What does food mean to you?

Food, and the consumption of it, bridges the divide between the “biological” and “cultural” spheres of human behavior. While food consumption is necessary for survival, the preparation and selection of certain ingredients are heavily influenced by culture and social upbringing. Past these collective meanings of food, we also have individual psychological memories associated with food—both good and bad.

Pouring Sake

(There is also proper etiquette on how to hold the flask and cups.)

Our food memories often have strong associations with culture and relationships. Food is one of the main vehicles through which culture is passed. In association with recipes passed down from generation to generation, cultural norms are attributed to how one consumes food, which we might know as “table manners.” Eating food with others also enhances relationships. Many families make it a point to eat dinner together every night, and going out with friends to eat is one of the most common ways to spend time with others. For example, in Japanese culture, it is rude to pour your own sake, as it is expected for others to pour sake for you and for you to pour sake for others. This cultural custom accelerates the natural bonding that happens when people eat together and ensures that no one drinks alone.

These food memories are also powerful. Unlike other memories, those associated with food usually involve all five senses. While a quick recount of a food memory might include sight and taste, a deeper dive will bring back the other senses of smell (perhaps of something burning as you were first learning to cook), hearing (sizzling in a frying pan as you sautéed your next meal), and touch (the cold sweat clinging to a glass of a refreshing beverage). In addition, memories revolving around taste tend to be the strongest because of an evolutionary adaptation called conditioned taste aversion. Does the name Pavlov ring a bell?

(Left: A batch of freshly dyed eggs from this most recent Easter; Right: My grandparents’ cozy breakfast nook where I first learned to make Latvian Easter eggs)

For me, one food memory is of making Latvian Easter eggs with my grandmother. This tradition involves coloring white eggs with onion skins and using materials such as leaves and petals to create intricate designs on the shells. I can remember fondly dunking the eggs in water and taking care to not break them as we layered materials on wet shells. I remember the panic I felt when I heard a crack and watching my grandmother take her broken egg to the fridge to save for scrambled eggs for the breakfast next day. Once we had finished preparing the eggs, we ate salmon burgers as the eggs boiled and cooled (I bet you thought I would talk about eating the eggs, right?). And for the final reveal, I watched closely as my grandmother carefully peeled off the materials, resulting in a beautiful yellow and orange marbled shell with shapes of parsley and fern leaves imprinted onto the sides. 

This isn’t just a memory of making crafts and eating lunch– it is shaped by the comfort of my grandparents house, the awe of being passed cultural knowledge, both physical and mental nourishment of being cared for and being included, and so much more. Contextualizing our experiences with food provides deeper meaning to the role food plays in our lives.  

My fellow  AmeriCorps members also hold strong memories associated with food. 

One of Sarah’s food memories is of her having the opportunity to partake in a tradition from a religion that her friends practice:

(Above: Kugel preparing to bake in the oven before break-fast.)

“For me, food ties into who I am as a person- not only in how it nourishes my body but in how it nourishes my connections with those around me. One food memory that stands out to me is when I was lucky enough to sit around a table and learn more about a religion that I do not practice. This past year I celebrated Yom Kippur with a few friends who practice Judaism- which plays a large role in their lives. Yom Kippur is the ‘Day of Atonement’ in Judaism and is considered the holiest day of the year. This holy day is traditionally observed with a day-long fast, Ta’anit, from before sundown on the previous night until after sundown on the day of the fast. Following Ta’anit, we gathered to enjoy break-fast, the meal eaten after the day-long fast. This meal was especially meaningful because each of us prepared traditional Jewish dishes and shared our food around a table, exchanging memories of how this holiday was celebrated in the past. For break-fast, I prepared a traditional Ashkenazi Jewish side dish, Kugel. Kugel is a baked noodle casserole made with egg noodles. I followed my friend’s recipe that has been passed down over generations in her family. I was honored that my friend passed on their culinary knowledge and shared their traditional religious rituals with me. The ability to share food with others fosters a connection and exchange of culture that I cherish deeply and hold close to my heart.”

