That Food Culture Mystery

I have recently been trying to define why is it food culture is so important to me.

Why is it I tear through the New York Times each Wednesday to read the Food section cover-to-cover? What could the reasoning behind my stacks of books –books on chefs, on the history of noodles, on the cultural importance of salt — possibly be?

I have notebooks filled with recipes, quotes, torn pages, glued and taped in a fashion that may seem haphazard at first but, upon second glance, reveal a very careful map of my thoughts.

My first notebook, positively stuffed to the brim, strains at the elastic band that holds the covers together.

I have sections of nothing but quotes from Anthony Bourdain. I have pictures of lavish feasts I wish I could have attended torn from the pages of Bon Appetit. I have a good ten-page spread on ingredients I’ve been dying to put together. Saffron semifreddo with cherry cardamom syrup and salted honey. Beetroot ravioli with poppyseed butter. Squid ink gnocchi.

Heck, I even have a page from a library book in there.

I thought maybe this mad notebook was a result of the endless inspiration I found while attending culinary school. My favorite recipes, quotes from my instructors, a copy of my NEHA certification… it’s all in there, brainchildren of a time of childlike wonder and inspiration.

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Still, after leaving school, the notebook continued to grow until it had been filled. And I started another, and it began to expand almost twice as rapidly.

For some reason, food culture seems like a vast, bottomless, intriguing black hole. I can never learn about it all, no matter how hard I try.

In my attempt to define why such an impossible task is so vitally important to me, I mapped out a chart that looked like this:

Food Culture = Survival + Society + Association

Food is a necessary part of life. If you don’t eat, you’ll die. Simple.

So how can something so basic become so incredibly nuanced and complex? Essentially, eating is a simple mechanism for getting nutrients into our bodies. And yet we are not only offered a plethora of methods, ingredients, techniques and abilities to do so, but we are given the desire to combine all of those things to create not only fuel but a delicious and desirable experience.

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Beyond that, because we all share the need to eat, we build a culture and society around food. These traditions become incredibly ingrained in our very natures. People turn to food for comfort, reassurance.

These positive associations –or, in some cases, negative associations– with food are often just as valuable as the food itself. A simple meal can be elevated by good company, a bad experience can remove a food item or even an entire culture from a person’s favor completely.

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So why bother to study something that is entirely personal, based off of an individual’s preferences?

There’s something about the amazing, intricate network created around food and the way it brings people together that intrigues me.

Food can be beautiful, it can be art. It can be comforting. It can bring back long-lost memories or unite unlikely friends. Food can warm your very soul. Or, at its very baseline, it can keep you alive another day.

I don’t know why food culture is so intriguing. Maybe that mystery is part of the reason I want to explore and discover so much. Perhaps someday I’ll find the answer.

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