Yesterday as I wrote about Chinese New Year, it occurred to me how other cultures put food on such a high pedestal. It’s beautiful the way the Chinese use food to symbolize luck, longevity, prosperity, and family unity. When I look at our current American culture and our relationship with food, I see none of this beauty. What I do see is gluttony and deprivation. I see a rushed feeding frenzy and a fear of the food that we scarf down. We don’t even know where it comes from, nor do we care.
The Chinese take the preparation of their food for Chinese New Year and other holidays to amazing levels. They spend days preparing their food and months preparing their homes for the New Year. Every food has a story, or symbolizes something, and food is thought of as medicinal. It’s revered. Other cultures also consider food sacred and something to be lovingly prepared respected and presented to family and friends.
The Jewish people take food very serious. Foods must be Kosher, and specific foods are served at each holiday. Take the Seder meal for Passover as an example. Three unleavened matzohs are placed within a napkin as a reminder of the haste of the Israelites fleeing Egypt. Maror (usually horseradish or romaine) is served as a reminder of the bitterness of slavery, Charoses (apples, nuts, wine and cinnamon) is a reminder of the mortar used by the Jews to construct buildings as slaves. Beitzah, a roasted egg, is a symbol of life.
The Mexican culture is another culture that reveres it’s food, especially corn. One holiday that comes to mind is El Dia del los Muertos (Day of the Dead). This is not Halloween. This holiday has it roots in the Aztec culture, and modern day Mexicans take weeks preparing for this day; much of it involving food. In the Mexican culture it is believed that deceased relatives come back to visit their families once a year. The families spend a great deal of time preparing alters, and a path to that alter to welcome their deceased relatives. Having lost both of my parents, I find this a beautiful ritual. One food that is the center of this holiday is pan de muerto (day of the dead bread), which is left as an offering at the alter. Various sweets are also left, such as calabaza en tacha (pumpkin candy), sugar skulls, chocolates and more, to satiate the sweet tooth of the dead. Often, a place is set at the dinner table for the deceased, with offerings of tamales, mole and more. The deceased’s favorite beverage is left at the alter along with a sip of water to wet their lips after their long journey from the afterlife.
And then there is the French. Love them or hate them, the French know how to cook. Almost every great Chef in the world has studied French cooking. But beyond the high class French cooking, there is the down home country food. The cheese, wine and bread. These people have perfected food, because they revere it. They do not fear their food. When an animal is slaughtered, the whole thing is used from head to toe. Americans are so squeamish about this. We turn our backs and sink our teeth into a tasteless burger. The French know what they’re eating, and they sit down with their families and savor every bite, while we scarf down a tasteless piece of cardboard, unsure of what we just ingested.
I’m pleased that I grew up in a family that revered food. When I look back, I realize our special times together always revolved around the food of whatever season we were in. We always had a large garden and fresh, off the vine, food. Apple and peach trees, even grape vines. Both of my parents grew up with an agricultural background. They grew up at a time when many families had a milk cow, made their own butter and cheese, gathered eggs from their chickens, and butchered their own meat. In my childhood, we didn’t raise our own meat, but we knew people who did, we grew our own vegetables, and we hunted our own food when the season was open. Venison, trout, salmon, crab, elk, antelope, bear, duck, geese, and grouse. As a child I had the opportunity to eat it all. Crawdads gathered from creeks, zucchini from the garden, and potatoes from Tulelake fields of friends or family. I grew up loving the smell of soil and fresh butchered meat. When we ate dinner at my house the TV was turned off, and we sat down and ate together. Breakfast was the same. At the end of every hunting season, there was a big dinner served to the whole family, always serving some of the game that had been bagged. It could have been venison liver and onions, or Staffato served with wild game birds, but what ever it was, it honored the animal and brought the family together.
I did not realized how odd this was in our American culture until high school. My friends thought my family was weird, like some “Father Know’s Best” show from the 50’s. I would go to their homes and be shocked by the dirty dishes left in bedrooms (My God! You eat in your bedroom? That was unheard of in my home), dust on the dining room table, McDonalds remnants everywhere, and a freezer full of frozen convenience foods. That was shocking to me.
Well, I feel lucky enough to raise my children differently. They are able to see their veggies' pulled and picked from the garden, and if not the garden, then the farmers market. They have eaten all manner of game, because my brother and a good friend are kind enough to share what they hunt, from venison to bear to boar to pheasant. They eat crab, salmon, albacore, clams and oysters from the sea. Most recently they have been able to eat pork from a pig our friend raised. A pig they met while alive, and are now eating at the dinner table. Soon they will be enjoying goat meat from the very goats we are raising in our field.
This may be disturbing to many Americans, but I’m proud of this. My children will know where their food comes from, and they will not fear it. They will have a connection with the earth, it’s plants and animals that most American kids their age will not enjoy. They will know how it was handled, that is was humanely cared for, and is delicious. Food will not be their enemy, or a mystery to them. They will know, respect and revere their food.