Food, Glorious Food!

Food as a part of culture & tradition
All societies around the globe create holidays and use ritual foods to celebrate them. Food is a primary element of social interactions. Most human gatherings include food.
There are biological re-enforcers for this behavior. Of our five senses one of them has the longest memory power. It is the sense of smell. If you think about this in terms of human survival you realize it increases a the survival rate of a creature to be able to identify food that is safe versus food that previously made you sick, not by tasting it, but by smelling it. Ever we modern humans are likely to sniff a carton of milk that is past its shelf date rather than have a taste.

Smell and taste are closely linked. So food – which we smell and taste – will instill memories that last the longest in our minds. Thus the holiday use of particular recipes builds on our memory of the holiday itself.

Ritual. Ritual is also intrinsically human. We are hard wired for it. Studies of children find that those children who are most resilient, that is they recover from hardships best, are those that have ritual in their lives. I’m not taking about just religious rituals like lighting candles, although those count, I’m talking about routines, familiar patterns in life. We adults may say we like things to be “new” but that’s because we have already laid down a foundation of familiarity. Children, and adults, thrive when they know what is coming. Where will I be today? With whom? Where will I sleep tonight? Just as pediatricians recommend creating bedtime rituals, bath time rituals, mealtime rituals, to provide security in a children’s life, larger rituals linked to the seasons, holidays and lifecycle moments are good.

Food can be used to reinforce these annual rituals when we prepare the same foods each time we observe a holiday. We come to associate the activity with the food. What would a birthday be without a birthday cake? Simply eating a particular food is not enough. I can eat Chebakia, a fried honey cookie eaten to break the fast at Ramadan, but it will not make me feel Muslim nor will I understand the meaning of fasting on this holiday. Food is a support to a meaningful memory.

In my cooking (and eating) classes we talk about how someone who did not grow up with a particular holiday can still learn to use food to create that gut connection to the celebration. We also cook, chat, eat, laugh and generally have a darn good time!

Call me if you have any questions.