Finding Your Niche Foodways-Wise

Grasshopper

Grasshopper

Four years ago I met Doris Friedensohn at a conference that was jointly organized by The Culinary Institute of America and New York University. Several faculty members from both colleges presented papers ranging from intensely boring to soaring brilliance.  For me, Doris was the shining star of the entire shindig.

Doris is a specialist in American culture with an interest in food and foodways in the US and elsewhere. She is a woman of enormous grace, charm and scholarship who has a unique role in the food world and who is leading a life filled with doing exactly what she wants to do. She told me how she does it.

“Irena, I talk about eating bugs and other cultural matters; what I like to call the satisfaction of an unpaid food job.”

“In the U.S. we don’t eat bugs,” I say. “We spray them. We swat them. We stomp on them. And we spray ourselves to stay bug-free. We also don’t eat horses, as the French have done, or dogs, as the Koreans still do. Eating is cultural. That is, we eat what we have been taught to eat and what powerful food industries pressure us to eat.”

“In Mexico – – and especially in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca – – fried grasshoppers, chapulines in Spanish, are a favorite snack. For many Oaxacans, they are an addiction, like peanuts or Fritos.” Chapulines (pron: chap-u-leen-ace) are eaten after the rains begin and through early autumn.

Forty food service students are still with me, still paying attention. I couldn’t be certain they would. After all, I’m not a chef. I’m a writer. I’ve asked them, “who’s interested in the impact of this free, fourteen-week program on their lives.”

Ever since I began visiting the Food Service Training Academy (FSTA) at the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, more than five years ago, I’ve been worrying about the absence of cultural matters of the curriculum. Students are taught knife skills, weights and measurements, proper temperatures for cooking and chilling various foods, sanitary standards and a basic culinary vocabulary.

In the kitchen, they learn to fry, sauté, and grill; they make soup and pizza, vegetables, rice and potatoes; they bake cakes, cookies and fruit pies. They are asked to plan menus and act as sous chefs for a day. They are assigned a foreign cuisine and compete for prizes in an international food jamboree.

But at no point in their program are questions raised about the origins of their own foodways or the nature of eating in America. At no point are their own attachments to burgers, fries, grits, well done meat and rice pudding treated as anything but “normal.” Students know they can’t afford a diet of sirloin steak and lobster. But beyond the limitations of the pocketbook, neither they nor their teachers ask: why they eat as they do – – why do Americans generally eat as we do?

“Where’s the food in food services?” I remember asking the chefs at the end of an international food competition. How come no one mentions of cultures of rice and potatoes or cultures of butter and olive oil? How come students don’t wonder why hundreds of running feet of supermarket shelves are devoted to dried cereals that are almost indistinguishable from one another? How come no one asks why fresh vegetables in ghetto food shops look limp and packaged meats are often gray at the edges?

What could I do, I wondered? What could I contribute to the (liberal) education of food service students?  Selfishly, I wondered what I might do to enrich my connections with students – – and advance my own writing project. I imagined a series of “five-minute mini-lectures.” The abbreviated talks that I had in mind, illustrating the cultural contexts of eating or the politics and economics of foodways, would have to be carefully scripted – – for clarity, liveliness and pace. The talks would have to be entertaining: more like stories than lectures.

“After my opening comments on bugs, I describe how grasshoppers are netted in cornfields, killed in scalding water, deep fried in lard, and seasoned with garlic, chili pepper and lime juice.”

Woman Selling Capulines Courtesy of http://mexkitchen.blogspot.com/

Woman Selling Chapulines Courtesy of http://mexkitchen.blogspot.com

“Chapulines, sold on the street by women wearing the traditional long skirts and blouses of their villages, are a deep bright red, salty, spicy and crunchy – – a little like crispy fried onions, with a bite. I confess to my audience that the first time I noticed the grasshoppers in Oaxaca, maybe 40 years ago, I couldn’t imagine putting a bug in my mouth – – not to mention a handful of bugs.”

“But, I’ve had a chance to rethink my squeamishness. What makes fried bugs so different from sautéed calves brains or stewed pigs’ feet or raw octopus — all delicacies that I love?”

“On a visit to Oaxaca in July 1995, I report, I sought out a local restaurant with chapulines on the menu. The owner served us beers, warm corn tortillas, guacamole – – and a platter of flimsy red objects that glowed in the afternoon light.  I grabbed a tortilla, covered it with a thick layer of guacamole and sprinkled a few chapulines on top. After folding the tortilla in half — with the bugs out of sight — I took my first cautious bite. The bland tortilla, the smooth guacamole and the spicy crunch of chapulines were like music in my mouth. Delicious! As good as a great BLT!”

“The story ends with a message. “Around the world,” I say, “millions of people regularly consume all kinds of bugs. Why? Because: they are local, easily trapped, cheap, simple to prepare, rich in protein, and tasty, too. Many Mexicans eat chapulines because their grandparents did and so do their neighbors. And because, they are passionately attached to the texture and flavors. Grasshoppers are a normal, seasonal and sustaining part of their diet.” ”

“Later, in the kitchen, several students ask me about other odd foods I’ve encountered, and whether I really liked them. I mention snake and wild boar; the snake rather dull, like chicken, and the boar unforgettably flavorful and rich. “I had snails,” one student says, “in a great garlic sauce.” “Everything depends on where you grow up,” another student says. “I wanna travel,” a third student comments, “and see how they eat in Asia.” “We can eat weird Asian foods right here in Newark,” a fourth student chimes in. “If we want to,” he adds.”

“I’ve given the chapulines talk – – and a half-dozen others – – to four classes now; and the chefs have integrated them into the FSTA program. They like the idea that I’m taking care of “culture” with my stories from Mexico, Tunisia, Nepal, Korea, Argentina, South Africa and the Obama election campaign.”

“With these presentations, I get closer to students whose lives are my subject and reason for being there. How fortunate I am to have stumbled upon this good, nonpaying food job!”

2 thoughts on “Finding Your Niche Foodways-Wise

  1. Wow, what a coincidence.

    Just today at dinner, a pretty girl sat down across the table from me. Wanting to make conversation, I introduced myself and asked where home was for her. In a cute accent, she said she was from Juarez, Mexico. After weeks of eating school-issued vegetable, meat, and potato, we soon started reminiscing about our homes that we so sorely missed. When I asked her what her favorite thing to eat in Mexico was, her eyes suddenly brightened up and beamed, “Chalupines! Fried grasshoppers are sooo good!”

    Even though I have heard of such bizarre foods many times before, my cultural conditioning still had me for the briefest moment subconsciously shocked and repulsed. She must have noticed my facial flinch, because she then somewhat smugly asked me what I liked to eat. Not to be outdone, I shot back: “Chicken feet!” and was instantly met with reciprocal shock and repulsion in the form of gagging sounds followed by “Grooooss!”

    Hopefully more cultural exposure and education will encourage the students here (myself included) to more frequently consider what “ordinary” foods appear to others and what exactly it is about “odd” foods that make them bizarre. Broadening our palates is always a good idea.

  2. How interesting. We could start a global conversation on this topic. Let’s see if we can get others to tell us about their favorite childhood foods. Mine was toad in the hole, a sausage buried in custard topped with grated cheese.Itn hindsight it was a sort of caveman’s quiche!

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