Culture of Food

by Michelle Lasley

Michelle Lasley is a mother, wife in Pacific Northwest learning to balance green dreams with budget realities.

September 6, 2011


Watch a movie or a play. There isn’t a single movie out there that doesn’t incorporate either food or drink or both. At some point, during some part of the movie, at least one character will partake in the breaking of bread or drinking of the cup.

We are centered around food.

I’m not the only one obsessed with it. We all are. We come from clear, defined cultures where we ate and modified what was available to us. We now have this processed food culture where Totino’s Pizza Rolls are hip and without substance and its clashing with a back to normal food front.

A co-worker recently mentioned how being a vegetarian [5 years ago] was easier than it is now. Then, you just ate vegetarian meals because all meat was processed like The Jungle. But, now the waters are muddied with grass-fed, organic, pastured choices.

We are obsessed with food.

Greek yogurt, gyros, hummus kabobs. Falafels, tabouli, eating with certain hands. Pitas, pasties, burritos: portable food for the working man. Seven-course meals paired with elegant wines and decadent desserts. Strawberries and chocolate mixed with champagne. Truffles soaked in wine and smothered over chicken.

We are enamored with food.

It nourishes us. We create religions around it. We know it gives us energy, go, life. And, then when we can’t find any other reasons for our ill-health, we blame the food. We base studies on it, create law around it, destroy law around it.

We don’t always know what to do with food.

Centered, obsessed, enamored, and confused. We know we need it to survive, and we have desires to make it more palatable while trying to balance delectable treats that sometimes run into our shared beliefs. We have cultures of food, even when that culture is missing a true culture.

I’m beginning to wonder, as inspired by Mr. Pollan while reading Omnivore’s Dilemma if part of our biggest problems with food is that we simply don’t have a solid, shared food culture. When considering these ideas,  like to compare my two (or three) families.

Until I was 8 years old, I spent my life living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan mostly surrounded by my maternal relatives. This environment is my baseline, my norm. My maternal grandfather was born to Polish immigrants since my maternal grandmother came from a family with French, Scottish, and Native American heritage. I do not know where my grandmother learned to cook but cook she does. Memories growing up include many loaves of baked bread, fresh cookies, and homemade pies. All jam was preserved by my grandmother or a team of aunts. Milk came from the cow in the barn that my uncle gathered that morning. A vegetable garden, as large as my backyard, was flourishing every summer. Once, I even recall being taught to churn butter, in a real wooden butter churn. It was hard work! Having my Cuisinart do it is a much easier option. Another time, I swear they were grinding hamburger into hamburger on the table.

All meals were together: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Every meal was preceded by grace, and just saying “Grace” didn’t suffice. Usually, it was the before meal prayer. Mostly, we squeezed people around the table, but big holiday meals required the “kid” table. Some of the “normal foods” we ate included beats, potatoes, lots of beef, cabbage rolls, sauerkraut, liver, and onions. Breakfasts were often sausage and eggs or pancakes or waffles. I remember having to stir the peanut butter after pulling it out of the cupboard for lunches.

My (step) grandparents from downstate, I often think of as my prim and proper grandparents. My grandma Arlene was very elegant, and she was the first person who served me herb roasted red potatoes. We didn’t dine with this set of grandparents like my maternal grandparents. They had a pool, so often we’d find ourselves grilling hot dogs and eating summer picnic foods when visiting. Although the difference isn’t incredibly stark, it outlines this food confusion in our society.

Now that I am married, and I am creating our own food culture, I see it even more. My husband came from a mother who claims she cannot cook. She mostly microwaves canned things, and the few times I’ve cooked for her she’s been surprised I was able to whip something up even from her cupboards. My own mother also claimed she couldn’t cook. These normal homemade meals of my memory came from my grandmother, not my mother. Hamburger Helper and canned tuna were our real norms growing up.

I know I am blessed with curiosity that allowed me to hear and see the two keys that unlocked the door of cooking mystery, for me. Cooking is temperature and watching a fresh mushroom be cooked, in my then tiny kitchen, into something that looked like a canned mushroom. Finally, my childhood memories were linked with my present, and for the last 10+ years I’ve learned and built upon that.

I live a life centered around with food. I think about meals for my family, trying to make sure I feed myself at work, and when I create something at home I often plate and garnish like I’m in my own personal restaurant where I am the head chef. I am trying to take the nutrition knowledge I have and make sure balanced meals for my family. Usually, we eat around a table with a meal preceded by giving thanks.

But, we don’t have many strong dos and don’ts, and we don’t have a strong collective acceptance of what to eat. Here, in Portland, especially, we have many diverse cultures of food trying to find themselves, and any potluck will showcase these phenomena to the extreme. Our lack of food culture makes us confused foodies. And, I sometimes wonder if it stems from that thinking that cooking is too hard.

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