December 10, 2021
Last night, I was watching “Chef’s Table” on Netflix. This episode featured Chef Musa Dağdeviren and the Turkish food traditions that he lovingly works to keep alive. It is a beautiful episode and thought-provoking. The food we eat is part of what makes us who we are; it’s part of our story of self.
For some, it’s that special stuffing recipe handed down through the family that’s part of a person’s story. Or, it’s growing up with the tangy odor of sauerkraut from the stoneware pot on the kitchen counter. Or, always baking a certain type of cookie at Christmas with great grandma’s recipe.
Jewish families, Italian families, Mexican families, Korean families, Scandanavian families, and all the other ethnic families who have lived in the United States for generations, keep their food traditions—their food culture —alive and well.
As I thought of all of this, lying in bed last night, I realized that I have no food culture. I was raised vegetarian, a product of the religious sect we were part of until I was about 12. We ate something called gluten steaks and grillers, Morning Star Farms’ answer to the hamburger.
When I was growing up in the 80s and early 90s, only hippies were vegetarian. There were very few of us around and therefore, brands did not court us like they do today. Go into any grocery store now and they’ll have Beyond “meatless” products and entire sections dedicated to vegans and vegetarians. This was not the case in 1990.
When I was growing up, much of what we ate, my mother made including those gluten steaks and even “cheese” made from soy (yes, really). However, as a child, I didn’t know anything else so I readily ate this stuff. My parents didn’t eat this way because their ancestors had passed down lentil loaf recipes, they ate this way because the church told them to eat this way.
We left the church when I was 12 and I fell off the vegetarian bandwagon four years later. I went straight for the bacon at the Sizzler’s buffet and never looked back. Meat is good.
Perhaps my ex-vegetarian status is why I am so food adventurous now—I am making up for lost time. There’s almost nothing I won’t try, at least once. I’ve eaten everything from pickled carp to fish eyes to bear (yes, it tastes like pork).
Several years ago, I began to explore my Korean roots through food. My mother was adopted at age two from Seoul, Korea. However, she was adopted into a strictly vegetarian family that did not make any attempt to honor my mother’s heritage.
It turns out, I like Korean food, and I like Asian food, a lot. I am just a beginner when it comes to this style of food, but I want to learn and taste everything.
I may not have a food culture that I inherited, but I am making one for myself. And that’s okay. There’s a sort of freedom in that thought. There’s also something that’s very American about it.
Of course, it means that my husband, who is German-American and grew up eating meat and potatoes, is along for the ride whether he wants to be or not. He doesn’t really like pho.
Food is just part of what defines us, but it is a big part. I am still discovering a lot when it comes to food and the unique food culture I am developing. However, I know one thing for sure. My personal food culture is often topped with jalapenos.
Do you have a food culture/tradition? Share it below!