Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Food is key to culture

I spent this past weekend in Nashville, TN (congrats, Eric & Leah!), and while waiting for my boyfriend to finish tying his tie (first too short, then too long), I caught a little of Anthony Bourdain's show No Reservations on the Travel Channel. For those of you unfamiliar with Chef Bourdain and his show, he travels all over the world sampling each regions' foods, whether it be cow intestines, deep fried chicken, or clam chowder. He tries it all.

It struck a chord with me as I prepare for my 12 day vacation in Honduras - really, the way to get to know a country is to eat its food. You can learn so much. After all, food is what we all have in common - we need to eat to survive.

My co-worker went to India for a wedding a few years ago, and only ate rice and naan for fear of getting sick. I went to India shortly after her, and my favorite part of the trip was trying different foods. I'll never forget sitting in the roadstop restaurant (essentially fast food) with all the hub-bub around my mom and me, and not knowing how to properly eat the meal served to us on a banana leaf.

All the waiters and bus boys stared at us, and finally one kind woman who spoke English explained how to eat the thali properly. (You have to mix the rice with each of the five sauces in a different order and pick it up with your right hand to eat - see the photo of my Mom to the left.) We learned that food in India is more than just nourishment - it's tradition going back hundreds of years.

Food can also bridge cultural gaps. On this same trip to India, my mother and I invited our taxi driver Nathan to have lunch with us. He was so touched by this that he invited my mom and I back to his home at the end of the day tour to have tea and meet his family. They lived in a one room cement dwelling with a common bathroom, and all slept on mats on the floor. We shared more than just tea - we talked about our families, how Nathan wanted to expand his taxi business, and Indian culture in general. We learned so much more than we would have without the visit, and it's just because we broke bread (or naan in this case) together.

My favorite time spent in my semesters abroad in Spain and Nicaragua were sitting with my host mothers/sisters while they prepared meals. The casual conversation we shared taught me what it was really like to live in each place, not just visit it. And that's part of the reason we travel, yes? Not just to see new sights or recline on a beach, but to understand what it's like to live somewhere else, or be someone else.

In these tough economic times, it might be hard to take an international trip. However, that shouldn't stop you from trying new cultures. Chinatown is just a few subway stops away. The North End too. I'm sure you have friends whose families still hold onto their "ethnic" heritages, or maybe you can make a new friend - my office frequently has visiting staff members from abroad.

The point is, food is more than just nourishment - it's a way to learn about something outside of yourself. Perhaps if all of our world leaders broke bread together, we'd all get along just a little bit better.

Nathan, his wife, and his youngest son, who is making a goofy face at the flash.

Related Posts: India Vogue: The haves and the have nots; 10,000 reasons to buy; Food Banks and Food Pantries in Massachusetts; Patio gardens & City growing; Find local food locally; Fruit in the city
Photos are from my trip to India.

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