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The Meaning of Food

January 26, 2011
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“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”
-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, Physiologie du goût (The Physiology of Taste), 1825

I love documentaries and I also really love food, so naturally the 3-part PBS documentary The Meaning of Food really appealed to me.  Each episode is just under an hour, so it was really manageable (even though I ended up watching them all in an afternoon).  The episodes are loosely narrated by Marcus Samuelsson, the Ethiopian-born Swedish-raised chef, who got his love of food from his grandmother.  The mini-series aired in 2004 and is available to watch on Netflix streaming.

The three episodes are Food & Life, Food & Family, and Food & Culture.  Generally a big problem I have with documentaries is the attempt to be exhaustive, which they inevitably can’t.  I hate seeing a film that tries to cover too much ground over too short a time, in which case nothing gets explored satisfactorily.  What’s nice is that none of these episodes attempts to comprehensive; they’re a series of vignettes on a common theme.  Each episode explores people’s relationship to food from a very personal and emotional perspective.  Even though the episodes are titled like they are, every story has a lot to do with culture, family, and life, because those attachments to food are inseparable.

The documentary focuses almost exclusively on the United States, but the series draws heavily on a wide range of cultural experiences, practices, rituals, and attitudes toward food and eating.  The resulting documentary is an engrossing look at one of the most vital parts of all of our lives.  From a teenager fasting during Ramadan, to a beautiful and heartbreaking cookbook made by the women of Terezin concentration camp recalling whatever recipes they could in the most dire circumstance.  A Samoan funeral, an Italian wedding, the importance of poi in Hawaiian history, and cooking with Vertamae Grovesnor, the queen of geechee cuisine — all of these are interesting stories that not only piqued my appetite but also made me think about food in my personal history.

One of my favorite parts of the series was about kolache, a semi-sweet pastry with a variety of fillings (poppyseed, peach, cheese, etc.), that is popular in south central Texas where there is a large Czech community.  While they are your typical red-blooded, football-loving Texans, they have also passed down their cultural traditions.  Every year there is a huge kolache festival, complete with a kolache baking contest.  It was really adorable to see boys choosing to bake kolache with their grandmothers instead of playing football.  And this is Texas, so that decision is kind of a big deal.

I will always be a fan of PBS documentaries because they have a balance that most TV documentary series lack.  In addition to pieces about lighter fare, the series also looks at controversial topics like Makah whaling in the Pacific northwest.  This documentary approaches culturally sensitive topics in an understanding and non-patronizing way.  I will always favor things that engage with individuals and their experience instead of making broad strokes about culture.  Everyone has a complex relationship to food, and too often that gets minimized to “emotional eating” or other negative aspects of first-world hunger.  This series approaches the physical and spiritual relationship to sustenance with reverence and respect, which I am totally on board with.  If you have the time and access to a Netflix account, I highly recommend you watch this series.  You can also visit the PBS website for the series for recipes, resources, and more stories about the meaning of food.

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