We eat who we are
When I worked for the IRS, my team shared one floor of the Federal building with groups from several other divisions. As is common with shared offices, we also had a shared breakroom. And as is common in shared breakrooms, a battle over smells erupted frequently. The most memorable shot across the shared-smell-space-bow happened after one particularly pungent microwaved fish incident.
The next day a sign appeared above each microwave and on both sides of the breakroom door. It contained a colorful and satirical ranking of Olfactory Offenders, from least intrusive leftovers to most enveloping meals. Unsurprisingly, right at the top of the list were burnt popcorn and... The Fish. The sign politely requested the breakroom door remain closed while fish and other intensely fumed food was cooked to limit the volume of distraction that wafted out into the work area.
The sign was cute and funny, but what I appreciated most was the effort with which it had clearly been constructed. Someone took time to create the amusing graphic and chose their words with care to express their desire to avoid food smells interrupting their workday in a thoroughly playful manner. It was also printed in color, which was significant in a government office. Whoever created that sign invested 5 precious pages worth of their personal color printing allotment to bring us that beautifully crafted and hilarious sign.
Unfortunately, the sign didn't last long. It was swiftly replaced in less than a day by a much less interesting sign, comprised of black lettering and 3 boring bullet points. The sign said essentially the same thing, but all of the flavor was missing from the presentation. At the time, I assumed some fuddy-duddy objected to the original sign because the playful tone was too exuberant for a government office. Perhaps the same fuddy-duddy who forgot they share the office with other humans when they left the breakroom door open while warming their lunch.
Now I am wondering if it was taken down for being culturally insensitive. I listened to an episode of Code Switch this week in which they discuss the policing of ethnic food smells in public spaces. The replacement sign in my office breakroom gave the same basic instruction as the original sign, but it did not include the ranking of foods, which I am sure included dishes often associated with particular cultural traditions in the Offenders category.
Management never explained why the first sign had been replaced, so I just assumed it was too fun for government. It's also possible the person responsible for every corner of the office smelling like fried fish for an entire day felt too called-out. Or maybe a piece of someone's heritage was labeled as offensive and publicly mocked by their mostly white co-workers. If it was a cultural sensitivity learning opportunity, most of us missed it because we didn’t talk about it at the time. I guess I'm talking about it now.
I’ve never thought about the connection between racism and food until this week. I feel pretty disconnected from my Italian heritage living in the Pacific Northwest because it seems like there are not that many of us. There is a Bocci league and an Italia Fest and I grew up around many of my parents friends who also share Italian heritage. But I didn’t grow up speaking the language because my grandparents had to give it up to earn their White Card, and I can’t get a decent marinara anywhere other than my parent's house.
Back in New England, that is not the case. You can't help but accidentally run into decent Italian food. Good, delicious, simple marinara is absolutely everywhere! Every time one of my cousins gets married or somebody has a baby or any other significant family excuse to visit, half the reason I go is to eat a decent meal. Don't get me wrong, the PNW has amazing food. I love living here for many reasons and our brunch culture is high on that list. But despite the very high quality of food coming out of this region, there's no restaurant I can go where anything tastes like home.
I have often considered grandparents as the gold standard in any food tradition. When I go to a restaurant serving food from a specific tradition or region, I assume it will be delicious and authentic if someone’s grandma or grandpa is doing the cooking. But, of course they make things up and adapt their recipes just like I do. I’m allergic to the main ingredients in most prepared foods, so I frequently have to make my own versions of all my favorite things. I find some recipe online to get me started and then I just… make up the rest.
This practice has, in some ways, brought me closer to my Italian roots. A lot of traditional Italian cooking doesn’t involve soy or mint, so I’m safe from those allergens. It does involve cheese, but in the regions my family comes from it was goat or sheep cheese, not cow cheese (which is the dairy I’m allergic to). Italian food is evolutionarily what my body can process and enjoy naturally, so when I’m eating like I pretend I would in the old country, I don’t have to do much to accommodate my weird allergies.
I will probably never be someone’s grandparent, so it’s very unlikely anyone will consider me a cultural food authority. Who will pick up my cultural food traditions? Maybe the children of my cousins, but we live very far apart. Maybe my friends' kids. Maybe no one. And I guess that’s fine. Although it does make me a little sad not to share food with the future in a way that other kinds of legacy have never bothered me. Guess I'll feed as many people as I can while I'm here.
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Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.