Turkey, Shirini, and Mickey D’s: How Food Defines Us

Ahh, the fall season has arrived. With it our family has welcomed a new baby girl (whom I blame for the lack of blog posts the last few months). It is my favorite season, mostly because of the FOOD! Big surprise, right? When I was a child, I never counted Christmas as my favorite holiday, even though the presents and tree were quite exciting. My favorite was always Thanksgiving. And my favorite part of Thanksgiving was always the feast. (Not a huge fan of the Disney-fied tale of pilgrims and indigenous Americans).

So comforting, so delicious. The piles of fluffy potatoes, the sweet cranberries, the flaky biscuits…if I hadn’t been allowed to devour so much of these delights I think I might have liked to curl up inside them and take a warm nap. Even now, recalling the memories makes me feel full and relaxed.

When I was 16 years old (as detailed in a previous post) I became vegan. This decision would serve to positively transform my health and my life forever, but in those first few years it wreaked havoc on my favorite holiday. Amazing how something as vegan as a potato can become taboo fare so quickly when things like butter, cream, and giblet gravy are part of the experience. On several occasions a vegan friend and I made the best of it by cooking our own meal together, but we lost the experience of sharing a feast with our families. But it was, after all, just one day of the year. And I still got a lot of enjoyment from celebrating it.

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As time went on I found that one of the hardest things about being vegetarian or vegan on such a day was not about having a good time myself, but in satisfying the expectations of others. Thanksgiving is usually a multi-generational family affair, and I discovered quickly that many people in my family (just like in every family of every vegetarian I have talked to) didn’t exactly feel comfortable when I began turning down their carefully prepared dishes. Some probably wrote it off as a temporary teenage rebellion, others patiently accepted it. But clearly I was rocking the boat, and I could sense the discomfort I had caused.

Over the years, as I had to turn down more and more of the foods people offered me (at holidays, parties, or just visits to friends homes), I started to notice how sensitive of a subject food could be. When you reject food, to some people you are rejecting much more.

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My husband’s father is Persian and loves his Persian food. He always says that he treasures his wife’s cooking because she learned from his mother and makes Persian food the way he remembers it growing up in Iran. I’ve cooked many meals for the extended family and don’t think I’ve seen anyone look so un-trusting of my modern American vegetarian fare than my father-in-law. But to his credit, he has become more experimental over the years I have known him, and has to-date consumed quite a few servings of tofu, bean soup, and the like. But when I had my son, his first grandchild, I observed a fascinating other component to his love of Persian food: the need to share it with his progeny. If he wanted to feed my son something from his culture and I didn’t approve (e.g., a Persian candy or cookie right before bedtime) he seemed almost physically pained over it. I soon came to realize that it wasn’t just food he wanted so badly to share with his grandson, it was much, much more. It was his background, his country, his identity.

Learning this helped me better understand the stir I had caused over the years with my new way of eating. Many people felt that when I changed my diet, I was making a statement about not just the food choices of my family, but of who they were as people. Food is hugely tied to identity, and this can make eating differently a very controversial decision.

Sharing cultural foods can be a wonderful way to celebrate the diversity in our families and communities. For many people it is the only way they experience other cultural traditions. But sometimes the food-identity relationship can work against individuals, or even entire cultural groups, when they want to change their diet for the better.

Mc Donalds is one of many “food” establishments that understands the food-identity relationship thoroughly. They design advertisements to specifically target minority groups, and have devotees who will go so far as to make access to Big Macs a political topic. There are many people who defend their fast food eating habits with pride, even if their diet has been shown by multitudes of medical research to be a quick path to an early grave. If you have been part of a community or family with such attitudes and have ever tried to adopt a healthier lifestyle, you may have experienced the backlash firsthand. When you show that you can change, it follows that other people around you can too, and the ones who don’t want to might not be so happy about the new pressure they feel.

So how can you make healthy lifestyle choices inspiring to your loved ones instead of anxiety-producing? Here are some excellent tips adapted from dietician Versanto Melina’s article on ‘food diplomacy’, as well as a tip of my own:

1. Field questions about your food choices with a sense of humor. Being too serious or high-and-mighty about your healthy eating will not just add to the discomfort others may feel about your choices, but could also prevent them from considering a positive change themselves. If you make it look fun, you may end up getting some recruits.

2. Practice tactful ways to deal with the common situations that can make healthy eating feel alienating. Some situations to prepare for are: dating someone who eats differently, being invited to someone’s home for dinner, holidays (!), or eating lunch with co-workers. If you have some ideas of how to minimize negative interactions before you face one of these situations, you will likely feel more relaxed and be able to set your positive example in a laid-back manner.

3. Take time to listen to other people’s opinions on eating, and try not to be judgmental. Being open to the viewpoints of others can often inspire them to be open to your point of view. Listening and sharing with a smile will show your loved ones or peers another benefit of healthy eating: feeling good physically and emotionally!

My tip: Be human! If you are stressing out over your diet “rules” then you aren’t doing your health any favors and you definitely aren’t selling your new way of life to others very well. Make smart choices, but be reasonable. I prefer to set unbreakable rules but to define them very loosely, like giving up sweets but making it very clear that hot chocolate, Luna bars, and banana bread don’t count as desserts. (A drink, a protein bar, and bread, thank you very much!)

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If I were to describe my diet in three words, they would be natural, diverse, and satisfying. I cook most of my meals at home with basic ingredients. I enjoy ethnic foods and a variety of seasonal fruits and veggies. And I love to make rich comfort foods that make eating a very fulfilling experience. I hope these three words also describe my identity outside of the kitchen. I’m proud of how I eat, and it makes me feel proud of myself as a person as well.

What are your three words?

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