When people think of what identifies a cultural group, there are some obvious signifiers: language, clothing, and festivals. Cultural identity is rooted in the place it developed, but as the diaspora of any people settles outside its homeland, food can keep culture alive. Here are two ways that food maintains links to traditions.
Food Constructs Identity
Ask American Executive Michael Canzian about who he is and one of the first things he will tell you is he is Italian-American. How does someone living in the U.S. create a connection to his Italian roots? While there is certainly a way to dress “Italian” or celebrate in the way Italians do, dressing in a stylish manner doesn’t signify “Italian” without context. Many Italian celebrations have become part of mainstream American life. It is only with food that Italian-Americans are able to construct an idea of themselves as Italians no matter where they are now.
Italian food, with its emphasis on family interaction, from families cooking together to families sharing dishes, constructs identity not just through the history of the dishes but through the ideology behind them. Food is so important to the culture that UNESCO, known for preserving heritage sites around the world, has begun to recognize heritage culinary traditions. Turkish coffee received this designation not just because it is a specific type of coffee preparation but the entire experience. From how it is brewed, to how and where it is served, Turkish coffee is a part of the Turkish experience that families can recreate no matter where they live.
Food Honors Identity
What we think of as ethnic food has many more differences than similarities. From European dishes and Asian food from the far East and the subcontinent to Native American dishes, the U.S. is made up of hundreds of ethnic and cultural groups that have unique dishes. What all of these traditional dishes have in common is a commitment to ingredients and preparation that is only now coming back into vogue.
Cooking with fresh ingredients, from scratch, potentially with family, is a time commitment. By investing time in maintaining traditions handed down for generations, chefs, from the home to the professional kitchen, are maintaining ties to a way of life that valued food as a vehicle for connection to family and friends.
Whether you’re making tamales for Christmas, banh chung for Tet or a pot-au-feu on a winter evening, when you cook a dish from your cultural heritage, you are constructing and honoring your ethnic identity.