Food and Interconnectivity

I touched on the subject of the interaction of emotion with food in a previous post, but I thought it really deserved a more thoughtful look.  Food is connected to emotion in a very powerful way.  Sometimes the act of preparing food a particular way becomes a statement of identity.  Food can be an act of love or a bone of contention.  It has been both in my life.  Many of our most difficult marital negotiations have centered around food, who prepares it, what gets prepared, choices about taste and nutrition, etc.

My mother in law expressed love for her family through food.  She was an amazing cook who could recreate a dish after tasting it once, and often her version was better.  She lived on three or four hours of sleep per night for much of her adult life so that she could be sure that her family ate well, in addition to all the other obligations of raising nine children, working and keeping house.

By the time my husband came around, he is the baby of the family, she was suffering from a serious heart condition and could no longer work in the fields.  It didn’t stop her from doing all of the other things expected of a woman of her time and culture.  She thought it absolutely necessary to have the ability to feed anyone who came to her home at the drop of a hat and spent a lot of time making sure that she could.  Life and food and love were completely intertwined.  Because of this, my husband grew up equating food with love in a very deep way.

For mi suegra, was both a point of pride and an act of love to always feed her crew.  Financial hardships dictated that sometimes that meant bean tacos, but she was amazingly creative with the resources that she had.  She also had cooperative reciprocal relationships in the community that had been cultivated over the years.  She was known as “la abuelita” (little grandmother) in the community because she acted like a surrogate grandma to anyone younger than her.  When I came to live with her, we would regularly deliver food to her friends, and regularly receive food from them.  This is tomato season, and we would often open our front door to buckets of tomatoes left anonymously.  We would then can one to two hundred quarts of tomatoes for use the rest of the year and the salsa made from those tomatoes would go to others as well. The community takes care of its own, especially the elders.  It is an incredibly tight knit community with food playing a major role in the currency of communal exchange.

This is somewhat true in all cultures, more true in the more rural areas of the U.S. where my extended family lives than where I grew up.  I was in a major metropolitan area and mutual support in the practicalities of life was much less pronounced in the community I knew.  My parents moved states away from their families as young adults, so those natural networks didn’t exist either.

For me, food has always been a source of fuel or sensory experience.  I enjoy the subtle differences in flavor and texture found in good food.  I really like to eat.  On the other hand I can ignore my body’s cues for food if I am doing something more interesting and can resent the time it takes out of my day.  I could be riding bikes with my child or building something or writing or reading or any number of other, much more compelling activities.  I enjoy the zen of a cooking project, but would give it up in an instant if I could afford help.  I would hire a cook long before a housekeeper or gardener.  If I could be free of the daily obligation of feeding other people I totally would.

I take some pride in being able to carry on the tradition of the food of my mother in law.  She taught me many dishes and I can replicate them faithfully.  I can follow a recipe successfully, and even modify it, but I cannot look at a bunch of disparate ingredients and come up with something yummy.  That TV show Chopped would not be for me.  I am not a particularly creative cook, but I learned her techniques for those dishes and my versions rival any others I have encountered.  It is kind of cool to be the white girl who can make versions of Mexican dishes that are really appreciated in the Mexican community.

In the community of la abuelita, a concerted effort is made by all to keep those connections alive, often with food.  Each time food is exchanged, there is a reciprocal obligation created.  Most of the time it is a direct one to one reciprocity, but often it also works on the pay it forward principle.  If you are known to give into the community, then the community also supports you.  Those exchanges aren’t always food, often people would show up to help with a garden, or to fix a fence, or give rides, or anything else that needed doing.

Since la abuelita  has passed away, we have allowed ourselves to slowly drift away from those communal connections.  Part of that stems from the fact that many of those connections were with older folks who have since passed on, but a shameful part is that we no longer have la abuelita to push us to keep those connections alive.  The hustle and business of daily life gets in the way and we have not been good about making an effort to stay connected outside of the family.  We also don’t cook that good traditional food nearly as often, so have fewer opportunities to share.  However, I have to admit that we cooked tamales just last week, had more than we could possibly eat, meant to take some to a couple of people, and never did.  I just put the last of them in the garbage last night and I feel so guilty, that was a lot of work and an opportunity for connection that I just threw away.

