Food: The Gateway to a Cultured Life

I have an unhealthy obsession with Anthony Bourdain. Probably because his attitude is so close to the voice in my head that I constantly have to silence because you can’t be as blunt as he is as a school service worker. Probably because he smokes (or did he quit) and drinks as often as he can without reservation and apologies: what you see is what you get with him and I love it. Because of this obsession, I’ve literally watched almost every episode of Parts Unknown on Netflix and one of my favorite episodes has been his trip to Lyon France- an episode that demonstrates the importance of meals and the palette in developing culture and citizenship.

At one point in the episode, Anthony accompanies Michelin chef Daniel Boulud to his former elementary school. The circumstance is familiar to anyone who went to a public school. The return to where it all began, to where you learned to be a person in every sense; fighting, laughing, crying and clawing your way to middle school. Fittingly, the only documented stop in Boulud’s school is his trip to the kitchen, where there is a chef! A chef, not a lunch lady, a chef! This is not the first time I’ve heard of french school kitchens being taken as seriously as any restaurant. When I read Bringing up Bebe the author also speaks of the high esteem french schools hold their school lunches and the professionalism of the whole setting. On the menu today in Boulud’s old stomping grounds? Pumpkin soup, with pureed pumpkin, nutmeg, and white wine. Served with baguette and cheese and fruit for dessert. Can you imagine this being served in an American school? Further, the lunch line is non existent. The chef not only prepares the food, but she also served the children, just like anyone’s mother, walking around the lunchroom filling big soup bowls as children devour whatever is put down in front of them. Boulud comments that the food is meant to be “challenging” and that there is a lesson to be learned from being served just like you would be at home.

But, what is that lesson exactly? We can all recall our own experience as children being put through a school lunch line where food is given like we’re all prisoners, held on campus for a few more hours. Is there a difference in the way we approach food that develops, in part, from these two different experiences? I would argue, yes. The act of being served a warm meal, a meal with maturity and that challenges a young palette to develop into adulthood with understanding and appreciation for subtlety of ingredients, results in an appreciation for food that goes beyond just satisfaction. Food becomes social and an integral part of developing conversation skills. We are no longer eating just to get through the rest of the day, but to enjoy the time we spend together. Children are not only groomed to accept the challenge of a strange sauce or smell, but they are challenged to eat just like the grown ups, be just like the grown ups, ask questions and develop confidence just like the grown ups.

I find this especially interesting with a one year old who is constantly surprising me with her palette choices. I’m often tempted to assume that the only part of the meal she will want is the bland rice or pasta, but then she goes for the shrimp or greens and devours them over the carbs. In this constant cycle of happy surprise I see my own tendency to assume that she’s not developed the maturity necessary to appreciate our shrimp and grits or Lo Mein. I can only imagine that my mentality that Stella can only do so much carries into other aspects of her life that could stunt her development by lacking the challenge necessary to allow her to overcome obstacles and mature. Learning to fight against this tendency, learning to trust that she will try and explore food according to her palette, has taught me to allow her to explore freely in other aspects of life- all within reason, of course.

But, what’s a parent to do when the reality is that 1)French chefs will not come to America and cook for our children and 2) the powers that be won’t allow us to have white wine in public school cafeterias? I challenge myself, and my fellow young parents, to see the dining room table at home as an integral part of development for children. Just like stacking blocks or puzzles, learning to navigate the societal norms of enjoying a meal with things we may or may not be accustomed to; learning to hold conversation while sharing a meal is crucial to making sure our citizenship doesn’t end up only conversing via text and twitter. Further, each culture- whether Mexican and Cuban like our family, Vietnamese, or German- passes cultural identity through the act of preparing and sharing a meal. Don’t believe me? Go to any Mexican household and notice, no matter how American-ized, everyone still eats beans with tortillas, not a spoon or fork. These are the customs and experiences children need to understand their place in the world and build on this identity. Even in a high chair, a child can appreciate the fundamentals of society and learn to fit in while also contributing in his/her own way.

Food becomes, then, a portal through which we can access each other and our common citizenship. Maybe that’s why I like Bourdain anyways. His show always illustrates that no matter language barriers, or lack of language in the case of babies, food can and should be taken seriously as a means by which we can communicate ideas and hopes, dreams and disappointments.

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