Pepperings from the dinner table

from The Ruston Daily Leader September 30, 2010 column

Culture is by necessity political.  It is a response to environment, an environment constructed by those functioning within it.  We experience meaning by virtue of our relations with one another.

Perhaps because our culture is so relational, we experience fear for that which is unknown.  We experience paralysis in response to fear in plenty of big ways in foreign affairs, the economy, education, relationships, and so on; however, we also experience this fear in small ways, such as not waning to try new things even if they may enrich our lives.  In fact, evidence indicates that we fear an unknown outcome more than a known bad one.  Does this relationship between fear and familiarity have the same effect on our view of cultures different from our own?

I have noticed a particular comfort in many cultures in the familial aspects of the dinner table.  For the past 50 years, there has been an increasing exposure to other cultures by means of technology.  This perceived familiarity with things foreign from us has quelled many fears and insecurities concerning the unknown.  We have come a long way since mystery casseroles, boiled chicken and the Brady Bunch.

I came back to Ruston about a month ago and was thrilled to find the addition of a Vietnamese restaurant–Pho Paris–on Tech Drive.  I’ll never argue with a cuisine that serves up onion, cilantro, hot chilies, and lime!  Since the French occupied Vietnam in the middle 19th century, there are actually a good number of French Vietnamese restaurants.  Pho is a a noodle soup usually served with a choice of meat and a concoction of the above-mentioned items.  Some say that it was the French who influenced the broth of the Pho while the noodles traveled in from China.

Huu Ngoc, an author and “cultural expert” (cool title, huh?), has written a great deal on Vietnamese culture; he reminisces on his memories of those times at the dinner table: “Pho was very special, almost status food.  We loved it because it had everything we valued–rice, noodles, broth, meat and vegetables.  it was complete, nutritious, infinitely delicious and yet so easy to digest that we could eat it morning and night, day after day”.

It is a comfort to momentarily taste a glimpse of another culture’s creativity with sustenance.  If you look into any other country’s cuisine you will find that most have been born out of necessity.  You will usually find a stew that combines a meat, a starch, inexpensive and readily available vegetables doused in a myriad of spices–must like the gumbo of the Creoles or the Goulash belonging to the Germans.  We marry our knowledge of the history of a country with its responses to its struggle to survive when we note the heavy dependence on the potato in Irish culture or relish in the stir-fry method introduced by the Chinese as a way of conserving fuel.  We smell the climate of a foreign region by tasting the perfect balance of warm, sunny days and cool evenings of the Burgundy region in France and the Willamette Valley of Oregon, which make the obstinate Pinot Noir grapes so delicious.  These are the senses that make each and every culture burst with life.

Of all people, Louisianans know what it means to struggle.  We know what it means to find lightness in the heaviness.

I know that in my family despite heated political disputes, religious disagreements, and varying lifestyle choices, when it comes to our food we all of the sudden become agreeable.

The whole point in this rambling piece on cuisine is not to be another elevation of the foodie craze.

What I mean to say is that I have found something very profound in the things shared at the dinner table.  These are the beginnings of where we learn to be communal.  And to be in a community, or rather, to be social is to be functioning in an interactive and improvised play.  The dinner table is where we learn to turn the seriousness of our day to day into the lightness of human interaction.