As a cooking teacher, who regularly meets people through my cooking classes, here on the sunshine coast, I get to see what a cross-section of society likes to eat and feels comfortable with on their plate. It is interesting to observe shared traits amongst the groups of people, who pass through my cooking school, and it gets me thinking about the whys and why nots. I wonder why most of us tend to eat from a similarly small selection of meals, despite the fact that we now have available in our supermarkets a far greater choice of ingredients than ever before. I think about what food represents, in terms of its psychological ramifications within our lives, and whether these settings can be adjusted.
It seems to me that many of us retain attitudes towards foods, which were garnered in the family home when we were children; and that the apple generally falls close to the tree. If mum and dad liked certain foods and cooked these foods more often, then for many people these influences remain strong throughout their adult lives. A bit like the children, who upon leaving the nest, build their own homes in the same street, suburb or town as mum and dad, keeping extended family close. Food like shelter is a primal need and is intimately tied up with our notion of emotional security.
As we expand the concept of family outwards and it becomes our cultural heritage, food choices again are inextricably linked to our regional and national identities. Here in Australia we can celebrate the rich diversity of our many multicultural strands and this happens most often through experiencing the foods and culinary dishes of these transplanted cultures, like Italian, Thai and Chinese foods – made available by the restaurants and takeaways, which have been created by the sons and daughters of foreign shores.
We are enriched by experience when we allow ourselves to move beyond the close confines of who and what we think we are. Just as our human species is strengthened biologically when we mate and breed outside of those whom we call our own. The cross fertilisation of genes, ideas and even recipes can make us all healthier, smarter and our lives definitely tastier. Our predominantly Anglo-Saxon backgrounds, have unfortunately, cursed many of us somewhat with limited culinary antecedents and if we do not break out of these restrictive walls, then we are condemned to eat poorly and to miss out on the more sublime flavours that life has to offer.
What and how we cook is often a bit like how we make love, we learn from experience a few things and then tend to groove these moves; somewhat unchangingly. Primal activities are a bit like that, not something that we muck about with too much, and what and how we eat falls into this category. We eat to refuel, to derive energy and sustenance from food, but eating is also a profoundly sensual activity. The nerve endings and taste buds inside our mouths feel every morsel as it slides about, and we experience our food in full technicolour, sensorama – if we are lucky enough to be in touch with our full five senses of taste, smell, sound, sight and feel.
So eating is a very personal activity, it is close to who we are, and yet we often eat in public, unlike other intimate activities like sex and going to the toilet. This sharing of the eating experience in communal structures, like cafes, restaurants and workplaces is a ritualised cultural activity. We bring our own mores, likes and dislikes, to this public performance of consumption. I am always reminded of the recounted experience of migrant children in the Australian school yard at lunchtime, as the contents of their lunch boxes were reviled by the Anglo kids because of their peculiar differences. As children we often fear what is not customary and uniform, and unfortunately many of us remain in this childish state, particularly around our foods and what we consider acceptable.
When people form intimate relationships, like marriage and close friendships, they are often confronted with the need to move beyond their culinary comfort zone in a bid to cement the stability of their relationship. The desire to share tastes and flavours is sometimes paramount to couples and their ongoing sense of emotional security. I regularly hear about the compromises being made by one partner or the other, and the effect that the changes to their diets has upon them, both positively and negatively. In fact this can be a major motivating impetus in getting people to come along to my cooking classes. A bit like going into relationship counselling I suppose, with both parties hoping that the inspirational influence of a neutral teacher may magically impart some shift in the culinary status quo of their relationship; and it sometimes does.
Seafood is a commonly held culinary ‘no go zone’, among many of the people who attend my classes. I hear again and again the refrain, “Oh I didn’t know that seafood could taste this way!” Whether they had an unfortunate early experience with a bad cook or perhaps have actually never tried the said example of fish or shellfish, due to the fact that mum or dad likewise had avoided the experience and did not cook these critters at home, the fear based result was the same. We often work out who we are by declaring the things we know that we dislike, “Oh I don’t eat fish, or oysters, or mussels.” I may have made this decision when I was 6 years old but I unquestioningly stand by it today. The walls around this individual are close and in yours and their face, perhaps it makes them feel safe. Eventually however there comes a time when the individual feels somewhat cramped by their stated dislikes, and this is when they often find themselves in one of my cooking classes, either alone or with their partner.
I speculate that the adolescent or young adult who has consciously rebelled against the tastes and predilections of his or her parents, usually has developed a wider and more far-reaching culinary diet – they still may not be able to cook but they may consume more different foods. This individual has broken away from the invisible ties that bind the obedient child to the emotional strings surrounding mummy and daddy. We are all on variable time lines regarding this necessary rebellion, some do it early and some very late, but eventually we all need to break the moorings and swim free; and perhaps then taste the sea.