I stumbled upon this NYT review article the other day, reeled in by the book author’s colorful first name and the killer of a hook opening line. I haven’t actually read her book yet, but I’m already in love with Fuchsia Dunlop’s story; besides seeming like an obviously smart and talented writer, she epitomizes the kind of gastronomic adventurousness that I do not and will never possess. I am slightly jealous because it was this unadulterated willingness to try anything and everything that made such a powerful cultural experience possible for her. I consider myself a pretty conservative eater, and generally stay away from trying new things. However, what allows people like Ms. Dunlop and I to coexist without contradiction is the variety of ways in which people can appreciate food. I think it’s rather beautiful, the fact that we can each have our own approach to food and enjoy eating for so many different reasons (or none at all).
As we all do approach food differently, I truly believe that one’s gastronomic individuality is a mode of self-expression. Each encounter with food presents an opportunity to express something about my person and to learn more about myself: not just about what I like and don’t like to eat, but about how I feel and how I think. What and how we eat is a window into our cultural backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, aesthetic sensibilities, belief systems, and even our political sympathies. There was a news article a few months back that stuck out in my mind precisely because it hit upon this connection between food and politics. It says: “IF there’s butter and white wine in your refrigerator and Fig Newtons in the cookie jar, you’re likely to vote for Hillary Clinton. Prefer olive oil, Bear Naked granola and a latte to go? You probably like Barack Obama, too. And if you’re leaning toward John McCain, it’s all about kicking back with a bourbon and a stuffed crust pizza while you watch the Democrats fight it out next week in Pennsylvania. If what we eat says a lot about who we are, it also says something about how we might vote.” The article discusses the phenomenon of “microtargeting,” in which food-related consumer habits are studied for the purpose of more efficient presidential campaigning. Campaigns are essentially using food as a window into one’s personhood. I actually think the last line in the quote is redundant – doesn’t “who we are” encompass “how we might vote”? Isn’t that the entire point?
Vegetarianism (and other practices involving varying levels of ascetics) is one overt example of this idea that food reflects a lot about our inner beings. The vegetarians I’ve come across weren’t born vegetarian (I’m very interested in how people “become” vegetarian, and I always try to make it a point and ask them about it. I think part of what makes me so fascinated by it is that I could never commit to such a thing. It would be somewhat oxymoronic to identify as Chinese and vegetarian.); it generally seems to be a practice that results when one develops a strong conviction in something, whether it’s sustainability, personal health, weight loss, spirituality, or the physiologically superfluous nature of protein. Regardless of the reason, vegetarianism demonstrates how the act of eating is a personal statement. Just as some people, like Dunlop, identify themselves by the variation in foods they consume, so too do others project themselves in just the opposite way: by limiting their food choices to what feels good and right to them.
Lastly, I was struck by the last line of the article on Dunlop’s book, which states that, “…what makes [her book] a distinguished contribution to the literature of gastronomy is its demonstration, through one person’s intense experience, that food is not a mere reflection of culture but a potent shaper of cultural identity.” That is to say, food not only reveals who we are, it changes us, giving us a means to evolve and to grow as individuals. I was talking to a relative this evening while we were having a meal, and when a plate of chicken feet was plopped down in front of us, I observed that he did not take any. When I asked him about it, he responded, “I used to eat them, but at one point, I actually realized that I was eating chicken feet.” I paused slightly, a chicken foot dangling from my mouth. I guess chicken feet probably wouldn’t make it on any list of “conservative foods,” but I had been raised under the assumption that eating the foot of a chicken was perfectly sane. To me, his response indicated a fundamental shift in his perspective, one that mandated a more Westernized palate (or maybe just more hygienic). I went back to munching, my conscience slightly unsettled but by no means permanently disturbed. For me, what’s important is eating responsibly and eating honestly, which means striking a balance between health and happiness (which itself is ever evolving). Let the chicken feet-eating continue.