I am a firm believer that food is the greatest destroyer of cultural boundaries there is. Food is the great equalizer, the universal language that Esperanto aspires to be. One delicious bite can lower defenses, broaden your mind, break open conversation, transport you through time and space and connect you with people with whom you believed you could never have anything in common. In my opinion, food can bridge that gap better than anything.
Some people don’t agree with me. One of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers once openly admitted to eating for nourishment much more than enjoyment. My host brother eats fried plantains for about 80% of his dinners (sadly, not an exaggeration), and despite claiming to be bored with them, he’s not keen to step outside the greasy-salty satiation he knows they will provide. I once had a roommate who, in a large Tupperware container, mixed Ramen noodles (“but not the spice packet!” he insisted), two hot dogs, a can of baked beans, and spaghetti sauce. It was for his weight-lifting regimen, but he also believed it was delicious. Other people may fall into similar habits, and maybe they wouldn’t be reached by a plate of food as quickly as I am. But I don’t believe it’s because they can’t.
As a child I tortured my parents with my whining complaints of “I don’t like this” and “You know I hate that.” Dinners would be had in the living room while we watched TV, and as my brother and I sat on the floor on either side of my dad’s legs, I would jam chewed-up bits of food under the couch. Weeks, maybe even months, passed before my stepmom rearranged the furniture to clean and discovered the disgusting graveyard of mashed green beans and half-chewed bits of roast beef. Not only was I picky, but I was also plagued by years of stomach-aches induced either by my 5-chew and swallow technique or mental tricks I played on myself. My favorite candy in the summer of 1998 was Tums, so I am an unlikely candidate to be telling you this:
Any food that can be eaten and enjoyed by anyone can be eaten and enjoyed by you.
I made this transition on a very memorable March 18th, 2011. It was my first day ever out of the States, and I found myself in the gorgeous Spanish-colonial inspired Antigua, Guatemala. After checking into our hotels, the two college professors who accompanied us handed each group of three a list of eight activities to do. Looking down the list of things like “Take a ride in a tuk-tuk” or “Haggle with a merchandise vendor,” I knew I was in for the coolest scavenger hunt of my life. But when Tina, Corey and I felt our stomachs rumble, right away we agreed on “Eat at an approved restaurant.”
We quickly found one close by, a tiny hole-in-the-wall that had four tables in a line that stretched alongside what you might call a waiter’s station. The camarera brought us water and after a quick look at the menu, we each ordered a different plate. At that time, my amateur Spanish limited me, so I decided to just risk it and go for something that would allow me to try as much as I could. One menu item said it came with rice and three sauces with three different proteins. Surely enough, once the camarera brought out our plates, I was greeted by a hefty serving of white rice and three small ceramic bowls filled with different sauces; one green, one red, and one orange.
Overall the food was amazing. Call it hunger or thrill or ignorance to real Latino cuisine, we scarfed down what we had, all while making sure everyone tried everything. As we began to fill up, the consensus seemed to be that of all the food we had ordered, the orange sauce on my plate was the best. Considering I couldn’t even identify the flavors or meat then, I can’t describe the flavor to you now, but it was unlike anything I had ever had. So despite my limited culinary vocabulary, I asked the waitress what was in that orange sauce. She smirked and said “Los sesos y el hígado de un cerdo.”
After eating, and relishing, pig liver and brain, I have since eaten slow-cooked baby pig, pig eye, pig ear, pig feet, pig mouth, pig cheek, pig tongue, and probably some other pig parts of which I am not aware. But I haven’t limited myself to porcine adventure, as I’ve also eaten squid in its own ink, octopus, ostrich, frog legs, snails, several kinds of tripe, and horse. Don’t worry, it gets better with baby eels, kangaroo, capybara, and some others that I’m certain I’m forgetting (I was inspired to write this by the delicious armadillo I just tried). I’m not Andrew Zimmern, but only because I haven’t had the chance. I refuse to turn down an opportunity to try new things, and like Mr. Zimmern, it’s not to freak people out: it’s to experience and share.
