Daily Archives: August 16, 2012

Cooking cultures

Many anthropologists are writing about the culture of feeding, defining kin and households based on who eats where and who feeds whom, and arguing that sitting down at table is a sacred practice that connotes far more than just physiological processes (see Janet Carsten and Mary Weismantel).

A meal in the mountains of Yunnan province. Photo by Evan Schneider.
My husband, hard at work, in the kitchen.

And last night as my husband whipped up some tomato sauce from a bushel of farm fresh tomatoes down the road, we began talking with a friend of ours about what we ate growing up and noting that it mostly came from cans, freezers, and boxes.  It was not only a function of the type of leisurely evenings and worryfree youth that we (in many thanks to our parents) are enjoying (and that our parents lacked), but also a culture of poverty that struck America among our depression-era grandparents and extended into the cooking habits of their baby boomer grandchildren.

“What a fascinating generational study,” I mused, perking up, ever the anthropologist, and my mind racing about the lively interviews to be conducted among grandparents, parents, and children in kitchens all over America.  I began to expound that my friends who have definitive cooking backgrounds mostly took these from their immigrant grandparents, while their baby boomer parents were too worried these ethnic roots would hold them back and didn’t pass on language, culinary expertise, or other cultural artifacts to their children.

The rolling hills of Yunnan province and mostly subsistence farms. Photo by Evan Schneider.
Traditional Chinese stoves in the countryside.
Another look inside a Chinese kitchen.

These are sweeping generalizations, of course, but immigrants cook less out of boxes and are often much closer to where their food comes from: I remember the Hmong families my mother tutored in inner city Milwaukee that kept pigs and chickens (and likely butchered them in the backyard), and fresh off the plane from China, my husband recently lamented that he may not be able to find anywhere in America to buy pork fat to render his own lard for making tortillas.

A mound of bok choy, our favorite Chinese vegetable.
My husband and a foreign friend haggling over a piece of pork along the road just outside of Beijing.

I’m not arguing for a hierarchy here when it comes to health, knowledge, or even taste (God knows lard, while it tastes great, has expanded many an American waistline), nor am I wanting to romanticize poverty.  Rather I’m going for something like substance, connection, depth.

As I thought more about these cultures of feeding or lack thereof (and enter here the catalyst for the slow food movement), I began to acknowledge the reason my heart leapt yesterday morning when my professor suggested my husband cook some Chinese food for us this evening, or why my husband and I felt oddly satisfied by the Chinese meal we had in Oklahoma in ways we didn’t by American cuisine.

It’s not just my body, but my heart that craves these foods lately, the feeling of being satisfied part and parcel of a struggle to adopt and adapt a whole nother world.  And that is often now followed by a profound emptiness, or hunger, that creeps up from the depths, hardly recognizable until it finds what it craves.  My heart, my mind, my soul found themselves profoundly satisfied by China’s odd cuisine, and I’m left wondering how long it will be before America can do the same.

**On a related note, I just stumbled upon this TIME photo essay on how families around the world eat.  Fascinating!**

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