Amelia’s experience with food comes from strong memories associated with her cultural upbringing:

“I come from cultural families of food lovers on both sides. This makes me a product of time spent in the kitchen together, gathered around the table sharing food, and learning to make the foods that have been passed down in my family for generations. It is more than just the traditional foods. It is the foods that are a tradition. Yes, the food on your plate tells a story, but it is the time spent around the food that is just as powerful. The experience from start to finish is the gift, and I have been taught to listen to the food from its creation to its nutrition to its value to others. The meals that take the most time and care become the times in your life that are the most memorable. These meals transcend into a full sensory experience. 

I remember visiting my grandmother’s house for Hanukkah as a young child and taking a walk with family as my grandmother made latkes, a traditional deep-fried potato pancake. I vividly remember walking back towards her house in the snow as this thick fry oil smoke billowed out of the open windows and thinking, ‘yep, grandma is making latkes.’ She had caught one of the pancakes on fire and caused the house to fill with smoke. Similar to the greasy fog that fills your home when you fry bacon. There was no threat of danger, but this holds such a vivid image in my head as I saw smoke wafting down the street, confirming we were having latkes for dinner. 

My grandmother on my father’s side passed down culturally traditional foods in a nontraditional way that has become itself a tradition. Like a Russian nesting doll of tradition, the layers that exist in this gift are to be enjoyed in a mixed-up fashion where the culturally relevant food becomes personalized and special to my family. I was taught to prepare deep-fried chicken tacos with day-old corn tortillas, carefully skewering the tops of the tacos with toothpicks, gently placing them in the frying oil, and drying them on paper towels. What makes this unique is that my grandmother and father taught me to put Italian dressing and Kraft parmesan cheese on top of the crispy chicken. When I first watched my father stuff his taco with iceberg lettuce and top with salad dressing and cheese, I was shocked. But my first bite taught me otherwise. This is a familial taste that elicits strong memories and a taste of home. 

The gifts that I have received from food have been through my family. This has become my love language. Unfortunately, ‘cooking and eating’ is an unrecognized love language from the classic five love languages: words of affirmation, quality time, physical touch, acts of service, and receiving gifts. Cooking and eating with the people that you love is more nuanced than quality time and transcends acts of service. Food is one of the languages that I am fluent in and therefore find immense joy when I am able to speak that language with others.”

Maddy’s experience with food comes from memories of growing food in the garden with her grandfather:

girls planting tomatos“I first made a connection with where my food came from while spending time in the garden with grandfather. He built a miniature greenhouse in his backyard in Florence, Oregon, and allowed my sisters and me to help grow tomato plants. To this day, the smell of your hands after picking tomatoes and the juicy and slightly sweet taste of the tomato flesh reminds me of family. It has been so special to spend this year as an AmeriCorps member growing food in the garden with students and creating special memories of planting tomatoes with all of my classes. Pruning tomatoes with kids this spring brought back a warm wave of nostalgia that had me reminiscing on my first memories of gardening.”

These memories are important to us. They aren’t simply memories of food, but they represent larger feelings of belonging, nurturing, and nourishment. This is why we are passionate about food justice, not only because we all need food to survive but also so that others can pass on cultural traditions and foster relationships without worrying about not having the resources to do so. 

Our #FoodForAll campaign is a reflection of our values, which are shown in these memories that we have of food. Food justice doesn’t exist in a vacuum of objective biology and nutrition. Food is connected to all aspects of our life, from our cultural upbringing, to our relationships with others, and to our emotional nourishment. It also ties into countless other social justice movements, such as those that address racial, environmental, and economic disparities. And when everyone has access to healthy, culturally relevant food that matches their lifestyle, food can dismantle these structural disparities, foster relationships, and ensure emotional wellness.

Campaign resources:

Learn more about the Indigenous land you are living on: native-land.ca

Learn more about SNAP eligibility: www.fns.usda.gov/snap/recipient/eligibility

Find a local Farmers Market: www.ams.usda.gov/local-food-directories/farmersmarkets

Visit Feeding America to find a food bank near you: www.feedingamerica.org/find-your-local-foodbank

AGCA’s Find-a-Garden tool: www.communitygarden.org/garden

You can also text your city and state to +1 (855) 917-5263 to find out where you are living.


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