Sunday, May 11, 2008

Cultural tastes

I was making dinner the other night and started chuckling to myself. I was making my own version of stir-fried Thai noodles with chicken and vegetables when I remembered making the same meal a couple months ago for two Italian teenage boys who were staying with us as part of a student exchange with my daughter’s school.

I placed a big bowl of my concoction on the table and said, “Help yourselves.” The boys kind of stared at it and didn’t know what to do. When we all helped ourselves, they followed suit and put a small helping on their plates. The each took a forkful, nibbled it suspiciously, and didn’t say much. In the end, they ate very little and I was left with a huge bowl of food because, after all, I was making dinner for the family plus two teenage boys.

I’m not sure what the problem was. Although I’m not an elegant cook, the food was edible, and I thought surely they’ve eaten stir-fried noodles before, even in Italy. You can hardly walk down the street of any city of any size anywhere in the world these days without seeing a Chinese, Thai, or “Asian” restaurant. Even if it’s not someone’s food of choice, I think most people have at least tried it.

I think they were perhaps waiting for a starter and then an entrée, Italian style. I think they were shocked that this bowl of mixed glop was all there was for dinner! (And you should have seen their reaction the night I made tacos! I served meat sauce in a soft tortilla. I left the tortilla open on their plates so they could add tomatoes, lettuce, etc. as they pleased. They literally looked the tortillas and asked, “What do we do?” Once again, they ate very little.)

I think this affirms my long-held contention that food culture is one of the last bastions of national identity. You can put people in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt so they all look the same, but when it comes to food, cultural roots are long and deep.

This reminds me of a story an Estonian acquaintance once told me. She was working at a restaurant in Estonia during Soviet times and the restaurant was hosting a group of dignitaries from Africa. Everyone in Estonia loved bananas, which were hard to come by. That night they made several elaborate Estonian specialties garnished with bananas. The staff drooled in anticipation of the uneaten bananas that would be returned to the kitchen after the meal. But when the platters came back, all the bananas were gone and the rest of the food barely touched.

Cultural identity leaves a strong aftertaste!


  1. I lived in French House during my junior and senior years at Carleton College. I'll never forget the disdain expressed by the French exchange students toward peanuts, which they considered "food for pigs." Obviously peanut butter was inedible to them! (They preferred Nutella, a spread made with hazelnuts and chocolate.) And they were perplexed by that classic Thanksgiving dessert, pumpkin pie. Why would anyone put a vegetable in a pie, let alone top it with whipped cream?

  2. Our Italians gave us a big jar of Nutella as one of their "thank you" gifts. I've never been crazy about it, but it's not bad. Mainly, though, no one in the family likes hazelnuts and chocolate together.


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