Culture is Built on a Plate

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Photography by


Culture on a Plate

Rome was not built in a day. But it was probably built around an olive.

Since the dawn of time, culture started forming around food; in other words, the primary signs of civilization were built on someone’s dinner plate (or lunch, or breakfast, for all that matters). People would gather to share food, forming families, friendships, tribes, and ultimately, nations that adhere to the same menus and table manners. Food is actually a human being’s first language of love and bonding, when an infant snuggles close to the mother’s heart for nursing. It is also a social symbol, for we invite people to ‘stop by for a coffee’, we discuss issues ‘over a drink’, and in the Middle East, people use the term ‘there is bread and salt between us’, meaning that a close tie has been established. In a way, food has always been seen as a ‘social glue’ for building relationships among people.

Moreover, the concept of ‘food’ used to be associated with the seasons. Food was real. It was a hands-on experience, sacred, highly exalted, and a reason for celebration. There were harvest games, solstices, and equinoxes. And September simply meant ‘wine season’ since it came after the August grape harvest, as people would aggregate around distillatory vessels for end-of-summer dinner parties. There was such a ceremonial attitude towards nature, for with the advent of late summer, for example, when the grapes were out, and while people were busy making wine, vinegar, and syrup, people would unwind and celebrate at the end of the day while consuming the food and drinks produced from the harvest crops. Memories that were made each year. Love stories were created. Family members gathered from different parts of the village, the country, or maybe even the globe, in order to celebrate the end of a harvest season. And it all happened around food–the ritualization and honoring of love, family, and friendship.

Then it was October, time for the ruby-red pomegranate picking. With lots of leftover fruits during a good season, we hit the distillatory again, this time for making pomegranate molasses. And what about all that navel orange picking? In every family, someone would always warn against throwing any orange peels, which were either destined to be cooked and jammed into marmalade or glazed into candied orangettes.

And a Mediterranean November was always the star of autumn: It was olive-picking season where almost every house would be occupied with olive picking, olive pickling, olive pressing, and olive-soap making with whatever is left of the olive pits.

Barely anything was thrown away. Everything had a good use and was valued with great appreciation. Nevertheless, since there was no such thing as throwing away anything, miracles were created out of leftovers. And food, in general, was a very compelling factor of communal gatherings.

Of course, this is not a call to go back to agrarian societies. But it doesn’t hurt to hold the same appreciation for food, family, and cooking.

Cooking, after all, is a transformational experience, and I liken it to an alchemical process when both alchemist and base metal are transfigured. As an onion transforms from a raw to caramelized state, so too does the cook transform. And yes, the process results in a golden meal.

However, today’s culture has bred a somewhat dismissive attitude towards anything related to working around the house–towards the domestic, to be exact–replacing pots and pans with dioxin-reeking takeaway boxes, and defending synthetic, lab-hydrolyzed formula at the expense of a natural human reflex (aka, mother’s milk). All in the name of practicality.

Practicality, which I tend to find, has become a euphemism for egocentricity.

Goethe asserts that “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least”. Sadly though, and harsh as this may sound, the self-centeredness of many parents results in the neglect of health, neglect of proper family bonding, and neglect of many important values for the sake of money, power, or any other form of material or social success. There is simply no more time (or interest) to cook, nurse, or have some quality table-talk anymore.

But it’s not always about the time factor or the ‘practicality’ euphemism. Ignorance, whether deliberate or not, is not entirely making the dining culture any prettier. This is when kids’ home-packed lunchboxes (if they still exist) invariably feature a few bags of chips and cookies, with the occasional listeria-prone cold cut sandwich in some form of ‘pseudo-bread’. And the funny part is, most people are tricked by bad marketing terms such as ‘fat free’, ‘sugar-free’, and ‘natural flavorings’—but the best lunchbox term is ‘pain au lait’, brainwashing mamas  into thinking that the ‘milk’ in the bread renders it a super healthy source of calcium. Little too may they know about how empty those calories are, stripping the bread out of any fiber, vitamins, or minerals, leaving it as a bunch of cosmetically bleached gluten and sugar.

However, that’s still a way healthier option than kids’ meal options in fast food restaurants. I’m a little dubious about the ‘good’ stuff in an exuberantly caloric meal of grease and additives. In the end, they add all that junk to make the terrible become edible…Once, in any culture around the world, food used to be the only thing a person could eat; but nowadays, one is lured by emporiums of other edible ‘food-like’ substances.

So parents claim that they don’t have the time to cook. Or don’t know how to cook. Or, God forbid, can’t taste anything they cook (for some odd reason). Or they simply don’t want to go through the hassle of cooking. Therefore, they find that their families have to eat out or settle down for a series of ‘just add water’ meals most of the time. So if preying on junk food became a matter of survival for our species, what kind of culture does this leave us with? There can be more culture in your plate than you’d ever imagined having.

Let’s start with the culture of priorities, primarily being family, health, appreciation, patience, and natural living.

The first cultural aspect of a meal shows how much you prioritize family. Meal times together as a family (at least once a day)—and I mean real meals, not grazing—give your children the message that sharing a meal with the most important people in your life gives food a sacred aspect. And it makes them feel loved. If we can’t have meals with our children, then what is it that we are showing them to be more important?

Next is a culture that prioritizes health, a culture that knows balance and awareness, and is able to subordinate taste to nutrition. Meals in such a culture breed self-discipline and make way for training ourselves and our children to take on healthy eating habits. When healthy food is something we consume regularly, on a daily basis, it shows from how healthy and self-aware we are; as Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do, excellence then, is not an act, but a habit”.

Some meals reflect a culture of appreciation. When things are made from scratch and with love, one day our kids will come to understand and value the effort that was put into a small serving of love…on a plate.

