By Dr Ricardo Ayala
Good foods are available more than ever before in Chile. Although one may take a nostalgic look back to the 80s, until that time it was impossible to find coffee beans or imported beer, let alone exotic fruits – on a lucky weekend, fine farm produce was most likely to be found on the black market in some feria, under the label “de exportación,” which would cost you an arm and a leg. While in supermarkets, you wouldn’t see frozen pizza, or ice cream untouched by a chemist’s hands, at home housewives would season oniony dishes with the holy trinity of all Chilean seasonings: salt, cumin and oregano. Entire generations were brought up modestly on dried milk, instant soup, white bread and margarine, fake coffee, pasta and canned tomato sauce, stewed beans, bone broth enriched with potatoes, and, perhaps, a once-a-week chicken for an entire family. And yet Chileans may seem to be eating differently these days.
Food is a complex phenomenon, hardly a purely nutritional one. I avoid making a functional claim that good food is about diets, health and calories. In fact, those puritan claims on food consumption monopolised by health practitioners often provoke the opposite reaction: wanting to have more of what you’ve been forbade from. In some strongly culinary-oriented cultures, food is family, it’s friends, it’s tradition, and it’s enjoyment; whereas in others food represents a spiritual experience linked to their very existence on earth. And for us, social researchers, the relation of a people with its food is a fertile field for getting an understanding of its way of living. Nothing in the sociology of family, for example, evokes more vivid memories about the sense of homely life than the image of the family members sitting around the table and the dynamics between them. These memories are indeed easily – and nostalgically – evoked by the welcoming, smoky aroma of a roasting chicken, or the comforting, cinnamony smell of baking on a foggy day. That is the symbolic value that food has. In the West, most noticeably in the Latino way of celebrating, nothing expresses our sentiments more genuinely and more affectionately than food. When you think of all the events which tie us together, say our intimate celebrations marked on the calendar or the little triumphs of ordinary life, you realise that a constant manifestation of them is food on the table, a meal that all too often becomes a feast – put a platter here, another there, bring the vapoury roasting tin proudly in as the centrepiece and let the food do the thing that it does.
Though, the rush of modern life came to us so abruptly, carrying with it all its evils. No surprise then, that people – turned into office creatures – skip breakfast, have a sandwich over the computer keyboard for lunch, or at best heavily-processed, chemically-tasting cafeteria food, and get back home after long hours for the once while watching the news. Modern life hasn’t taught us how to eat: all it has done is teach us how to buy more food, which is quite another thing.
The main challenge here, and it was the challenge I beared in mind when I wrote this article, is that our food culture has remained attached to old formulaic ways of eating. It’s true that Chile may not have cultural exchanges with other nations at the scale of geographically easier-to-reach countries, and despite the effects of foreign television on several cultural features, cooking and eating doesn’t seem to enjoy the same degree of openness to external influences. As in any other cultural feature – say, language, music, clothing – the types of food we cook and eat suggest areas of interaction with other cultures. In the United Kingdom for example – possibly one the best examples of cultural borrowing – what you eat has become a part of the sick fixation on marks of social standing, whereas our food habits may risk staying relegated on the rather narrowed, conservative side.
I know, I really do, that those same habits formed an important part of home economics in the old days of skinny cows. But, thankfully, the cows look fatter now. We are becoming great devotees of cookery television shows and spend a great deal of time in effortful journeys within supermarkets every week as the supermarkets themselves multiply at an unprecedented pace. And yet the average person wouldn’t look further than their favourite gondolas – possibly those of ketchup, coke and bread – while sunflower oil sits on a shelf-to-shelf throne. Our attitude towards food becomes the food we get; the food we get becomes the food we eat and the food we give.
I’m not advocating here for the, taken-for-granted, dominance of chef food on television and restaurants. Rather, I’m stressing the irreplaceable value of ordinary home cooking – for even chefs themselves are now looking back to the charms of home food – the pleasures of cooking and eating in the time of work alienation, and how our food identity may be significantly enriched by widening our cuisine repertoire. We shouldn’t necessarily adopt transitory food fashions uncritically either, and I firmly believe that our food cultural identity should be strengthened; although in cooking as in all spheres of culture, identity is composed by ‘layers’ of influences and, as such, it’s never finished.
Any cultural description of a people might begin with “The food they eat…” So far, however, ours might rather be one telling the illusion of Chilean food – which we actually have only once a year [independence day celebrations] – or one remarking the ludicrous amount of onions and potatoes we get, or at best one ending up reconstructing a rather speculative history of eating, for that influence of functional perspectives on our way of viewing and experiencing food has made us forget that there are cultural aspects in how we eat, that food carries value and that food symbolises our reciprocity.
Enjoy your meal.