Sunday, August 28, 2011

What Stories Do Food Tell Us? (Myth, Culture, and Food.)

By James Curcio

This is not an article that could possibly give a complete picture of the topic I have on my mind at the moment. This is so often the case here on Modern Mythology: we have to skim the surface, and one day we will return, again and again, and one day that might become a book - or it will have to remain a stab in the dark. Made with a needle, maybe, but if it hits the right spot, a needle can do a lot of damage.

So give me your jugular.

Today, I want to talk about food.

I love food. I don't love it the way many Americans seem to love it. I don't love an excess of quantity. I don't love the things that desensitize and distance us from our food, which seem so epidemic in some parts of the country. I feel my gall rising when I think of chain restuarants. Massive grocery stores make me want to vomit on my shoes. (Though I love giant open air markets, where tons of local farmers, butchers, cheesemongers, and the like come to sell their wares. More on that, maybe, some other day.)

I love food because, like sex, it is a great common thread that runs through all people. We all are different in how we react to these needs, how we satisfy them, and how we accept ourselves or run from ourselves. But it's a problem all of us must contend with, and those are the fault-lines of myth. Myths arise - always - at these points of necessity. They arise at the points where biology just up against culture. Fault-lines, as I said.

Food is a great indicator of myth. It is like a way-marker, and if you follow it, you can learn a great deal. You just need to dig a little, be inquisitive, and really ponder it. In fact, if you really want to understand a culture, and you want to do it quickly: eat with the locals. Don't have them take you to the bullshit place that they think you, the tourist, want to go to. Have them take you to the place they like.

I can't say I learned this from Anthony Bourdain, but it is the principle that his show capitalized on all these years, and it certainly helped open my eyes to so many more cultures I wish I had the opportunity to explore.

How is myth a perfect road map of myth? In the same way that it tells the story of history. It tells of interbreeding, it tells of times of peace, it tells of rape and pillaging, of occupation, of diaspora and exodus.

A little example. I discovered Burmese food right here in Philadelphia. I'd been to the restuarant enough that, though I wasn't a regular, I was a recognized face. And I asked the owner - a kind of matronly looking older woman - what the story of this place was. Turned out that they fled Burma. She brought her family recipes with her, along with most of her family, and set up shop here.

A spread of Burmese food.
So here I am, in Philly, experiencing the food that came from their culture as the result of political unrest. And the way those foods themselves were developed has always been a mix of creativity and necessity. In a certain area, you have certain options provided by the ecosystems, and we all have certain biological needs - thought the chemical powerhouse of our bodies is so well constructed to turn almost anything into what we need, if we give it the right building blocks.

When you eat what we so sloppily call "mexican food," you are experiencing the result of a long history of indigenous people, you are experiencing European occupation, and the influence not only of that culture but also the infusion of new biological forms entering the ecosystem: new plants, new animals, all of whom will change and mutate over time in their new environment. I love the experience of eating new foods but just as much I like to hear the history of how it came to be, why people prepare it the way they do. Inquire into a people's food, and you will hear about their ancestors. If there is a clearer example of traditional modern myth, I can't think of one.

It is both saddening and horrifying to me how dissociated we are from our food when we buy it all pre-packaged, pre-cooked, loaded full of fillers and chemicals that keep it from ever going bad- not just because of the cost to our land and to our bodies, but also because of the cost to our culture. More healthy but no less self-alienating is the association with food that breaks it down to its constituting parts, as if our bodies and minds both are nurtured by the right mixture of protein, fat, carbs and micro-nutrients that could be fed to us in little food-bars that will satisfy our needs. Food doesn't only feed our bodies.

Food preparation is a part of the life of a family. It is a place and time to ground ourselves, to connect with our bodies and with one another. And I've got no problem with watching a good show while you enjoy that food after, but if you stop paying attention to the flavors that pass over your tongue before that food becomes a part of you, then you're really missing everything, aren't you?

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