How does food affect your identity?
In yesterday’s class, we discussed immigrant’s experiences and the importance of food. Several people shared stories of how food has influenced their lives and identities. Food is such a big part of our lives, and yet many times we don’t realize its importance until we move to a different place.
Growing up in Alaska, I ate moose meat and salmon strips regularly, and never thought anything of it, because that’s what everyone around me ate. When I moved to Minnesota for college, it was strange to realize that most people had never eaten moose meat before. When I went to the grocery store and saw baskets of blueberries, I couldn’t believe it; in my world, you went out in the tundra and picked your own blueberries. Why would you buy them? It made no sense to me.
When I moved to Japan, I experienced even more culture shock related to food. I love most Japanese food, but the two “American” foods I missed the most were peanut butter and cheese. My mom sent me a few care packages with jars of peanut butter, and opening them was the highlight of my day. Just eating peanut butter made me feel at home and connected to my family and culture while I was living thousands of miles away.
Despite missing certain foods, I also grew to love Japanese foods, particularly gyoza (fried dumplings). My love for gyoza also opened doors with my Japanese students; when I told them it was one of my favorite foods, they seemed to relax and acted more comfortable around me. When I came back to the U.S., gyoza was one of the things I missed the most. Even today, when I go to the restaurant and see gyoza on the menu, it’s hard to resist ordering dozens of them. This Japanese food has become a part of my identity.
When I came to upstate New York, I had to adjust to a whole different set of foods. I had never heard of Spiedie Chicken, salt potatoes, half-moon cookies, or Fluffernutter sandwiches before. I also didn’t know that people ate chicken wings with pizza. My unfamiliarity with these foods really surprised my husband; he had assumed those foods were common all over the country. It was a definite cultural experience to sample all these different foods.
Talking about food and identity with my husband, he told me about how he grow up with Ukrainian grandparents, and eating traditional Ukrainian foods such as pyrohy (pierogies) and kilbasi (kielbasa) has been a very important part of his life. Being half-Irish, he also gets nervous when there’s no potatoes in the house.
In September 2013, my husband and I went to moose hunting camp on the Nowitna River in Alaska, where my husband got to try moose steak and fried pike for the first time. Those foods were a big part of my childhood, and I think that sharing them with my husband brought us closer together. I feel that he understands me better after trying the foods that are so important to me. Food can build connections between people.
Food is a very important part of our identities, but it’s something we rarely think about. How has food influenced your life? How can museums use the common experiences of food to open dialogues and promote understanding?