Salmon Strips, Peanut Butter, and Salt Potatoes: Food and Identity

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.

Salmon strips: a very Alaskan food.

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.

Gyoza: the best Japanese food ever.
Gyoza: the best Japanese food ever.

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?

2 thoughts on “Salmon Strips, Peanut Butter, and Salt Potatoes: Food and Identity

  1. I love how you point out the importance of food to culture, because it has proven to be so true in my life. I have not traveled extensively in my life, but I have moved to several different states in the country. I think one of the first times that I realized the importance of food was my first St. Patrick’s day away from home. While growing up I had always had my dad’s homemade corn beef, cabbage, and potatoes for the holiday. I can’t say that I even enjoyed the meal all that much growing up, but I did love the parades, traditional Irish music, annual viewing of “The Quiet Man” (For those of you who have not had the pleasure of watching a movie featuring an Irish John Wayne, you absolutely must watch it!). When I moved away from my family, the meal came to represent all of these wonderful memories and has come to be o important to me. I have to say that that first St. Patrick’s day without my dad’s cooking was truly a sad one for me. I have since learned how to make the meal so that I can ensure I have it every year, and make new wonderful memories. Food is truly important to one’s culture and identity.

  2. I really like your reflection post! I feel like foodways is such an underappreciated way to connect to different people! Identity is so wrapped up in what we eat and how we eat it!

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