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Cooking — a Reflection of Culture

Over thousands of years, cultures develop a unique cuisine that builds upon the geographical region's food supply, imported foodstuffs, and the society's technology. I've sometimes wondered who discovered that potatoes tasted good after boiling them. Did primitive societies have official taste-testers whose job was to find out what plants were edible? Did the role of chef go to the local shaman or wise woman and it became that person's job to create edible concoctions? How many people were sacrificed in the process? In comparison, today's cooks have it much better!

The Science of Ethnobotany

Myths express the way people understand the universe and serve to explain a people's place in the universe. There are often kernels of scientific truth underlying these myths. Ethnobotanists study the interconnectedness of plants, people, and culture because the botanical wisdom accumulated by indigenous people throughout the world has led to discoveries of new pharmaceuticals, chemical compounds, and myriad other products.1

1 Balick, Michael J. and Cox, Paul Alan. Plants, People, and Culture: The Science of Ethnobotany. New York: Scientific American Library/ W.H. Freeman & Co., 1997.

Sowing the Seeds of Change

When early European explorers traveled to the Americas, they unknowingly carried seeds of change that irrevocably altered both cultures. For example, horses and infectious diseases were brought to the Americas while corn and potatoes were taken back to Europe.

TomatoWhen New World crops were introduced to the Old World, the cultures of entire nations changed. What would Italian cooking be like without tomatoes, or Scandinavian cooking without potatoes?

"Alfred Crosby of the University of Texas has argued that the introduction of maize and potatoes alone led to a doubling of Europe's population in post-Colombian times. But this crop-induced population explosion had negative demographic consequences as well. One has only to think of the Irish potato famine of 184-46 and the subsequent Irish migration to North America to realize that the fate of nations resided in the precious seeds and roots that Columbus carried back with him to the Old World."2

2 Balick, Michael J. and Cox, Paul Alan. Plants, People, and Culture: The Science of Ethnobotany. New York: Scientific American Library/ W.H. Freeman & Co., 1997.

The Potato

There is only limited archaeological information about the early history of the potato plant, but studies of present-day wild and domestic potatoes point to an origin in the central Andes.

Potato The early history of the potato's cultivation is important because it is linked to the development of other major plant and animal domestications over a span of several thousand years. "…Hunter-gatherer societies began to intervene in the life cycle of a few selected wild food sources in their efforts to make life more predictable in an often challenging environment."3

3 Smith, Bruce D. The Emergence of Agriculture. New York: Scientific American Library/ W.H. Freeman & Co., 1998.

Food Traditions

Migration journeys are as important for people as they are for other animals. The difference between the two types of migration lie in the reasons for migrating. Humans migrate for religious and political freedom, for family security, for a need for adventure, and in a search for food. The Maori sailed across 2,000 miles of ocean to reach New Zealand when their native islands became barren and unable to support life.

But no matter where humans travel, there is always a yearning for a specific food. The memory, the taste, the smell of certain foods will invariably "evoke a pang of loving nostalgia. …Food is much more than a tool of survival. Food is a source of pleasure, comfort, and security. Food is also a symbol of hospitality, social status, and religious significance. …Cultural heritage offers to everyday life not only a sense of collective identity, but pride and dignity, purpose and stability. …Eventually, in the pauses of daily life, we each, in our differing ways, come to the realization that life is not complete without the enrichment of our cultural heritage."4

4 Barer-Stein, Thelma. You Eat What You Are: People, Culture and Food Traditions. Ontario: Firefly Books, 1999.

Cooking — a Reflection of Culture
Originally posted on the Sharing Ideas forum by Anne Wallingford on August 31, 1999:

A cooking pamphlet that I spent some time reading, last week, was sponsored by the Robershaw Thermostat Co. from Youngwood, PA. I don't know if the firm is still in business; the small caption underneath the company's name proclaimed "Thermostats since 1899."

What made this booklet fascinating was its theme: the booklet was put out to encourage use of thermostatically-controlled cooking units. We call these units "stoves" today. But back when stoves with thermostatically-controlled ovens first came into homes, they were as revolutionary a product as the first microwaves.

The following excerpt is from the booklet's introduction. It captures the essence of the American culture from that time period. It does make one realize just how much American culture has changed in the last fifty years! The essay was written in 1946 by Elizabeth Gray, Director of Home Economics, Robershaw Thermostat Company.

To Our Homemakers Everywhere:

Mother, come out of the kitchen, is the call from your family that they may enjoy your companionship; and now with your Robershaw Oven Heat Control equipped range, you may answer that call without fear of depriving them of the foods needed to nourish and build strong, healthy bodies.

Merely set your Control Dial, put your meals into the oven, turn on the heat, and say goodbye. Your Robershaw will measure the heat as carefully as a measuring cup measures molasses and deliver that heat evenly for exactly as long as you want it. When you return, the meal will be done to a delicious turn, just as if you had been there to watch and worry.

