Sunday, December 23, 2012

Eating Culture Shock

As an anthropologist, I am pretty well-versed on the intellectual side of culture shock.  Just about every ethnography begins with the story of how the writer came to be in the field.  Mine did.  But in ethnographies, it becomes part of the narrative device.  Culture shock is proof that one has been immersed in the field.  Sometimes, though, I think it is a fancy way of saying being homesick.  I've moved from Texas to Ohio this month.  It is disconcerting to move within the US, in part because it is assumed that we share some national culture.  As an English speaker (with a smattering of Spanish), it is reassuring to have relocated to another Anglophone area.  I don't have to struggle to ask for the bathroom or question the nature of the soul.  On the other hand, things are just similar enough to disturb expectations.

In Belize, I learned that as much as I might miss pizza, I was better off eating hudut (a type of fish stew) that risking the local interpretation of Pizza Hut.  I didn't know what to expect from hudut but I had ideas about pizza firmly in my head.  The sauce was oddly spicy, the texture of the cheese was somehow squeaky, and the bread ingredients included coconut milk.  If you squinted, you could see how this product resembled pizza from the US, but the mismatch between my desires and the reality led to some discomfort.  I was also limited in my control over my food in Belize, as I was staying in a guest house with no kitchen.  I ate breakfast at the market and usually had lunch with the women I worked with.  Although at that point in my life I did not eat red meat, it was a point of anthropological pride that I ate what was offered me.  I had pig tail in beans and cow hoof soup.  Unfortunately, my cultural relativism only went so far: I hate potato salad with a passion.  Like many former British colonies in the Caribbean, Belize has plantations of citrus but relatively little amounts of other agriculture (excepting the small Mennonite population).  Many of the prestige foods are canned imports.  Other than that, the area I lived in relied on the sea for major sources of protein (it was lobster season while I was there, an entirely novel experience for me) and coconuts.  Leafy greens were scarce.  A fresh tomato was crazy expensive.  The entire summer, I did not see one piece of broccoli.  So I might be forgiven for jumping at the chance when my friend first offered me "salad."  I expounded on how much I'd missed salad and how hungry I was.  I was puzzled when she brought out a plate of what looked like potato salad.  I tried to set aside my prejudices.  I thought maybe it was a cassava dish.  I tucked in and ended up with a mouthful of warm mayonnaise and grainy potatoes.  This is not to malign my friend's potato salad - I feel this way about all potato salad.  Growing up in the South, I was subjected to this at least once a summer by friends' parents who simply could not believe I didn't like potato salad.  I swallowed and grinned and managed to choke down a few more bites before I confessed that I just couldn't eat it.  My friend thought it was funny that I tried and passed on my plate to one of the small children running around.  It would simply be an amusing anecdote if it had happened once, but like idiot, I found myself in the same position repeatedly.  Women would ask if I liked salad, I would question whether they meant potato salad, they would assure it was "just salad" and like a fool, I would end up with another plate of the dreaded tubers drenched in mayonnaise.  I'm not proud to admit that once I actually fed my salad to one of the potlickers (dogs who hang around the town and eat any leftover food).  Malnutrition was not an apparent problem, but people were often hungry.  Respect for people's food supply won out over my misguided anthropological politeness and I started declining salad.  It seemed a first-world problem to just say I hated it, so I usually explained it had made me sick as a kid.  I continued to eat pork chops and Spam, although in very small amounts.  Many women worried I was either sick or pregnant because I didn't seem to have a healthy appetite.  When I found foods I truly enjoyed (like fry jack, because who doesn't love fried bread?), I didn't eat much because even the coconut oil used to cook it was strange on my palate.

Culture shock can stem from major differences between different worldviews, but just as often, it is the sum of small things - how close people stand, how much eye contact is expected, unfamiliar urban or rural sounds, the smell of the sea (for me) - that are constantly occurring.  There is no relief from these instances until one becomes acclimated.  Then it is easy to forget it had ever been any other way.

In my gustatory education, many people don't believe that I grew up in New Orleans without absorbing through osmosis the city's incredible food culture.  My parents were transplants and my mother was a terrifically terrible cook.  I didn't know you could get peas or green beans outside of a can until I moved out of the natal home.  I have a dear friend who is an excellent chef but I would hesitate to eat anything she made me since my family was suspicious of unfamiliar food.  I didn't have any experience trying new things and automatically assumed that if I hadn't eaten it before, it must not be good.  It also didn't help that I stopped eating red meat around the age of 14, thereby ruling out anything with sausage, pickled pork, roast, or any number of other New Orleans delights.  It was only after I moved to Texas that I became interested (and eventually obsessed) with eating tasty food.  Luckily, it was easy to find excellent food, even as I began my descent into true vegetarianism.  I learned that spiciness was not an indication that I was dying (weird, but true. I thought that burning sensation I had experienced on the rare occasion was a sure sign that something had gone horribly wrong.).  Somehow, Texas grew on me, and I found out that you can make a taco out of anything! Breakfast tacos, fish tacos, greek tacos.  And salsa, on just about everything.  I started pickling, and then started adding jalapenos (sorry about the lack of tilde) to all of my pickles.  I also started juicing and then began making soups and stocks from scratch.  I figured out that people like to eat because food tastes good.  Took me most of three decades to catch on, but I think my new outlook on food experiences would make Belize a different experience for me today than it was in 2004.

So, now, Ohio.  I am still trying out the new foods.  My first week here, I experienced a food panic.  The restaurants I ate at (while my pots and pans were in transit for two weeks) had a ton of fried food and a lot of cheese.  The portion sizes are insane.  I have yet to finish any meal I've ordered.  The bread was not great.  Even the water tasted funny.  Now that I've had time to explore the city some, things are settling down.  After five grocery stores, I've found a few of the brands I'm familiar with.  In my more shock-y moments, I bless standardization.  If I can find De Cecco pasta and Rao's marinara sauce, I know exactly what I am getting.  I try to eat locally, but sometimes my soul's cry for comfort outweighs my conscience on carbon footprints.  I'm extraordinarily lucky to have a farmer's market (year-round! winter market indoors!) five minutes from my new apartment.  Yesterday was the first day I've been able to make it but it has made a world of difference in my outlook.  By last night, I had a soup of parsnips, potatoes, brussel sprouts, and shallots.  A loaf of fresh rosemary bread and a glass of whole milk.  These things make me believe that Ohio will work out.  My work is important and the people I've met so far are welcoming, but food is where I start.  I will eat my way out of culture shock.

Now I just need to find some decent tortillas.