Channeling Ina: Food and identity

Food is one of the great cultural universals: it transcends geography, age and race. Everyone, no matter their background, feels content after a hot meal and the warmth in which delicious food envelops your body. Yet the details of what we cook and eat, from the moment we pick or purchase our food to when we clear our dishes, give a nuanced reflection of our identity. Just one order in a restaurant or one pass through the Dewick line holds oceans of information.

Take the character Ashima in the novel “The Namesake” by Jhumpa Lahiri, who searches high and low for muri in Cambridge to make a chaat that reminds her of her home in Calcutta and settles for Rice Krispies, trying everything she can to cling to her culture that she left behind so many thousands of miles away. Or Meg Ryan in “When Harry Met Sally,” who knew her likes and dislikes right down to the temperature of her apple pie.

Take the freshman who eats pizza every Friday night in the dining hall, regardless of the week, because that is what his family tradition dictates. The man who painstakingly brews his coffee and drinks it in a matter of seconds loves the ritual but maybe not so much the final drink. The mom who never eats runny fried eggs holds within her a deep-seated fear of Salmonella, perhaps from mistrust of the agricultural industry.

Your friends from big, loud families who share bites of anything and everything want people to see what dinners at their houses are like. The boy who keeps his fork in his left hand is probably from Europe and the girl who wants “jimmies” on her ice cream might baffle anyone from outside of New England.

What we eat can reflect our experiences but also show a destination or a goal. The girl who was raised kosher and decided to eat a piece of bacon is slowly forming her own opinions and dietary guidelines. The plate full of more leafy greens on it than before belongs to the athlete, diligently looking for any way to improve his performance at the next meet. That organic yogurt is a political statement embedded in a small tub of dairy.

It can be tempting to offer advice or comments to what we perceive as selective or picky eaters, but know that beneath every bowl of soup, plate of barbecue and loaf of bread lies a conscious choice from the eater. These choices, however big or small, show our unique identities and personalities in a manner that is gentler than any assertion of political or religious beliefs. This is where the beauty of food and cooking lies: two people may be on opposite sides of the social spectrum but at the end of the day, all of us can break bread together.