. Lots of people call them toadfish too because they're so ugly.

                                          The Japanese poisonous species is entirely different than what you get here.

                                          1. re: coll

                                            >>BTW Puffer and blowfish are the same thing.<<

                                            >>The Japanese poisonous species is entirely different than what you get here.<<

                                            Yes and no on puffers and blowfish. They're generally referred to as puffers or pufferfish, while it seems that the nomenclature relative to the "edible" kind is always referred to as "blowfish." And there are tons of different types of puffers/blowfish around (wiki states 189), just as you've pointed out about the "Japanese" one vs what ever type you ate. Some will be described as puffers or pufferfish, while others described as blowfish or less familiar/accepted names. Even the porcupine fish is often confused as a blowfish, as it belongs to a different family with the general order.

                                            And toadfish - at least among those familiar with the actual fish with this common name falls into a totally different order/family (Batrachoididae).

                                            Common and nick names of various fishes have little meaning as they are thrown around a lot, as in this case, but by referring to the fish(es) in question as puffers and blowfish just covers the bases for those who are familiar with one or the other.

                            4. I don't know if it's a matter of not taking the time to learn another culture so much as it is not having the opportunity. Genuine ignorance about other people's foodways is curable; bigotry, like the example Ricepad posts, generally isn't, because it's usually willful.

                              BTW, I, too, once thought all Jewish people kept kosher, or at least didn't eat pork until a friend set me straight.

                              6 Replies
                              1. re: Isolda

                                Obviously bigotry and unintentional ignorance are two entirely different animals.

                                1. re: Isolda

                                  My FIL is not a bigot (or is he?), but he's famously ignorant AND insensitive. Neither is willful, however. He is very complex in his simpleness. Yet another example of his cluelessness: He had never heard of olive oil until he vacationed in Italy.

                                  1. re: ricepad

                                    I still remember when my MIL came back from a trip to Texas, bringing tortilla chips and salsa home with her. She wanted to share these wonderful new things with us! Of course, the convenience store down the street from her home carried about 87 brands of both!!!!! It was pretty hard to fathom.

                                    1. re: sandylc

                                      ah, I think I can top that...my FIL once called my husband to tell him about the 'great new Mexican restaurant' that had opened in their town, and how excited they were to finally have a place to go for Mexican food...

                                      yep. Taco Bell....

                                  2. I don't think it's just culture.

                                    I think alot of folks are sheltered -- generally -- when it comes to food. And not even necessarily food of the exotic kind.

                                    I have co-workers, in their mid-40s, who have never heard of a kiwi, much less seen one.

                                    Whether it's myopia or ignorance, people who are culinarily diverse and well-traveled are few and far between.