We Are What We Eat: Putting the Cultural Back Into the Global

My sweet little boys; born in France to a French (Catholic) father and an American (Jewish) mother and brought to Italy at the tender ages of 1 and 3 to spend 7 years learning to become Italian before moving back to France. Life is a dream, life is full of wonder and life is tough and confusing. Caught between all of these various worlds, struggling to juggle conflicting identities, find common cultural ground, muddling through the learning process of creating their cultural self, my two boys have become true mini-cultural melting pots.

We are raising a generation of Citizens of the World: we've gone global! With a click of the television remote or an internet link, our kids are anywhere in the world they want to be, seeing, sharing, discovering. Children soak up language and culture like tiny sponges. They pick and choose what suits, copying friends, trying to fit in, asking questions, accepting or refusing. Fads and trends spread from kid to kid, teen to teen around the globe like an electrical current and our kids no longer feel they belong to or want to identify themselves with one culture. We travel the world and the world travels to us. As mixed marriage, expat parents, we struggled, trying to guarantee that our own sons spoke all necessary languages, were able to slide into one culture or the other as we traveled, moved around or spent time with family, trying to give them a bit of Opera, art and good books alongside the Italian love of football (soccer) or the schoolyard passion for Space Rangers, the teen craze for American skateboarders or bands. But how do we, those of us raising multi-cultural children (and there are more and more of us out there), instill a sense of self, an identity? How do we keep our own culture alive and pass it on to the next generation? I ended up turning to what I know best: food.

Like most Americans, I am a mere two generations from the Old Country. I grew up straddling two cultures, two culinary worlds, sandwiched somewhere between the Steak and Potatoes and the Cabbage Soup and Potato Knishes, the Apple Pie and the Apple Kugel, the Hot Dogs and Cole Slaw and the Chicken Soup and honey drizzled over warm, fresh Challah. I always took these things for granted, never questioning why we ate what we ate. Yet marrying a Frenchman, a man raised on blanquette, daube and baguette smeared with Camembert, raising my own kids in a new, foreign place, I realize the enormity of the balancing act that it is, trying to keep them at home culturally while letting them discover new worlds. My sons have grown up with several cultures, sometimes in harmonious joy, sometimes clashing like warring factions. I have tried to bring something of each culture to the table, explaining origins, history, family lore as I set each dish before them. I have tried to keep the continuity of family history alive through the ceremonies and holiday meals. There is also something so comforting, reassuring in re-creating and eating what is so familiar.

Culture and cooking are as intertwined, as necessary to one another, the old saying goes, as a horse and carriage or love and marriage, and, for us food lovers, as are marshmallows and hot cocoa, peanut butter and jelly, tomato and mozzarella. They are so intertwined that we can't tell which is more necessary to the other, which came first, each one infusing the other with spice and vitality and maximizing the qualities of the other. Yet, as in fashion, music or tv, our food has gone global, too: Sushi bars are opening up in every American town, we grab Indian or Mexican on our way home from work and whip up a wok meal on weekends. Curries in England, nems or couscous in France, burritos and pizza in the US, our children grow up thinking that these once exotic foods are part and parcel of their own, local culture, just part of the landscape. We spend our vacations traveling the globe, children in tow, giving them opportunities and opening doors, easing their way into a global, modern future. We've crossed a line somewhere in our excitement and maybe it has just gotten a bit too out of hand. Have we sacrificed our culinary cultural identity at the altar of our worldliness? Has globalization taken the cultural, the home out of our kitchen? How do we hold on and pass on what is essential, the understanding of who they are, their place in this newer, braver world?

Culture is expressed in both what and how we eat: from ingredients to cooking method to the way it is served and how mealtimes are arranged. Most of us, whether we realize it or not, conscious gesture or not, express our culture everyday by what we prepare. We may travel the world, move from one country to another, experiment with this dish or that, but one thing we all carry with us, the one aspect of our culture that generations of immigrants have kept close to their hearts, loathe to leave behind, is our cuisine and the rituals that surround it. We can and should make a choice, a conscious decision: through our cooking, we can remind the children, grandchildren and generations of family to come who we are, where we came from and, whether that culture is ethnic, religious or even political, it is how we keep our cultural identity alive.

Each time we gather around the table, this ritual, this eating together strengthens bonds between individuals, whether family or friends, as well as between generations, and we become part of a community. Each dish that I cook, each meal that I serve, I hope that something has been brought home to my sons, these Global Citizens, and that they feel their roots just a little bit with each mouthful.