What’s for Dinner, Ma? Food as Communication.

“…Food is much more than just a means of survival. It permeates all other aspects of our lives from the most intimate to the most professional practices. It also is a key factor in how we view ourselves and others, is at the center of social and political issues, and is a mainstay of popular media[…]food is a form of communication because it is directly linked to ritual and CULTURE…” (Food as Communication, Communication as Food, ix-x)

Through speaking with colleagues and reading the work of various scholars, it seems that the field of international communication today can’t easily be defined as it acts as an intersection of varying disciplines. While we’ve explored several international communication arenas, I’d like to take such a volatile topic into the realm of FOOD. Yes, you heard right…food!

So, let’s talk about food as communication. America today, perhaps since the start of the slow food movement in the 70s has “EPICURIOUSLY” enough (no pun intended) developed a serious fascination with food. I won’t even venture into the reasons why or the results (i.e. the boom of the Food Network, the call to eat local, the billions of food blogs who think they’re going to make it big, or the trend in taking culinary classes). The point is, food can act as an identity marker, a form of communication–it’s a language in which we transmit culture. So, let’s take it internationally–food as international communication. Where should we start? Global food security, food as an identity marker for migrant populations, different styles of eating,serving and preparing; different foods for different festivities, culinary fusions, gender based foods, and it just keeps going!

Let’s get down to business. Take some time to think about what food has meant for you internationally. For most people, food is 80% of the travel experience. But, let’s take it further. What has food communicated about a culture or a nation? I’ll give you two very basic personal examples:

1. My parents were born in Mexico. But, my great-grandparents (both my mom AND dad’s side) were born in Palestine and emigrated to Latin America circa 1920. There’s a very LARGE Arab population in Latin America, particularly those from Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Like most migrant communities, they brought their religion, language and culinary traditions. However, much of that has come and gone. Today, most Arab-Mexican families hold on to their identity through perhaps the few Arabic words they learned growing up, their last name and even their distinct facial features. However, one thing that remains most prominent is our FOOD. On special occasions, my family does not make Mexican food–we make Middle Eastern food–stuffed grape leaves, stuffed zucchini, stuffed cabbage, hummus, kibbeh, tabbouleh etc. And, it’s a social tradition where the women gather in the kitchen. For us, food has become an identity marker, or a form of communicating who we are–it remains one of the only ways to keep in touch with our identity, and our geographically distant lands.

2. Have you ever been offered food from a different culture that wasn’t necessarily of appealing gastronomical interest? I spent some time in Gwangju, South Korea, the culinary capital of the country. Because of the nature of the program I was working with, food naturally came with everything we did. I tried things I can’t even spell, and loved them all! I had, however, been warned about a Korean delicacy–fermented sting ray. I was told by my local friends that this culinary adventure was quite disliked by the younger generations as it proved very pungent, and that people in the northern part of S. Korea can’t stand it. It wasn’t long after that when I found myself seated at a dinner hosted by local Korean superiors I worked with where I was offered fermented sting ray. What would you do? I had two options: say no and completely deny their communicating with me, or enthusiastically venture into the realms of pungent chewy fishy goodness. Of course I ate it because I realized in that moment, their offering me a culinary delicacy from their culture was a way of welcoming me and opening their doors.

International Communication takes make forms, and often we might focus on the more conventional forms of communication. But, next time you find yourself encountered with food in any situation, think about what it’s saying to you.