Last month Henry and I spent a few days in New York City. One of the places we visited was the food hall known as Chelsea Market. As we walked from specialty shop to food stall to ethnic restaurant, I found myself thinking about food in different ways.
I’ve traveled in several countries in Europe, lived in South Korea for two years, and visited Japan and northern Mexico. I’ve sampled new types of cuisines in cities I’ve visited across the US. Yet I am not as well-traveled as many, and there are still many cultural foods I have not experienced. This also means there are many languages of the palate to which I’ve not been exposed.
Henry and I used to enjoy watching Anthony Bourdain’s food shows, in part because of the windows they gave us into another world, and how cuisine connected with culture. Andrew Zimmern has also brought a wide variety of food cultures to my awareness through his television shows.
Looking back on my childhood, I feel that one of the primary ways my mom showed her love was through her cooking. She also exposed us to new-to-us foods on a regular basis. For example, I still remember going to a buffet brunch in New Orleans when I was a teen. She plucked a decoratively carved fruit off an elaborate food station, took it back to the table, peeled off its hairy brown skin, and introduced us to the kiwifruit years before it could be found on our grocery store shelves.
This adventurous perspective helped me when I lived in South Korea. I remember showing up for lunch one day in the school’s cafeteria and being served a side dish consisting of wide blades of marinated green grass, just like the grass my father grew in our front yard! As with the kiwifruit, what one culture considers decorative is another culture’s food.
All this has me wondering what other differing perspectives on food I’ve missed, simply because my opportunities are limited by my one human existence. I’ve been busy working at my desk rather than traveling around the world. I accepted turkey as the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal until my husband got me involved with turkey slinging. I do believe our experiences guide our openness to future events.
In terms of the spiritual life, this leads me to wonder what differing perspectives on God I have missed, limited as I am to one life’s worth of experiences. My years in Korea showed me how one culture can have very different spiritual priorities than another. All this reinforces for me that there are a wide variety of ways to be faithful in living life and loving God. My ways are not the only ways, nor should they be forced on anyone else.
What food cultures have you experienced in your life? What differences have made a difference in your perspective? As we approach the food-centric American holiday of Thanksgiving, how might you pay more attention to your own food language?