Friday, October 9, 2009

Food as Text

Food is made up of a multitude of components. These different components are weaved together like threads to form one composite—like a text that can be read and interpreted. Those threads can be interrogated, deconstructed, and traced back to other composites of other objects, people, events, and ideas. Just as Proust’s Madeline triggered a string of memories in his mind, so can each piece of food or each dish carry an individual in countless directions. 

So what is food composed of if we look at it as text for deeper understanding? Food is not simply a conglomerate of different ingredients, though those ingredients may be the most obvious of the threads that make up a particular food. There are ingredients or nutritional elements, yes, but there are also scientific processes, chemicals, scents, flavors, memories, agriculture, and cultural meanings that are embedded within each dish. And these are only a few of the threads that can compose food. Two individuals who interact with same piece the food could be led in completely different directions on various threads. The reading of the text is unlimited, and there is an undeniable synergy as the components meld together. 

Take the apple for example. On one level, it is simply a fruit from a deciduous tree, with the scientific name malus domestica. It was one of the first fruits to be cultivated by humans and comes in a variety of breeds with different flavors, textures, and shapes. Apples can be sweet or tart, green, red, or yellow, and be used to make a variety of dishes. 

Beyond the basic components of the apple are the cultural meanings. As with most foods, there exists cultural constructions, symbols that we all appreciate. One might think of the healthy associations with the apple, and the phrase “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” might be uttered in one’s thoughts. It could also trigger the knowledge of Apple as a technological empire, indicating that at least one cultural thread leading out of the apple is tied to business and technology. 

There is also everything that surrounds the production of the apple, whether it’s plucked from the tree of a local farm or packaged in a plastic bag at a corporate supermarket. The piece of fruit’s waxy skin could be coated with pesticides or remain unaltered by chemicals. The tree could have sprung up in the forest on its own or a grower could have created hybrids and altered its genes, reflecting in one apple the ability of nature to produce a glorious yet simple bit of nourishment, yet also showing the potential of humanity’s power of technology and science. 

The apple could be found on the tree, at the store, on the kitchen table, in a lunch box, cut into French fry shapes at a fast-food restaurant, coated in caramel, or sliced in half and dipped into paint to create art. It could be stuck with objects to create a little apple person, thrown at someone, mashed into apple sauce, or used it as a symbol of New York state. Within this one piece of fruit each of these possibilities is apparent, and the context of the apple can change its meaning at any given moment. 

An individual’s involuntary memory could also be sparked by the simple interaction with the apple. Viewing the apple could conjure memories of apple picking as a child—of steaming hot cider, hay rides, and warm cider donuts. It could bring one back to the feeling of a simpler time of childhood and invoke a sense of the past. Perhaps the sight of an apple could conjure images of the biblical Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. 

Smelling the apple could trigger memories of apple-scented perfume, shampoo, or soap. What and who does the smell remind the individual of? Could it be a friend, a family mother, a stranger on the bus? And what memories do these references lead the individual to remember? It could lead to memories of the smell of apple blossoms, blooming just when the pear trees in the next orchard over are becoming bare and stark against the gray sky. Tasting the apple could remind one of grandma’s sweet apple pie, crisp leaves, and the scent of a loved one’s warm home on a cool autumn day. The sweet little bite could bring a sense of comfort in the midst of a hectic day—offering a relief with the taste of one of nature’s creations. The touch of the apple and its smooth waxy skin could remind one of the feel of the baseball, transferring the individual to a little league game or Yankee Stadium. 

Each apple, each cup of tea, each chocolate chip cookie, each piece of sushi, each grain of rice in each piece of sushi…they all have the ability to bring the individual on a journey through all of its components, to trigger memories, and conjure up cultural meanings. 

Everything in our lives is potentially a text for deeper seeing, understanding, and interpreting. All that potential is inherently present, whether it’s one’s sense of identity, a television show, or an old letter discovered in an attic. Food is no different. Rather than mindlessly eating, one can allow each interaction with a dish to be an opportunity to unravel the threads and experience the potential in each bite.

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