In my Introduction to Folklore class yesterday, we talked about food, leaving me, of course, super-hungry after class. I ate a delicious vegetarian dinner, belly danced for an hour, and then had some leftover homemade butternut-squash pie from Thanksgiving.
One of the main points we discussed in class was that food preferences are both individual and cultural. Certain flavor combinations are found only in specific regions or among certain groups, and those flavors are often considered “normal” – until you run into what another culture thinks is tasty, and you’re usually in for a shock (case in point: Estonians put pickles and ketchup on their pizza; I’m normally pretty open-minded about food, but I was both disgusted and offended by this practice).
Sometimes, no matter how you’re raised, there’s just no accounting for taste. One person’s comfort food is another person’s gag-inducer. Sometimes we try other cuisines and find them more palatable than what we were raised with, but other times people don’t bother to venture far from what they grew up eating.
Here, we begin to see the interconnections between food and value systems. People express their identities through the foods they both choose and refuse to eat. Whole families and ethnic groups declare their affiliation by what (and how, and when) they eat together. The allocation of food labor – which remains thoroughly gendered, even in this day and age – tells us still more about what people value, and how they express those values through their eating preferences.
I love food, and I love talking about food, so I really tried to reign myself in while in class, so that my students could reflect on their families’ Thanksgiving traditions. I was quite pleased when my students were able to verbalize which aspects of their family meals were traditional and which were variations or innovations. A surprising number of students recounted how That One Random Dish (Like Oyster Dressing) Become Traditional Because An Elderly Male Relative Likes It Even Though He’s The Only One (again, I’m seeing gendered patterns; is it any surprise that eccentric whims are tolerated when people in positions of authority demand to have their way even if no one else likes what they want?).
I didn’t talk much about food and religion with my class, in part because it’s not my specific area of study, and I didn’t really prepare a lot of material on that topic since we had plenty to discuss anyway. Besides, I figured that they’d just had Thanksgiving, so those food traditions would be fresh in their minds.
But it turns out that despite the fact that I don’t identify as religious, religion has influenced my food preferences in one major way: I don’t really like pork.
Yes, read that sentence again: I don’t really like pork. And I can’t pinpoint any logical reason why. Except for religion. Even though I’m not religious.
Bear with me for a moment (or, ya know, a paragraph or three). My mom’s side of the family is Jewish. Not really in the religious sense, but more in the cultural sense: we celebrate the main Jewish holidays by getting together with our family and preparing the appropriate foods, but we don’t go to temple or pray much. It’s more about the communal and family aspects of the religion.
My family is also composed of serious foodies. So we never bothered keeping kosher, in part because there were just too many tasty things out there to eat. My mom and dad each traveled through Europe in their college years, and so they would eat whatever was available to them. I ended up doing the same thing, because while I feel strongly that treating animals ethically is important, it’s also important to me to be a gracious guest at dinners, to be able to try new things while traveling, and to have an easy way to get enough protein and iron and other nutrients because I live a very active lifestyle. So while I’ve dabbled in vegetarianism in the past, and I still cook many delicious meals with minimal or no meat, I consider myself an omnivore these days.
So, religion enters the equation because while we ate plenty of shellfish and other non-kosher foods, pork didn’t cross the dinner table too often. This was also a matter of personal preference, as both of my parents find that pork can easily dry out, even in the hands of an experienced cook. So it just wasn’t something we ate very often. It became a habit to substitute other meats, and this even extended to (dare I utter the holy word?) bacon. Yes, BACON. I grew up eating turkey bacon. Most everyone who learns this about me pities me. I don’t think I had much in the way of real bacon til I was an adult, adrift in the world on my own.
Since leaving home, I’ve experimented with cooking with pork products, and I find that while I tend to enjoy bacon (duh) and other cured pork products like prosciutto and sausages (especially from Smoking Goose!), plain ol’ pork doesn’t do it for me. Loins, chops, you name it, I’ve tried it. Once in a blue moon I enjoy ribs or pork belly. But my poor partner (who’s from Texas if that tells you anything) keeps asking me to cook pork and I keep responding with things like, “I’ll think about it… ooh, look, wild-caught salmon is on sale!”
To the friends who have fed me pork in the past (especially my Philly friends, who fed me pork from a local pig that was raised sustainably!): don’t worry, I’m sure I enjoyed that meal (yes, especially that one). It’s just that I don’t seek out pork as a main course unless I’m in a very particular mood.
What I really mean to say in this long-winded excursion through my personal and family life is that our food preferences are acquired largely unconsciously, through means not of our own making. A religion that I do not identify with except in terms of cultural practices caused me to not be exposed to a certain food, which I do not really care for still today. The texture/taste preferences of my parents – who exposed me and my sister to a TON of food, both domestic and exotic – influenced my own feelings about how food should taste, look, feel, and smell. These factors, so far out of my control yet so essential in shaping my identity, have indelibly marked me, even as I, a fully-grown individual, can consciously make changes to and adapt to new environments.
This is what we study when we study food: the role of culture in molding individuals, who do their best to mold culture right back. Many of the forces shaping our lives are out of our control, if we’re even conscious enough of them to think of them in those terms. And yet, as the study of folklore shows constantly, individuals creatively draw upon cultural traditions as resources in the struggle for self-determination, self-expression, and even survival.
When I say that I don’t really care for pork, I’m making a statement about myself that is larger than myself. Analyzing food is an entry point to humanity through the lenses of the individual, the society, the family, religion, ethics, gender, social class, ethnicity, nationality, and much, much more. It’s kind of amazing that what we put into our mouths yields so much rich information.
And now I’m hungry again.