Why will some women, who would sell the last chicken in the henhouse to buy a new hat, struggle along year after year with an old-fashioned range which ruins their perfectly good food because of uncontrolled heat? Time and temperature control not only saves Time, Work, Worry, and Fuel, but actually saves Food Values, Flavors, and Food Losses too.

The recipes in this book were all tested in the Robershaw Home Economics Kitchen, under home conditions. I have endeavored to give you Healthful and practical Menus and recipes which with the use of our Robershaw will turn out foods of which you may well be proud.

May you find cooking a real pleasure this Modern and Easy Robershaw Way."

Common Foods from Different Cultures

Not surprisingly, the culture of American foods is widely varied. In fact, many of the most popular dishes from other countries have become commonplace at the American table. How many of these common foods have you tried? (This list is based on information found in You Eat What You Are by Thelma Barer-Stein.5)

Armenian Bulgar: wholegrain wheat cereal that has been boiled, dried, and cracked

Belgian Crème Fraiche: slightly thick, flavorful cream used in cooking and for desserts

Belorussian Sauerkraut: cabbage dish that can be drained, blended, and combined with beets, potatoes, or browned onions, or fermented with apples and cranberries

Canadian Canadian bacon: very lean, smoked back bacon

Chinese Baak Choy: Chinese cabbage

Chinese Chow Mein: rice topped with soft-fried noodles

Slovakian Knedlicky: dumplings; made from anything that will form a stiff dough and can be steamed or poached

Danish Glogg: hot spiced wine, popular at Christmas

Dutch Apple Beignets: deep-fried apple fritters dusted with sugar

Egyptian Couscous: water is dribbled over flour and rubbed to form small granules; granules are then dried and steamed

English Fish & Chips: batter-fried white-fleshed fish served with french-fried potatoes

French Crepes: thin batter of eggs and flour poured into a small skillet and cooked on both sides; can be filled, sauced, flambeed, or gratineed; served as an appetizer, main dish, or dessert

German Strudel: log of thinly stretched dough folded around a juicy fruit or cheese filling

Greek Baklava: crispy, sweet pastry made from layers of phyllo pastry sprinkled with nuts and sugar, secured with whole cloves, and served with a topping of spiced hot syrup or honey

Hungarian Paprikas: made from any meat, fish, or vegetable prepared with an onion and paprika base; finished with a stirring-in of sour cream

East Indian Curry: a blend of spices

Indonesian Tofu: high protein bean curd

Iranian Shish Kebab: cubes of meat, usually lamb, marinated in lemon juice, onion, and salt, then broiled on skewers

Irish Corned Beef & Cabbage: pickled beef brisket slowly simmered in water; wedges of cabbage are added near the end of the cooking time

Israeli Gefilte Fish: fish dumplings made with two types of fish blended with eggs, crumbs or matzoh meal, and seasoned with minced onion, salt, and pepper

Italian Ravioli: small squares of pasta dough filled like little pillows with a meat or vegetable mixture, then coated with a sauce

Jamaican Cassava chips: crispy snack chips made from thin slices of the starchy root vegetable cassava

Japanese Tempura: batter-fried shrimp

Latin American Chorizo spicy grilled beef sausages

Lebanon Bulgur: wholegrain wheat that has been boiled, sun-dried, then cracked

Mexican Tortillas: flat bread made from specially ground cornmeal

Moroccan Pita: rounds of simple yeast dough, rolled thin, allowed to rise, then baked quickly in a hot oven; the bread puffs up high while cooking and deflates slowly upon cooling, leaving the center hollow

New Zealand Kiwi: brownish-skinned fruit, about the size of a lemon, having a vivid green, soft pulp

Norwegian Lutefisk: a Christmas Eve specialty made from dried salt cod which is first soaked in water, then in a water-and-lye solution, and finally, gently poached; the resulting fish is bland with a jelly-like consistency.

Polish Pierogi: dumplings made by cutting thinly rolled noodle dough into squares, filling the squares, then poaching the sealed triangles until cooked

Russian Borsch: hearty soup made from beets and/or cabbage

Scottish Scotch Barley Broth: soup made from lamb broth simmered with vegetables and barley

Spanish Gazpacho: cold soup made from water, bread, tomatoes, and cucumber, then lightly flavored with garlic

Swedish Lingonberries: berries are used in jellies, jams, and syrups

Swiss Muesli: breakfast cereal made of toasted uncooked oats, grated apples, and nuts; mixture is refrigerated overnight with cold milk and eaten in the morning with a topping of fruit, wheat germ, or brown sugar

Thai Phat: noodles made from wheat, rice flour, mung bean starch, or egg

Tibetan Tsampa: bread made from roasted, ground barley and fermented yak butter; moistened with black tea

Turkish Yought: yogurt

Vietnamese Nuoc Mam: sauce prepared by layering fish and salt in barrels and allowing the mixture to ferment

Welsh Leeks: a vegetable related to the onion, but milder in taste

5 Barer-Stein, Thelma. You Eat What You Are: People, Culture and Food Traditions. Ontario: Firefly Books, 1999.

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