Food is more so much more
A tamale is not just a tamale. It is part of the ingrained food culture of Mexico and to some extent the food culture of the American Southwest and later, the South.
Fried chicken is not just fried chicken. It has deep roots in the food culture of the American South, both among African Americans and Southern whites.
Even something as humble as the Ukrainian style chicken livers picture above has a cultural history.
Food has meaning to ethnic, racial, or national culture. Even simple steak and potatoes, depending on the preparation, could mean American, French, South American, Italian, or any country that raises beef.
Sausage is a perfect example of deep cultural roots. Just about every cuisine has some type of fresh, smoked, or cured encased meat.
Dumplings are a craze right now. Whether they are Chinese Xiaolongbao, Russian pelmeni, or pierogi. Of course, there is the great comfort food, chicken dumpling soup. Where, why, and how did so many cultures come up with the dumpling?
Chili, a dish that came out of the American Southwest has many cultural influences, depending on where you live. In Chicago, one of the best chili places was a take-out joint on South State Street owned by a Chinese man. He served red or green chili, in the styles of New Mexico. Chili was all he sold.
We rarely think about the deep cultural ties particular food has to people. We eat what we like because it tastes good. Someone, a home cook or restaurant prepares it right and we love it. We come back for or demand more.
Food is about people. It is a part of their lives. Where they were, where they went, and to some extent, what life was like.
Food is about place and time. Today, when we eat it, yesterday, when it evolved, where it came from, and how it came to be.
Common foods we eat have a rich history and cultural significance, especially foods derived from extreme poverty. Others, especially in modern times, came out of wartime rationing or privation.
There were local dishes that spread due to people traveling and bringing back recipes. James Beard and Duncan Hines wrote extensively about this.
Some foods were designed for utility, like the pasty, a savory pie invented for miners to keep in their jacket pockets until lunch time.
When these foods become popular, something is lost. We try them, like them, and never give thought to where or how the came to be. We never consider they are a part of a broader ethnic, regional, or racial cuisine.
We are accustomed to chains ripping off cuisine without the knowledge or love that makes it great. They serve mediocre copies of what could be wonderful. Hamburgers, tacos, supposed healthier versions of Mexican food, Chinese, and more.
People flock to these places to fill their maws with fake ethnic food sourced from factory commissaries.
I would rather buy a tamale or taco from some old woman sitting in front of a church operating an illegal stand than even step foot in Chipolpoison. I would rather cook at home than eat at Olive Garbage.
If you are going to eat out, find original places run by people who actually are rooted in the cuisine you choose. Even it is a steakhouse or neighborhood ethnic restaurant. They prepare meals with passion and love that can only come from a long food culture passed down through the generations.
Do some research. Delve into various cuisines available where you live. Make Google your friend. Eating should be a learning process about food, culture, and people. It is not just about filling your belly.
Cooking, whether at home or in restaurants, is about sharing. Sharing food. Sharing culture. Sharing passion. Sharing effort. Sharing a piece of the owners and cooks past. Appreciate that. Eat and learn. Be a good citizen of the world in your own town.