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1 June 2011, 9:00 am No Comments

Search for the Sustainable Source: Culture, Cuisine and Globalization

This post was submitted by Kira

bring on the pasta

What's your tradition? c. kira

How does culture shape a cuisine? Or does the cuisine shape the culture? I pondered these questions last week at a National Archives talk, Jewish Holiday Traditions and Cooking in America, between cookbook author, Joan Nathan and chef Spike Mendelson.  The event was a pre-kick off to a new exhibit the Archives will be hosting for the rest of 2011, What’s Cooking Uncle Sam?, to discuss the government influence on food in American society.

The relationship between culture and food is mutual, as both maintain a certain influence on the other. Just as culture  shapes a cuisine,  changes in a cuisine can also change and impact the culture.  Through experimentation of food, the regional differences, and the migration of cuisine that travels with the people, both food and culture are susceptible to change through either alterations or combinations.  Joan Nathan, talked about the Americanization of food, which as she sees is the change in quantity and quality.  Not only is the food bigger, but it also is often combined with other popular ingredients. (Extra large bacon-wrapped matzo balls, anyone?)  This, in her opinion, is offensive to the traditions of the culture and food.  Mendolson disagreed, saying that it can be inspiring to bring different traditions together through food, even if it means losing the authenticity of the meal.

As food takes on new levels of popularity, it is not just the foodies that appreciate a good meal and the significance behind it.  The mainstream media has picked up on the trend and brought it to a new level of appreciation in the public eye. This feeds into the social acceptance of food as a career, moving it from the blue collar job from the past to the white collar status of the present.  As Joan Nathan pointed out, a meal is not just a family dinner, but rather a high end restaurant dining experience.  With this status shift, more people are involved in the industry, bringing additional influences of culture and change.   The new generation in the food industry offers a new exploration to food; many are working to use creative means to finding their niche, put a twist on their own food whether the emphasis is on the cuisine fusion or even a return to purity and cultural tradition.

The arguable driving factor of food today, especially in American cuisine, however, is not tradition. Rather, the biggest influences come from the market and product. The market often drives society, and not only that but our food choices, as well.  This is largely due to the availability and access to different products and also to the marketing techniques that often ultimately drives our decisions. Today we have fast movement of products and more options to choose from, enabling us to utilize the global economy for both product and cultural custom exchanges.

With globalization today, it often feels as if culture is completely fluid. Food has become one of the constant and most acceptable forms in which to share culture and heritage with one another. In some instances, it is the preservation of a culture, where in others it has become a culture fusion.  Joan Nathan, recounted that while collecting her stories for her new cookbook she realized that she was preserving her culture through her the act of putting her observations on paper. Judaism is a food-centered religion and with the tradition of Friday Shabbat dinner, every family has their own story, their own customs, and recipes. Sharing all of that brings people together, helps us to remember, and creates a way to share with others.

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