While Deena and I were enjoying a tasty squash quesadilla at Salsa’s, I was musing on how nearly every culture in the world has variations on stuffed or rolled pancakes. Mexico has burritos; eastern Europe, blintzes; France, crêpes; Vietnam, banh xeo; Columbia and Venezuela, arepas. There are so many more, but I think you get the idea.1
Deena and I love to sample local food wherever we go. Maybe it’s because we love to cook (and to eat!). Maybe it’s because we grew up in a culture that was dinner table centric. I’m talking about the Jews here. Not only did every Jewish holiday have a prescribed meal, but even the weekend meals (Sabbath) were dictated by religious rules and tradition. My mother always had a dairy meal on Saturday because her mother always did. Her mother, my grandmother, was religious and didn’t cook on Sabbath. That meant that Saturday’s meal was cold, hence dairy.
Take Passover, for instance. It’s a holiday that is completely defined by its food, starting with the matzoh, or unleavened bread. At the Passover table, there’s supposed to be a roasted lamb (not popular with the vegan Jews you can imagine), and a half-dozen other specific items that should be tasted. The good news is that the rules say each person at the table has to drink four glasses of wine!
It’s not just the Jews, though. Christmas dinner, either the evening before or the day of, is always a big one for the Christians. Remember that Scrooge’s repentance was buying a turkey for his employee’s Christmas dinner. For many Christians, the Sunday dinner is a morphed version of the Jews’ Sabbath dinner, a weekly feast for the whole family.
Meals, and in particular, holiday meals, are the times that families and friends get together. We break bread. We drink. We talk. Maybe it’s the only time that families talk.
One of my favorite Ang Lee films is Eat Drink Man Woman. This movie revolves around the family’s Sunday dinner. It’s the only time the whole family is together. It’s the only time they converse (if you can call it that, but that’s the point of the movie).
Food, eating and culture are inextricably entwined. We are the same in so many ways the world over. We gather at meals for interaction with family and friends. We offer up meals to guests as sincere hospitality in the Mediterranean tradition. The rituals are similar even if the specific items of the food are so unique to the locale, tradition and culture.
This journey of Deena and I, will also be a journey of fork. We love to sample the local and traditional cuisines. One surprise for Deena in Asheville has been grits, most notably, the cheese grits at Tupelo Honey Cafe. “Grits” is not a thing one grows up with in Toronto. I must admit, the grits here are a far sight better than I’ve ever had in South Florida. Then again, SoFla is mostly transplants from other places, not true Southerners.
As we travel, we’re sure to find cooks and chefs that are proud of how their original or adopted culture influenced their cooking. We look forward to experiencing these new tastes. We look forward to being locavores.2
Tupelo Honey Cafe’s Goat Cheese Grits
- 3 cups water
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1¼ cups quick-cooking grits
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons cream
- 4 ounces goat cheese
- 2 tablespoons chopped basil
Heat the water and salt in a medium sauce pan until boiling. Add the grits, reduce heat and simmer until grits are tender, about 5 minutes. Whisk in the butter, cream and goat cheese. Continue to whisk until the mixture is smooth and creamy. Stir in the basil and remove from heat. Serve with creole style, or spicy barbequed, shrimp.