I had been a vegetarian for six years when I started doing fieldwork as a cultural anthropologist. I ate fish and dairy, so I was pretty low down on the vegetarian meter. I was comfortable asking to be accommodated, and although I sometimes dreamed (literally) about eating bacon, I had no intention of changing my dietary practices. I had traveled internationally with no issues or need to eat meat. Then I started working outside my own cultural boundaries.
The first time I ate meat again was at the U.S.-Mexico border. I’d been working with a middle school and had made some real friends there. One friend, who I will call Maricela, asked me if I’d ever eaten a torta. When I said no, she got excited and insisted on taking me directly to her favorite torta guy for lunch, who had a food truck close to the border fence in downtown Nogales. As we drove, she explained that a torta was a kind of sandwich on a bolillo, a soft white roll, smeared with avocado, usually some lettuce and tomato and onions and pickled jalapeños, and your choice of meat.
Okay, I thought, maybe there will be some kind of fish option. And if not, maybe this one time I could eat the chicken. As we walked to the truck, I scanned the sign that listed today’s choices. There was no pollo. In my memory, there was only carne, and carne of many types. Standing there with my friend, who was so thrilled to be introducing me to the very best torta, I just couldn’t say, “I don’t eat that.” And as I asked about the different meat options, it turned out that each one had a story of its preparation, a time when you might prepare it at home, who might be invited, a memory of the best one you ever had. All this in a sandwich. I got carnitas that day, I’m pretty sure.
I didn’t change my regular eating habits immediately after that day, but that scene began to repeat over and over again as I fully engaged with ways of living that were not the ones I had grown up in. When I was invited to people’s homes, they had always prepared something very special for me. Often, that included meat. An Arab man in Jerusalem, who I had just met hours earlier, arranged a feast for me that included many small meat dishes. (That led to a very exciting stomach-related adventure the next day, which I will write about if you ask me nicely.) A favorite treat might be a strong cup of instant coffee, served without my usually required cream and sugar. It might be the beans your grandchildren love and say that no one can make just like you do. As people offered me their favorite dishes, I stopped being able to say no or ask how it was prepared on my way to declining it.
Have you heard that joke about the anthropologist? Her student was preparing to go to her field site, where she had worked many years earlier. As she was giving the novice advice, she said, “Don’t turn down any food they offer! It’s very insulting to them if you say no.” When the graduate student got to the village, she began to ask older members of the community if they remembered her mentor. Oh yes, they replied, we remember her well! The student noticed that they were grinning a bit, and making eye contact over her head. What was so funny?, she asked. Finally, one of the older men burst out, “That woman would eat ANYTHING!” And they all rolled around laughing.
I’m not suggesting that I feel the need to eat everything. I’m not suggesting that vegetarian anthropologists don’t do great work. But I do think that food is an avenue into culture in a very deep sense. The memories of eating a particular dish tell us about social relationships. The act of eating together across cultural barriers can bind people in a way that few other social acts can. Sharing and accepting food symbolizes a willingness to engage.
I’m also aware, because of my work as an anthropologist of borders and globalization, of how our food is produced. Many favorite dishes are born of poverty and the need to make do with what was available. Dishes that we think of as “authentic” to a region could only be possible because of global movements, trade, and migration. And the people who farm and harvest our food are among the most exploited people on our planet. (Yes, look for a follow-up piece on another reason I grow my own berries.)
On this blog, I want to share my love and passion for exploring other ways of life through food. Some of the posts will be about the food where I live – Arkansas, in the southern United States. Others will be about food in the places I have traveled and worked as an anthropologist. I hope all of them will entertain, and will help you to entertain family and friends, and to cross cultural boundaries whenever you can.