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My Perception of History and Culture as it Relates to Cuisine

Hey Chef Fan’s! Here we have it the last history and culture paper, the final one as you could call it. This isn’t the final paper I was expecting to write but it was what my teacher wanted from me. The assignment itself was to: Write a two-page essay “Why is history and culture important to your perception and understanding of food and cuisine?” that brings together all class lessons, research, and cultural logs. Please draw upon anything covered in class as well as additional outside work and family and personal experiences. You will give an oral report and must submit all homework as part of your final assignment. Now the Oral Report part turned out to be just talking about my ideas and thoughts about how soup and food as medicine draw everything we talked about in class together. The paper I turned in for the final however is…

My Perception of History and Culture as it Relates to Cuisine

When I first started this class I came into it with some pre conceived notions about not only food but also the history and culture surrounding it. This could be in part due to taking History& Culture back in Mod 2, or it could also be because of the different research projects about the history of different types of cuisine that I have done for other class while here at NECI. Regardless of what the actual reason was I came into this class with some facts and a lot more ideas about how our history is important to not only our culture but also the food and types of cuisine that we have today. What I really came into class wanting to know was how our beverages have impacted our history and culture as well, and what I have learned not only surprised me but also helped me understand that learning to be a chef here at NECI is following a tradition of cooking for people that goes back to the beginning of human civilization. I have found that the question; “Why is history and culture important to your perception and understanding of food and cuisine?”  is an important reflective question designed to make my class and myself think about what we have been learning.

Since we were given the freedom to pick and choose the topic of our research and because I am interested in how what we drink with what we eat has affected our history and culture I decided to center my focus on different beverages from the areas we talked about that week. To help me do this and to also give me a bit of extra insight into the overall history of how what we drink has affected our history and culture I was asked to look into “The History of the World in Six Glasses” by Tom Standage, and at first I was a little bit resistant to this idea. However, when I actually got around to reading the book I almost couldn’t put it down.  In the book Standage talks about the impacts that Beer, Wine, Spirits, Tea, Coffee, and Coke have had on the history of our world. This was exactly what I was hoping to learn about and Standage made it so easy to grasp the concepts. With this being the driving force behind what I wanted to learn about to better my understanding of why our history and culture is important to my perception and understanding of food and cuisine.

There are both negative and positive things that can be argued for or against each of these drinks, but one of the most interesting things about this book is that it argues that each drink is a form of disruptive technology, a catalyst for advancing culture. Looking at world history in this way is a humbling exercise, as it suggests that for all the “manifest destiny” and chest thumping, early world exploration could basically be seen as simple greed. I personally have been shocked more and more about just how much greed and the “pursuit of happiness” have really cost this world in lives. While on the one hand we probably wouldn’t be the same historically if it wasn’t for the greed of the British and the East India Company. This greed and lust for power has helped change my perceptions about how the travels of both food and beverages around the world have impacted a more economic driven world.

The thing that has had the biggest impact on my perception of our cuisine and the foods we eat is learning that for almost every item that we eat or drink today, it started out as a medicine. To me this is a really interesting idea that has helped make connections to why some dishes are served the way they are and why there are still so many different holistic medicine shops present in the world. Before class began I knew the general meaning behind Yin and Yang but I could not have told you that it also played a part in how the Asian cultures viewed food and cuisine. This idea is a very logical way to look at not only food but also cuisine, because to eat is to live. I also found while researching tea and coffee that they both were used as medicine first before being drank for pleasure. Tea was used to cure poison, and coffee gave a boost of energy and made the drinker feel refreshed and more awake. While, yes, caffeine is a stimulant used to give people more energy, it is not the only drink that was used as a medicine first. When the process of distillation made its way to France, one of the first things they started to do with it was to make different liquors from herbs and fruits to help cure different problems. These tinctures can still be found around the world today and we even have a lady who sells them at the farmers market.

How then have my perceptions about the beverages we drink with what we eat changed after reading Tom Standage’s book and all of the research that we have talked about in class? I have touched already on how the greed of a culture can change and influence the rest of the world for both good and bad, but what I am going to touch on now is why this information is important for us to understand today. In this aspect my perceptions have not really changed as I have always been a very strong believer in the more we understand and learn about the past the more we can not only understand it but also help use this knowledge to better our future. Every time I have been asked to research a culture or a cuisine for a class I have really enjoyed it because it has given me more insight into not only the origins of that culture but also the ideas behind why a food or cuisine is made the way it is. Being a Chef is more than just cooking for someone, because if we can understand why a recipe is composed the way it is or why it has the ingredients that it does we can change it as we need to, to make it better for the person eating it. Think about it from this point of view, anyone can fallow a recipe and make a Chinese stir fry, but only a chef who understands how to truly use a wok, and get the best wok hay out of it is going to make the most authentic stir fry possible. Therefore, authenticity lives in the heart and mind of the chef. This could be one of the reason that it takes a lifetime to master the Japanese tea ceremony or why someone can devote most of their culinary life to just making rice. While my perceptions of what we eat has not changed very much by taking this class my understanding about what to drink with what we eat has changed. This is because I have learned more about the history of arguably our world’s most important beverages, and what impacts these beverages have had on not only my own views of history and culture but also on the world as a whole.


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One Comment on “My Perception of History and Culture as it Relates to Cuisine”

  1. Grandma March 22, 2012 at 1:17 pm #

    You do such a good job with the written word.

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