Food, Race and Culture

Before I even BEGIN this entry, I need to provide a disclaimer.

I AM A WHITE AMERICAN.

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Pale as HELL.

I’m not claiming to be otherwise. I haven’t directly experienced racism, but I have seen it exhibited against my friends my entire life.

 

As far back as I can remember I’ve lived in a multicultural world. Yes, this is suburban South Jersey, not New York City, but it’s pretty diverse here, and I consider myself lucky that it is. The first boy I ever kissed was black. I remember many days spent playing at my friend Nandita’s house in elementary school, the aromas of Indian cooking wafting throughout the house. In middle school came Anisah and the Bagasra family, the patriarch of which, Omar, gave me my first taste of Pakistani goat biryani. In high school Anisah and I were both members of American Field Service, the club responsible for foreign exchange students, and we hosted international dinners where we tasted dozens of amazing cultures’ foods.

When I first went off to college, I attended a small university in Rhode Island where the student population was 97% white. This was definitely culture shock to me, despite being in the majority. While in attendance there, our country experienced the tragedy of 9/11. New York City was between my school and my home. It hit our area very hard. But what I remember most strongly about those days isn’t the buildings burning or fear that I would die. What I remember most strongly is my friend Anisah, who was attending school in Washington, DC at the time, was forced to hide in her dorm room for weeks with other Muslim friends for fear of being physically attacked. My wonderful, sweet friend, BORN AND RAISED IN THE UNITED STATES, was afraid of going outside because people were THROWING ROCKS AT MUSLIMS. Even now as I type it I feel a tightness in my chest. (I’m sure you guys know that throwing rocks at any living being is NOT COOL MAN.)

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Later I transferred to Temple University in Philadelphia, where it was much more diverse and my love for food from other cultures only increased. Mostly I learned about food via cooking shows, and I fell in love with shows like Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour. Tony’s show has changed networks multiple times (he’s currently on CNN doing Parts Unknown) but it’s core is the same: discover the world while eating with the locals. Why? Because there is no more common denominator to being human than food.

“Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.” 

-Anthony Bourdain

Soon after Andrew Zimmern entered the scene. Zimmern’s show, Bizarre foods, shares many similarities to Bourdain’s. Travel the world, eat with locals. There are two key differences: Zimmern will eat absolutely anything (except walnuts, he HATES walnuts) and he has a far more optimistic demeanor. Zimmern is a gentle soul, unguarded, far less morose than Bourdain. Here’s an example of his magic:

 

But neither one of these outstanding gentlemen triggered me to write this blog today. That honor is given to Dan Pashman of The Sporkful Podcast. Recently he released a series of podcasts called Other People’s Food. Part one is a fascinating interview with Rick Bayless, a white American man who has spent his life immersing himself in his love for Mexican cuisine. Listen to Pt. 1: White Chef, Mexican Food here.

So why did I write this relatively serious blog? Because you and I can take action to reduce hate by educating ourselves about other cultures, and being sensitive to our differences while celebrating what it is about us that is the same, our basest need: food. Through a shared meal we learn that despite our outside appearances, despite our varying customs, deep down we’re all just human beings. So go out there, be adventurous, and spend your time loving those different than you instead of hating.

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2 comments

  1. White here too! Grew up eating Polish and Russian food all the time, and usually being the only person in my classes who ate those foods. It wasn’t until I was in college that I met other people my age who not only knew what pierogi, kielbasa, and borscht was, but also ate it! Then, I had a Mom who taught herself how to cook, so I learned to like spaghetti, lasagna. Then I moved to New Orleans after graduation and fell in love with Cajun, creole, Vietnamese, and soul food. Then I moved to Northern New Jersey and worked for 17 years in Paterson, NJ and learned to love green rice, tostones, and a variety of other Latin foods. There’s a fairly local grocery store located in Clifton, NJ. It’s called Corrado’s and going there is like immersing yourself into a mini United Nations. You see all kinds of amazing foods, and hear every language being spoken. I just love going there for the experience of it. I heard of the Indian markets down in Islin, but I’ve never been. I know what you mean though. You learn about others through the most basic human necessity: food.

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    • Corrado’s sounds amazing! What’s funny is my family was meat and potatoes, but I had so many friends that could expose me to their cultures, which in turn I feel has made me a more open, accepting person.

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