We've all heard the catch-phrase "you are what you eat" or some variation on the same theme a thousand times in our lives. Fans of the original Japanese version of "Iron Chef" will be familiar with the quote by Brillat-Savarin "Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are" (assuming that you pay attention to the opening credits).
That sentiment is a real truism for people who really love food. Many people overlook just how much food plays a part in our (or any) culture. Some would go so far as to say that food IS culture. Think about it the next time you meet someone new, and you discover their nationality- I will bet that one of the first things that pops into your head is something related to food. Who can think of an Italian without thinking of pasta? Or Indian without thinking of curry? Or Japanese without sushi? It may not be the first image that you think of, but I am sure it comes to mind very quickly.
What does that mean for me? I am an American of Italian descent. My grandparents were born and grew up in Italy. Many of my childhood memories have blurred over the years- but I always remember the big pot of "gravy" simmering on the stove every Sunday morning, remember the day before a big holiday with every family member around the table grating parmesan cheese, rolling meatballs, peeling garlic, or coating one item or another in breadcrumbs.
I like to think that these memories are behind why, as an adult, I fell into the role of family cook (most of the time at least). I will not kid you - I don't consider myself some elitist gourmand... I take blatant short cuts at times, even the unspeakable heresy of using tomato sauce from a jar, in the name of expediency, and honestly, there is a certain satisfaction and charm to some of the pre-processed, fast-food,junk-food, convenience foods that are endemic in this country. They too have their place in my childhood memories. I do what I can to make sure at least one main item on the dinner plate is made with care from fresh (or as close as possible to fresh) ingredients, and attempt to apply some creativity and technique. I also try to take risks and order food that's a little more on the adventurous side when eating out, and genuinely would like to give almost anything a try if it sounds good.
Hopefully, this will inspire my kids, or at least bring them to appreciate the food culture of their heritage as viewed through the lens of whatever additions and modifications I can make successful- in that way it's not just an Italian-American food culture they're experiencing, but something more personal - our family food culture, that is the sum total of all the little contributions made by each generation. We each experience our own private food culture, which is an extension of our family's food culture, which is an extension of the larger culture around us and in our heritage. It is something unique to each of us, yet still a part of the larger whole.
There was a time when I was constantly trying to replicate my mother's tomato sauce (cue my Sicilian ancestors rising from the grave to remind me that they call it gravy!). I could come close, but it was never the same. It got better when I realized that I should be taking what I learned from my mother's sauce (GRAVY!) and using it to make my own. I still can't replicate her's, by my version has gotten much better since that realization- and by doing so, is a better homage- something different, but recognizable as a descendant. In that way, our food culture evolves, grows, and changes over time, just as we do as people.