A Lost Food Culture

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Caiyla B. Curtis

Caiyla B. Curtis › Caiyla B. Curtis has practiced many art forms since just a little girl, however the act ...


For centuries and through many transformations of what is considered food, we humans have discussed, studied and contemplated the meaning of health. In ancient Greece they measured the body’s fluids with balance and color. Ancient Andean cultures connected health and the body to geology and geophysics. And today, in America, we unfortunately measure health by size, diet titles (vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, Paleo, etc.) and “revolving door” nutritional studies. As a culture, what does it mean to eat healthy, truly? I reflect on why American culture has such a hard time uncovering the answers to this question. There are of course so many factors. I muse it is because we lack history as a relatively new nation and culture, and we are lost in what health is. In some ways we are like lost children just trying to find a way home.

When you look at cultures laden with tradition and ritual you can see an ease to their eating. They have found the right foods that work for them and have avoided the many health problems that our country suffers from. Could their healthy outlook be purely based on practice? When I see tradition-based diets in our country, I see native roots or upbringing (think farmers’ markets and small producers). When I see America the lost child, I see disease, confusing methods and mistakes being made in forming new traditions: genetically modified corn, patented seeds, and food desserts. It seems we are a new generation trying to outgrow old traditions, but are getting confused and lost on the way.

But is this what we need to do to grow and discover what health is?

For my own personal journey, my health has been reflective of my surroundings and the culture that I find myself in. Two years ago I lived in Denver, was vegan (with an exception for eggs), gluten-free and free of processed sugars. I was happy enough thinking that I was somehow classified into another league of eaters that really had it made with vegan cupcakes and margarine. I don’t doubt that I was relatively healthy, but soon my surroundings and daily life would change. After my vegan/gluten-free/sugar-free days I found myself in France enjoying pastries and butter slathered on farm-made bread. Whoa! you say, veganism to french pastry? Let me explain. While in Denver I had been completely immersed in my vegan lifestyle. It was easy to find foods that worked, and still have enjoyable foods; it was my culture. When I moved to France, my almond milk latte and gluten-free bread weren’t available to me. My surrounding culture had changed, challenging my diet and me. While I still consider both of these experiences healthy, I do realize that they were very different. At the time of being vegan I was told it was healthy, and while in France, immersed in their culture, eating bread and butter was considered perfectly healthy. When I graciously offered to make the farm staff in France my vegan lasagna, it was met with complete disgust and disinterest. The people I was surrounded with were completely healthy, so why was my “hip” lasagna a flop? Although these cultural eating habits are completely contradictory, depending on the culture you are immersed in, both seem to work.

Do you remember when you were a kid and you wanted something? You asked your mom, she said “no,” so of course you asked your dad hoping for a different reply. It appears to me at times that the American culture of eating is like your parents. You will most likely find a “yes” to what you want to hear.

“Yes, vegan diets are healthy.”

“Yes, eating lots of animal protein is great for you!”

“Yes, that fat-free protein bar is healthy for you.”

“Yes, processed foods are terrible for your health.”

But which is the right answer? It is true for cultures too; some would say that the traditional French lifestyle of eating is terrible for your health. Coffee everyday, butter, bread and meat. Others would say that a completely animal product, caffeine-free diet is healthiest. However why do both of these diets work for the people eating them? If French citizens thrive on this diet (they have a longer life expectancy) and so do vegan/vegetarians, than which diet is the right one? My head is spinning just thinking about it, so no wonder we as a culture are so confused. America is filled with contradictory messages. Perhaps it is because we are a relatively new eating culture and are just now finding the ropes, or perhaps we have too many choices. Our American culture is so over stimulated with messages that we lose sight of our roots, and therefore lose sight of a routine and balance.

America is wrapped in the belief of freedom and democracy that to look to other, more developed eating cultures is not an option; but perhaps we need to, otherwise we will forever be the lost children in the supermarket. The “Truth” or the answer may only come with time. I acknowledge that this theory is underdeveloped (and could eventually be a 1,000 page research paper), but it is clear to me the American eating culture is on the wrong path.

As a socially conscious, informed individual, I find the meaning of health is easily discovered in what works and what doesn’t. I think a large part of finding your “food culture” is about learning from your mistakes, being a large part of what is around you, and learning about where you come from and where you live. If what is around you is making you sick, or just doesn’t work, then there is always room to learn and evolve. Health can’t possibly be a black and white study that tells you that this berry is the new superfood, or that soybeans are good for you. There’s too much to factor in. There are too many considerations and nuances to comfortably fit oneself in someone else’s definition of health. If we depend on the theory stated above, we could conclude that America can’t look to other cultures; we will just have to form our own and learn from our mistakes.

There are, however, two things that I feel are for certain: the meaning of health is different for everyone and it is forever evolving. In the Renaissance it was believed that tomatoes were deathly and melons made you sick. This, if nothing else gives me hope that although we may seem on the wrong path, there will always be room for change, evolution and above all else, a chance to learn and evolve our current eating culture.

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