Andrew Zimmern is not a freak. His show isn’t meant to gross you out. His often-misinterpreted message is that if you open your mind, you can eat anything, and therefore create a bond that otherwise would not be. 50-year-old salt-cured fish, fried worms and ants and rats, testicles of any kind, have all been made in a way that have rendered them staples of some culture. Perhaps the key to stepping into that culture is by accepting a plate of zebra lung. Zimmern does that not to fulfill a dare, but to respect a culture other than his own. And if you’ve ever watched his show, you’ll notice how he seems to genuinely enjoy almost all the “odd” things he tries.
I believe our resistance to eat certain foods, with the obvious exception of allergies, largely comes from the childlike habit of eating with our eyes and not our mouths. I still remember when I was in preschool and vomited on the cafeteria floor after eating spinach. It took me probably 15 years to realize that I didn’t not like it, I simply didn’t know what it tasted like. Visually, octopus tentacles are some of the strangest things you could conceive of putting in your mouth considering you can see their suckers, but try it in a Peruvian ceviche and tell me they aren’t phenomenal.
Our dislike of certain foods doesn’t just come from a haunting childhood memory, but also from trying something done the wrong way. As a kid I refused to let my dad order the Deluxe pizza, mainly for the presence of what I considered to be a fatal amount of olives. I still am not a particular fan of the canned green things that they stuff the fancy-sounded “pimentos” in, but I’m an olive fanatic after living in Madrid. There are few better companions to a conversation in Spain than a plate of aceitunas in garlic-olive oil. Bite down, scrape the meat off that pit, spit out that bad boy and try to resist reaching for another. My stepmom swears she hates liver, but I dare her to not like my version of Liver Stroganoff. In this case, one bad apple truly does spoil the whole bunch, but if you’re able to conquer those food-induced nightmares, you can do some much with that power.
Over these past four years of traveling, I have been able to break down so many stereotypes (not heavy ones like race or religion) through the use of food. Mostly I’ve been able to change people’s minds about hamburgers. Bear with me for a second, because if you’re in the States you’ve likely tried a burger with a fried egg on it, or maybe mac and cheese, or pulled pork or something crazier. But if you’re from other parts of the world that don’t list hamburgers in their culinary traditions, slap some some cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and ketchup on it and call it a day. In these places (specifically referring to Turkey and Colombia), I have taken my love for hamburgers and my love for local ingredients and combined them, In Turkey I slathered a burger in yogurt sauce and in Colombia I put a flippin’ fried plantain on it. As I prepared both burgers, the looks of skepticism were comically conspicuous. However, look at my Couchsurfing profile and you’ll see three references from Istanbul mention that burger and here in Colombia, well, I’ve had two restaurants ask me for the recipe.
The burger itself is not important. If I could make homemade pasta or masterfully grill salmon I would. But what is important is how these food experiences opened up a connection between people of completely different backgrounds. I have been so fortunate to have broken down people’s ideas of what something should taste like, and seen the benefits of trying something you might not be so sure about. Several people have told me that kind of cooking inspired them to be more adventurous in the kitchen.
This open-mindedness isn’t limited to just food. It is applicable to everything. Personally, this has allowed me the freedom to try all kinds of adventures relating to travel, communication, music, art, and love. The willingness to put faith into someone you don’t know can be a terrifying thing, but it has led me to some of the best experiences of my life. The blind desire to try and try to enjoy anything and everything has afforded me friendships around every corner of the globe. Friendships that were formed in a night but will last a lifetime. It has offered me an in-depth look into cultures and people and perspectives that has made every risky-step I’ve taken pay off ten-fold. I have been able to jump from small-town Ohio, a place that I started to hate and learned to love again, to parts of the world I probably used to misspell (ColOmbia, not Columbia).
And, for me anyways, it all started by happily eating liver and brains.