Over the past few months, I’ve been re-thinking my stances on food, and life. I’ve eaten at some really fantastic restaurants and had some exquisite food. But there were plenty of times I found myself grinning over a plate of mashed potatoes in the cafeteria with my friends, or with a $6 shawarma in my hands on the streets of Portland. There have been pizzas in the basement of my dorm, made for a few friends from a pool of a few dollars. I’ve sipped fine wines in nearly complete solitude. One of the best meals I had was the last dinner I had with my college friends at a crumby little 24-hour diner in Portland. It as all been very character forming, and I’ve come to something of a revelation.
I don’t have to be snobby to be a foodie. I’ve never hidden the fact that I love Cheetos and Kraft Blue Box, but I’ve hidden behind a veil of snobbery in other areas. ”Oh, these people fucked up: they cooked basmati for a dish that isn’t Indian. That’s wrong.” These labels of what is culinarily correct, or ideas about the best way of doing something were phrases that peppered my everyday food vocabulary. It was hard for me to enjoy food this way though: I knew exactly what the perfect taco should be, and by God I would hold every taco up to this golden standard. There were very few meals I was completely satisfied with, even ones I made myself. I constantly searched for the best of the best, until one night where I was walking back from an Iraqi Food Cart Fundraiser. I started to do some thinking about my attitude towards food, and the many different ways in which we relate to food. Of course, I also did some eating, grabbing a shawarma from a lonely shawarma cart downtown. It was that shawarma that sparked my contemplation.
“Here I am at 10 p.m. with a shawarma in my hand from a random food cart, coming back from an evening of eating and friendship centered around food, and I couldn’t be happier,” I thought. This shawarma was not the best thing I’ve ever eaten, maybe not even the best shawarma I’ve ever eaten, but at that time of night and in that mindset, it was fantastic. I noticed that even though it wasn’t the most brilliant shawarma ever, I was completely satisfied with myself and my meal.
My obsession with being “the best” made me look at food in a completely objective way, divorced of it’s context and surroundings. I thought that it would be the best way to go about writing about food. After about a year of experience around food, I came to realize how wrong this was. Every food is made in a certain context that cannot be divorced from it; in fact, a food’s context is as important as the food itself. A meal cooked for friends in a dorm kitchen has a completely different set of expectations surrounding it than a fine dinner with lavish family members. Even a humble shawarma late at night has a very different context than a delivery pizza. For me as a food writer, and as a person, this was a very big revelation that I have only just finished hashing out completely.
Food is something that humans have shared since our species came into existence. It operates in many different, versatile ways to accommodate whatever context it appears in. Though still a necessity, it has very high symbolic power, showing the commonality and acceptance of others. Sharing a meal has always been the ultimate sign of the cohesion of the group sharing the meal, and I believe that still holds true.
So where I have said before that I love good food, I would like to amend my attitude: I love and can appreciate all sorts of food. The context of food is what has always been missing in my approach to food, and it took a lot of food, months of contemplation, and a few Iraqi refugees to show me the true scope of food. I am happier about my eating experience, more knowledgeable about food, and more appreciative of it. So yes, I will happily eat a plate of cafeteria mashed potatoes because they are fairly good, and because I’m sharing the dining experience with my friends.