Sharing Meals, Sharing Culture: Dining Out as A Learning Experience

by Ethan Blake

Every childhood weekend, my parents took my sister and me to “get cultured” in New York City, their hometown and well-charted territory of the globe in five boroughs. In contrast to my friends’ family pastimes in suburban New Jersey, my parents shepherded me through New York’s museums, theatre performances, music concerts, public parks and botanic gardens, and most of all its independent food shops.

In my family, New York Magazine’s annual “Best Cheap Eats” issue is our Bible, sharing new foods is our love language, and “trying out that new dumpling hole-in-the-wall on Hester Street” is our weekend ritual. We were “foodies” long before the term was a hashtag.

We tasted the world through a never-ending food tour of pop-ups as well as the “Old New York” of my parents’ youth and their parents’ immigrant upbringing: the Lower East Side for knishes at Yonah Schimmel’s, blintzes and borscht at B&H Dairy, and babka and herring at Russ & Daughter’s.  Chinatown and Little Italy are one neighborhood away, but we pass over for the deeper enclaves of Queens’ Flushing Chinatown (where my Mom grew up) and the Bronx’s bigger Little Italy of Arthur Avenue where we eat the city’s best dim sum and fresh mozzarella, respectively; then we drift to any corner of Queens, the country’s most ethnically diverse county, for a Bhutanese, Peruvian or Lebanese family-restaurant where we need to ask for a menu in English.

Perhaps a single meal lacks the depth of a “true” cultural experience. Surely you must live abroad, dwell, and partake in a place’s daily customs for at least several months to gauge its culture. In the absence of the necessary time and money to travel across the world, however, a dish is an open door through which you  can at least see another culture that, upon closer look, is not so foreign, not quite exotic, and no longer “Other.”

In contrast to other art forms like dance, music, film or visual art, food is always intimate, sensuous and tactile – it’s a form of creative expression that must get up close and personal. Cooking and eating are universally considered sacred acts because they are life-giving, routine, and literally become part of us.

If you approach a small family-owned business with hunger for education rather than just service, the conversation between eater and creator can spark a brief yet earnest relationship. Ask your server about their favorite menu item, which one is the national dish, or do a couple minutes of research beforehand and inquire about a regional specialty. Sometimes the server will supply answers and rush back to work, but sometimes, on a slow day, your curiosity will start a conversation that delves far beyond the typical order. Your patronage alone is important because it supports a small business and introduces a culture experientially. I have understood the American paradox of E Pluribus Unum (out of many, one) in food: Polish pierogies, Japanese gyoza, and Nepalese momo are all riffs on the same dumpling comfort food; European sauerkraut and Korean kimchi both sing the probiotic health benefits of fermented cabbage; Mexican tacos, Ethiopian injera and Israeli hummus with pita differ in flavor but converge in a slow, shared meal eaten with hands. Whereas many traditional foods carry a story of age-old convenience – like French pot-au-feu, a day-long simmer of seasonal ingredients that rich and poor enjoy alike – food can also tell stories of geopolitical history. Bánh mì, for instance, is a descendant of colonial French Indochina that sandwiches coriander, cilantro, cucumber, pickled carrots, daikon and other Vietnamese vegetables between French baguette and mayonnaise.  

So much can be gained by eating outside of one’s culture. If you dine broadly  you can come away with border-expanding knowledge and understanding. Chat with business owners in sincerity and your food literacy will deepen in tandem with your cultural literacy. Even a few known facts about someone’s cuisine can open the possibility of a deeper relationship beyond just asking what’s on your plate.

This last Passover, I hosted friends for a potluck and delegated each a traditional recipe. We sat around the table and ate the beloved herbs and spices of my youth, my friends trying these flavors for the first time.  I have many wonderful memories of family-only Seders, but the joy of sharing my culture through food made this the most meaningful Passover yet.