Talking about Food: deconstructing taste and navigating ‘foodways’

by Han Vale | 10/13/17 1:20am

Talking about food is challenging because it is never just about food. Food is inextricably tied to one’s being. To all, food is indicative of identity, a myriad of intersections. So much so that there is even an academic term for it: “foodways,” defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the traditional customs or habits of a group of people concerning food and eating.”

However, I am sure you don’t need a dictionary term and definition to relate to the idea of food being tied with identity. 

For me, and countless others, food has always been difficult. I always sense a tension when engaging with it. I can never escape it, for it reminds me too much of what I am. It amplifies the realities of my being — black, white, Asian — and exposed me deeply to the unsaid qualities that made my maternal and paternal families different. 

Growing up, my Filipina grandmother, Lola, took care of my siblings and me. I learned how to cook with her. Strong flavors of vinegar and soy, smells of frying fish and trips with her to the small local pan-Asian market were familiar to me. Like many do to engage with their communities, I often attended potlucks with other Filipinos where there would be plates of lumpia, bowls of pancit and trays of leche flan. I couldn’t have been happier. These memories are etched into my childhood, and I hold on to them dearly. The more I look back, the more I realize how these dinners were a way for my grandmother to pass her culture — and a people’s collective tastes — down to me.

On the other hand, the tastes of my other grandmother, an upper class, white New Yorker with strong views on steakhouses, wine and country club menus, were just as familiar to me. Ever since I can remember, I have been sandwiched in between an understanding of taste that meant so much more than the flavor of the food I was eating. Navigating my own personal foodway served as a consumable reminder of the lifetimes of history — and geography, immigration, migration, war, colonization and capitalization — creating a strange dissonance that seemed to be existing as a multi-racial, multi-ethnic American child.  

It was taste that told me what I was, not the other way around. Ironically, food writers, critics and chefs alike have shared or recognize the validity of this experience. Famous bourgeois gourmand Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote in “The Physiology of Taste,” “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu claimed, “To the socially recognized hierarchy of the arts ... corresponds a social hierarchy of the consumers. This predisposes tastes to function as markers of ‘class’.” But it doesn’t take the words of a gourmand or an academic to recognize that food is tightly and delicately tied to a person’s very being.

So, if you find yourself wondering if a food is even worthy of your time, or if you don’t understand why people just don’t stop eating fast food or “exotic” food, or if you make assumptions about people’s eating habits or preferences based on other facets of their identity — just think for a minute. Reflect on the ways in which your own personal foodway shows you what you are and empathize with the foodways of others. Remember that to many and to me, invalidating one’s food is simply another way to invalidate a person. 

I’m not saying that all foods and food systems are perfect — in fact, many are far from it —  but all foods exist for a reason, and all are valid. It is understanding the nuanced and complex nature of these foods that makes talking about — or writing about, or eating — food a conversation worth having.