Most importantly, one’s eating can reflect a culture of patience, as opposed to the “feed me now” culture of fast food chains, ‘just add water’ products, and can openers. It shows us that ‘good things come to those who wait’—good being healthy, tasty, and nourishing. Such a culture teaches our kids one of life’s most important lessons, that there is no quick fix.

Healthy eating yields an utmost important cultural value—that of natural living, which is the best education place for learning about nature—mainly about our physiology, our environment, and the effects of food on our bodies. This is how we come to know that we are what we eat. And this is how we can protect ourselves and our children from hazardous temptations of the treacherous culinary scene we are exposed to.

I’m not saying that every single meal a child has needs to be complicated or gourmet. In the kitchen, convenience can actually be a good thing—simply turn ‘fast and furious’ into ‘fast but fit’.

Because guess what? Culture still matures around food. It starts in the kitchen, at a kitchen table, around a home-cooked meal. Because the earliest figments of a child’s sensory memory begin at both plate and palate—where all of the five senses meet: sight, smell, feel, taste, and even sound of cooking.

Of course, one may not be able to cook home every single day—but then again, there’s also nothing wrong with eating out—just make sure the food is real stuff. Depending on what your food culture values, it is the choices that you make while eating out that determine the outcomes of your health. People cannot opt for the fat/carb-laden junk at McDonald’s, KFC, and Burger King and then blame the restaurant for being supersized along with the fries—they take no responsibility whatsoever for the choices you make, since all the ‘nutrition’ information in each and every menu item is found in their restaurants. So basically, they’re not lying to you, and you know very well what you are doing when you order a 1000++ calorie meal. But that is purely a matter of choice.

Educate your kids through home food culture. Teaching kids about food at home is probably their only proper educational site, especially that sadly, and thanks to the ubiquitous prevalence of edible junk, not all schools are eligible for that. One doesn’t need to be a nutrition expert to know that the soda machines and donuts sold in schools wreak havoc to the students’ brain functioning (among other things like diabetes and digestive issues). It surprises me, though, how school owners, managers, and principals allow this to happen when they supposedly have enough educational background that enables them to easily recognize what the ramifications of such ‘foods’ are, but they are letting your children have them anyway. But what if they don’t know that? Well then, it’s too bad how they regard themselves fit enough to be in authoritative positions in the field of education and caregiving.

Hats off for any school that encourages a healthy eating culture in children. I’m still looking for one to enroll my daughter in after a couple more years…Not because my daughter will be confined to the school menu (she’ll be taking a home-packed lunchbox with her anyway), but because food is a reflection of the caring environment she is in, and that is as equally important as the nutrients she gets from her school lunch.

In combination, manipulative marketing and a lack of self-education seem to be conspiring to produce a new culture—or a lack thereof. Perhaps what we consider as our highly evolved selves should learn a little more from those living things that we tend to look down on—plants to be exact. As Michael Pollan puts it, “while we were nailing down locomotion, consciousness, and language, the plants were hard at work developing a whole other bag of tricks, taking account of the key existential fact of plant life: rootedness.” Our ‘rootedness’ is what we need to be more inclined towards and more protective of. It is a culture that we need to build, in or out of the kitchen, through the right choices that we make.

True, deciding what to eat is not an easy thing (nevertheless being able to distinguish what qualifies as food) in such an environment overwhelmed with a plethora of food-like products making dubious ‘health’ claims (something you’d never find on the back of an apple or, God forbid, a zucchini). Simply, I would eat anything that is naturally born without a health claim. After all, and again I quote Michael Pollan, “How did humans manage to choose foods and stay healthy before there were nutrition experts and food pyramids or breakfast cereals promising to improve your child’s focus or restaurant portions bigger than your head? We relied on culture, which is another way of saying: on the accumulated wisdom of the tribe. (Which is itself another way of saying: on your mom and your friends.).”

Culture won’t come knocking at your door, but it has to be built by you. Your culture with all its values, highly evident through your plate, becomes the identity of your family—all the more reason why you should be the one to create it. As my hubby always says, “you can’t have a culture if you don’t build one.” And everybody wants a culture.

Of course, many find that quite challenging, as people tend to be so good at attributing bad eating habits to external factors, but one must ditch the deterministic attitude. Avoid attributing health failures, child obesity, and other lifestyle-induced health issues to genetic, environmental, and psychic factors altogether. It is neither the fault of your ancestral genes, the food marketers, or the school bully that you are hooked on junk food. I guess the problem lies in the way we look at it.

As a matter of fact, you won’t be spending too much time searching for the culprit if you really knew that the core problem actually lies within the choices made by your own free will. It is not because of the overload of palate-stimulus within the tempting aisles of junk in the supermarket or outside the exhaust fans of fast-food restaurants. The actual problem is in our inability to be proactive. As Stephen Covey says, ‘Between Stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose.’ There has to come a time when you’ve got to stop blaming the supermarket or the restaurant next door for your problems, as it is within your reach to build your own healthy culture, your own traditions and rituals.

There is always a culture that you can build. And of course, a culture than you can refer to. With all gratefulness to science, and for all the authority we give the latest research findings, the culture that we choose to live by will always be a good guide for choosing not only our food, but our priorities. And like leftover orange peels at the end of a harvest season, the wisdom of our culture is always worth preserving—without the added sugars of course!

Roula 🙂

(First published on 3/3/2014)

Culture 2

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Categories: Culture on a plate, Foodosophy

One Comment on “Culture is Built on a Plate”

  1. March 6, 2014 at 8:42 pm #

    Reblogged this on Beyond Zucchini.


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