Saturday, May 5, 2007

You Are How You Eat

Yesterday at 4:00 pm I stoppped by a random, non-descript Indian bakery and cafe. The establishment was shady at best, but when I compared it to some of the places I ate in Malaysian, it seemed immaculately clean, so I gave it a shot. Despite the dingy yellow walls, dirty everything, and employees' struggle with English, I ordered some flat bread that I remembered was amazing, and a few other things off the menu.

As I waited, for about 10 or 15 minutes, I started to think about what had compelled me to trust this place. Nothing came to mind, because, I realized, I didn't really trust it. I was just willing to take the risk of gross dirtiness for the however small chance of amazing authentic ethnic food.

How do we decide what to eat? Do we only cook if we like to cook? Or is there some personality trait that would make one person choose Lean Cuisines 9 times a week, while another makes a salad or tuna sandwich? Sure, personal preferences inform our decisions of how to spend our time and meet our basic needs, but when I consider my friends and family, I can trace their habits back to aspects of their personality. I don't consider "liking cooking" as a personality trait. However, I think "liking cooking" is linked to other personality traits. For example, of all the extremely driven, assertive people in my life, none of them spend much time cooking.

Food for thought--how does how we eat reflect who we are? Any thoughts?

Friday, May 4, 2007

Shopping For Compliments

If Americans were taught that cooking was an innate ability found in all humans as the essential skill of aquiring sustenance, how would our culinary culture be different?

Would our grocery stores be full of "Easy Mac" and other "just add water and microwave" products? Would our country produce more frozen meals per capita than any other nation? Would Doritos and Gushers infiltrate such a large percentage of elementary school lunch bags?

In my travels through Europe, Asia, and South America, one of my favorite things to do was visit a grocery store. Whether a tiny corner market in Paris, or a mega-grocery in the suburbs of a Colombian city, I always find these trips to be shortcuts in exploring another culture. People let their anti-tourist guard down--they don't even notice you.

And in fact, your usually obvious, bumbling tourist ways are less noticable, because everyone--traveller and local alike--does the same thing in a grocery store. Doing the same thing as the locals do, on their home turf, is a sort of leveling process, and you feel a bit more Colombian, or Parisian, or Roman.

Studying global cuisine is a similar shortcut to explore another culture. Seeing the proliferation of brightly packaged fruit-flavored sodas, candies, cookies, drinks, and other treats, you can immediately grasp the Colombian dependency on sugary fruity flavors, born of their inherent tropical locale. European groceries are typically so tiny, that the amount of room devoted to an item--coffee, pasta, produce--indicates its importance to the culture. In SE Asia, ubiquitous tiny corner "markets" have just a few folding tables--or whatever can be afforded. The are packed with dusty packages of salty processed snacks that may have been delivered more than 5 years ago, but also always have a few exotic fruits no more than a day or two from having been on the tree.

After a few observant visits to international grocery stores, and allowing your observations to inform you of that culture, one cannot help but ask "What do American grocery stores say about us?"