A classic thought experiment is: If extraterrestrials observed Earthlings what would they think? For openers, an outside observer would note intense variety, but there are universals. The universal we’ll be observing this month? Food.
With thousands of cultures comes an amazing diversity based on varying food sources, economic necessities, geographical demands and differing aesthetics.
Food is health. Food is economics. Food is art and to some extent, be it a businessman’s steak dinner, an exotic spread of complex sushi, or the classic Chinese banquet, food even indicates our social status among fellow humans.
Food has multiple meanings. In some cultures, notably parts of China, a standard greeting is not “How are you?” but “Have you eaten yet?” Out of politeness, we offer guests food, whether they need it or not. As the classic big band, scat singer Cab Calloway sang in the 1940s, “Everyone eats when they come to my house.”
Yet despite the use of food as hospitality, not all cultures appreciate the same cuisine. Some cultures enjoy heads, intestines, brains and organ meats while other cultures don’t even eat meat. Sometimes there’s an underlying logic to these choices. For instance, while most humans find insects unpalatable, in most places insects would not make a good food source. The calories required to catch an insect usually outweigh the calories gained from eating one. However, in situations where insects can be harvested in a manner that results in a net-gain of calories rather than a loss, they often become a desired food source. Accordingly, ants and locusts that can be caught easily in large numbers are eaten much more commonly than other insects.
What one culture finds delightful, another finds bizarre. The other day I visited a museum with a friend, a Karen hill tribesman who came from Burma after fleeing conflict and spending his teenage years as a refugee in Thailand. The displays of traditional Iroquois life reminded him of home. “Hey Pete, have you ever eaten curried bear meat?” he asked as he described cooking curries over an open fire. “It makes you warm.”
Although a widespread and varied cooking technique, I was surprised to learn that currying a food not only flavors but also preserves it, thus making currying invaluable in the tropics of Asia and the Caribbean.
Not only are we aware of differing approaches to food among cultures, at times we as a species seem to revel in them. From cable TV shows that present eating exotic foods as a perverse form of entertainment, to countless ethnic slurs from multiple cultures involving the cuisine and diet of their “weird” neighbors, the food preferences of others often strike us as bizarre.
Browsing through authentic Chinese cookbooks from Asia can be an odd experience for a Westerner. With the flip of a page one turns from an image of a dream meal only to stumble on a photo of stewed chicken feet. There’s rarely much logic to our internalized food preferences and even when there is it is often knowingly flawed. I’m reminded of my father’s visit to Taiwan. “I could never eat chicken feet,” he announced one day. When asked for a reason he said, “I used to raise chickens. I’ve seen where they walk.”
I remember years ago telling a Taiwanese friend that Americans did not normally eat squid or jellyfish. “Why not?” she said with a straight face. “Don’t they like seafood?” To the Taiwanese squid is not just a normal part of their diet, but a common beach food is squid on a stick, barbecued and smeared with sesame seeds and eaten like a lollipop with tentacles spread upwards like a bouquet of miniature flowers.
Commonly we combine our food with our ideas of entertainment. Recently I attended a presentation where Chinese college students described their home provinces, including cuisine. My favorite was “dao xiao mian,” a dish from Shanxi whose English name varies but is often referred to as handshaved noodles. The chef quickly shreds strips from a large ball of dough into boiling water. The varying textures of the irregularly shaped noodles adds to the flavor. Elaborate presentation have become part of the hand-shaved noodle dining experience. Presented was a photo of a chef who shredded the noodles from a platform fastened on top of his head while riding a unicycle in front of the diners.
Amidst the decadence and artistic experimentation of mid-war Weimar Germany, even starvation became art. One restaurant featured “performances” by a “hunger artist” who sat in a sealed glass booth chain-smoking in his underwear while a midget periodically announced the length of time since the “artist” had last eaten. Patrons would tap their glasses in appreciation while consuming a traditional dish of raw pork and onion drizzled with boiling lard.
From Disney-themed birthday cakes to the latest McDonald’s third-pounder to traditional hot dogs and apple pie to biker-themed barbecue restaurants, the commodification and consumption of food is also an expression of an idealized cultural image. It’s no coincidence that if you want to be accepted in Vietnamese society you should learn to eat fertilized duck eggs or by Koreans to appreciate kimchi. These dishes mark them in their own eyes as distinctly different from people who don’t eat them.
What conclusions might an alien make on human food culture? We’re astonishingly flexible yet rigid upon forming conclusions. As a species we’ll eat almost anything consumable yet as splintered cultural groups we’re quite finicky and judgmental of those groups that do not share our preferences. We attach great social importance to the forms that simple biological necessities take. Surely, they could not avoid seeing us as an amazingly complex banquet.