How culture defines our approach to food
20 Oct 2013 05.40 am by Renny Wijeyamohan
I remember speaking to my friend Liz about an overzealous flatmate of mine who was always quick to throw away food that appeared to have gone bad. His definition of bad extended to bruised fruits and vegetables, meat that smelled bad (ie had a meaty smell) and food that while - past its Best Before or Use by Date – smelled, looked and tasted fine. His reasoning was that food is cheap and that he was prepared to pay a premium (being the cost of replacement of the food) to ensure he stayed healthy and didn’t get sick.
Liz then told me about a friend of hers – a girl with a background from Papua New Guinea, who had a different approach towards food. If a fruit or vegetable was brown or damaged she would carefully cut the damaged portion out and then enjoy the rest. I couldn’t help but admire this approach towards food. It was simple, pragmatic and the opposite of wasteful. This attitude – trending towards food conservation – reminded me of my parents, of Sri Lankan descent, who had impressed on me the importance of thinking of food as a resource to appreciate, conserve and enjoy. In contrast to the approach of my food-Rambo flatmate and his bin first, think later rule.
But to be fair, this was an approach that I also had internalised after moving out from home. I thought back to the last few items I had thrown out – bananas because they were too brown, chicken because it smelled “bad” (like chicken) and some sprouting potatoes (surely anything that grows green limbs after being removed from the ground has some pretty deep issues).
There seemed to be cultural factors driving this food behaviour that differed from my parents who had grown up in Sri Lanka and Liz’s friend who had lived in Papua Guinea. The abundance of food in Sydney - along with a lack of understanding of how that food was grown, picked and transported (I purchased most of my food from a local grocery store) – had led me to have a somewhat compartmentalised view of food assessment. Not knowing the growing or picking process (contrast this with my parents who had grown up on farms in rural Sri Lanka) meant that I lacked a sensory language to compute and interpret some of the food signs I was receiving (like changes in colour, taste and smell).
This meant that out of ignorance, and probably a little fear too, I was over-ready to misinterpret some of the harmless messages that the foods I had in my fridge, pantry and fruit bowl were sending about how ready (or not) they were to eat. A little food education, then, can go a long way in terms of assessing food accurately, saving money, eating sustainably and growing healthily.
culture and food
papua new guinea
- Image by Graham Crumb, courtesy of Imagicity / Wikimedia Commons
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