 

food-and-interconnectivity

Culture Shock, Why I Started this Blog

When my husband and I got married, we had been dating for years and I knew and liked his family.  Shortly after the wedding, his father’s health took a turn for the worse so we decided to move into my in-law’s home to care for them.  At the time I had not realized how very different our worlds could be.  I realize now that most of our dating relationship took place in my world, then I was plunged into a society with very different norms and expectations.  Navigating the first years of marriage while living immersed in the old school Mexican-American culture changed the course of our relationship in both positive and negative ways.  I kept being surprised by what seemed normal to everyone around me.  Eventually I was able to feel comfortable in this world, helped enormously by my mother-in-law who was very accepting of me and my foibles.

The thing is, I can inhabit the Mexican-American society, I can be loved and accepted, but at the same time I am always other.  I am always “la huera” (the white girl).  As an aside, another difference was the use of nicknames, when I was growing up, nicknames weren’t really a thing.  In my husband’s circle, nearly everyone goes through life with a nickname, some of them not very flattering at all.  Others are used as honorifics, for instance, my mother-in-law was “La Abuelita” (grandma) to everyone in town.

I have been nervous to put my perspective out there because I am aware of how much privilege I come from.  I am aware that Mexican-American and every other minority ethnic group are so tightly knit because they must be to survive in the larger society.  In the larger society, I am a white, middle class, educated, privileged person.   In the larger society I don’t ever encounter obstacles that are an every day occurrence for someone who is not privileged.  However, as an outsider who has been immersed in another culture, I think I have a valuable perspective.  I hope I can foster a conversation between people with widely differing experiences so that maybe, just maybe, there can be more understanding of the other during this tense time in our society.  And it is our society, all of us own part of the problems of today.

I have also encountered resentment, a feeling that I am somehow separating myself from the society in which I grew up, and still live most of the time.  That some of the habits that have rubbed off onto me after nearly thirteen years of marriage make me neither fish nor fowl.  (Perhaps it’s fourteen, neither of us can remember if we got married in 2002 or 2003.  🙂

I am now a person who inhabits both spaces, and so some things are important to me that are different from what is important in white society.  I have changed, my core values have changed in some ways, in other ways they have not.  It was really eye-opening to me when I had a misunderstanding with a dear friend, and when we got down to explaining our thinking to each other, it was when I was able to explain my actions and priorities through my family history that my friend was able to accept my choices.  My friend had thought I was acting through an imposed social system from the other culture and had a deep resentment that I was making choices through a foreign lens that affected my friend .  It didn’t even occur to me until much later to question why it would not have been OK to have different priorities because of all of my experiences.  It was one of those rare moments in our friendship where we truly did not understand each other.

There is an implied superiority in cultural choices.  Each culture believes, so deeply that it is often unacknowledged, that the choices that they make as a culture are better than those made by any other culture.  When white society is lampooned by comedians of color, we laugh, sometimes ruefully acknowledging the truth and silliness of our habits.  However, deep down, we know that our habits, however silly from the outside, really are the right way to do things.  The same is true for every other culture I have encountered.

So the question becomes, how do we overcome this so that we can truly communicate across cultural boundaries.  So often I see people talking past each other, with neither side really hearing what the other is trying to say.   My fervent hope is that this space becomes a forum where people from many cultural perspectives can candidly, but respectfully, work on figuring this all out.  I also want to find others who are neither fish nor fowl and share experiences and ways of coping with our unusual situation.

How have you encountered a cultural disconnect?  How have you dealt with it?  What have been successful strategies, and how about some less stellar moments?  How do you process the different expectations of those around you?