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Breaking Down Cultural Boundaries Over Food

The Sleep Club Editors

Part 1 in a 3-Part Series on Dining


There’s a moment in the 3rd season of the Netflix series, Chef’s Table when in the first episode the featured culinary master says, “With food, we can share and communicate our emotion. It’s that mindset of sharing that is really what you’re eating.” That is the extraordinary Jeong Kwan. She’s not a trained chef. She’s a Buddhist nun whose treatment of food is filled with such poetry, iconic epicurean, Eric Ripert, speaks of her in glowing terms. And as much as I was raised to believe the same thing, hearing her speak about it in that way, this woman of such calm, pure, nature-loving means, made me sit up and notice.


Deliciously bridging a gap

Breaking bread with others takes three distinct forms: intimate and at home or out, lively and fun at home or out, or elegant at home or out. Whatever you’re involved in as you dine with people around you it’s that time to slow your roll, sit back and learn about each other, engage with each other, love each other.


Bonding over a meal made from the heart is probably one of the best ways of “speaking” to and “learning about” each other, but let’s be real here. I cook. A lot. It is my other art form that gives me instant satisfaction because of what I am able to convey in my cooking. I cook for my pets, I cook for my family, I cook for my friends and I cook for strangers. Creating beautiful, delicious food is a form of care and consideration that breaks down all boundaries and shares a piece of you that helps others understand and get you.


In this great book entitled EATING TOGETHER: Food, Friendship, and Inequality, author, sociologist Alice Julier delves into how the ways Americans eat plays a central role in their social life. She posits that by dining together we can shift people’s perspectives of inequality based on the differences in our race, gender, socioeconomic backgrounds, etc., as being more equal than in pretty much any other type of social interaction.


Wherever your heart desires…

League of Kitchens (LOK) in New York City has taken that to a whole new level that made us sit up and notice — and want to try it out for ourselves, to be honest. LOK has been inspiring and sharing immigrant recipes with others since 2013. These meals are learning and sharing experiences in the cooking instructors’ homes because LOK believes there are some dishes that can only be made by hand in your own kitchen and by doing so, by recreating that homey indulgence you learn more about the culture and feel a personal not just an existential connection.


That’s not to say that going out together to a restaurant that serves dishes from a culture that is new to you and sharing that experience with others isn’t valid. Or even going to an eatery that serves familiar meals in a new way — either that your friend enjoys differently from you or even family members have discovered as unique to what you’ve always known — isn’t another way of learning about someone you care about or caring about someone you’re just learning about.  All it’s saying is the intimacy of being in someone’s home from that culture, getting a true sense of them and the life they love, live, know goes a long way towards understanding and demystifying them.


A bit about that word “culture…”

In Merriam-Webster, the definition of culture is as follows:

a: the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group also: the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time

b: the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization

c: the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic


Culture encompasses all of those things that make up the fabric of our lives, the thread that has been sewn across our personal landscape — every person has a cultural narrative. It includes and goes beyond our race, ethnicity, religion, etc. It is our personal beliefs, our practices, our way of being. Within that is a certain way of sharing ourselves with others and it has been my experience that we do that most immersive and distinctly through food. And not just any food — the dishes and ways of preparing them that are a part of that upbringing, history, environment in which we live, legacy, and, yep, heritage.


Keep dining alive

Eating is visceral, the satisfaction instant. That morsel hits your tongue and you immediately react. But it starts before then. We eat with our eyes and nose first. That thing in our mouth is last because it’s what gets it last. Eating to survive is one thing. Dining? True dining? Ah, my friends. That is a glorious past time too many of us don’t engage in anymore. Even countries where to do so was always for more pleasure than purpose, like France, have begun to soften up their stringent belief in and actual practice in the activity. And that, to us, is a tragedy.


But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can create your own LOK in your home, find out what your neighbors are cooking, have a block party… share who and what you are through that amazing equalizer known as food. Or just put in random restaurant thoughts in your browser, press ‘RETURN’ and grab the first thing you see along with a bunch of friends, family, lovers, whatever. When you get there, go ahead and sit down and read through the menu, really read it, ask questions about it, discuss it. Then get a few things to share, try something new, and take… your… time…


Fully indulge in the experience and in each other. Allow yourself to be in the moment and taste your food — smell it, see it, get to know it and spend the time with, truly with the people around you. Imagine what you may discover about a world, a cultural norm that is different from your own when you share their heart and soul through the universal language that goes beyond words? A language we all “speak,” no matter who we are?


Food, glorious food. Bon appétit.

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