“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain, “The Innocents Abroad”
James Beard, one of the fathers of American gastronomy, famously said “Food is our common ground- a universal experience.” Placing this bit of wisdom alongside Mark Twains, one can reach a simple conclusion- food is the gateway to cultures around the world. It is the single greatest commonality we have, and perhaps the greatest way to start exploring distant lands.
Very recently, I attended an event at my old school, the Academy of Culinary Arts at Atlantic Cape Community College, Mays Landing, NJ. The event was a yearly celebration of the Beaujolais Nouveau (the first release from France of that year’s wines), and has been happening in connection with the Chaine de Rotisseurs for the last several years. Ticket prices go to funding scholarships for the school, and the students of the school put their very best work on parade- delicacies, sweets, cold foods, hot foods, all made by the students help wash down the wines.
This was my first time attending a Beaujolais Nouveau- the last one I had been to, I was a student serving foie gras-stuffed ravioli. It was a wonderful time meeting up with my old teachers and friends again, and trying to choke down the amusement and awkwardness when a student not much younger than myself called me, “sir.”
Towards the end of the night, the dessert kitchen opened (to much fanfare and excitement in the crowd.) As a pastry chef, I can’t help but be excited and intrigued to see what the students of the school have been doing since I left. That night, however, proved to be extra special.
The chef in charge of the desserts (and a former teacher of mine,) Chef McCann, revealed that the nights desserts were all the products of the first International Desserts class to run at the school. In slightly under a month, the students had to master desserts from 18 different countries- Italy, France, Canada, India, China, Morocco, and more.
The products were, of course, sensational- merengue-wrapped ice cream from Italy, butter tarts from Canada, Polish babka, Indian sweet carrots, and more- all masterfully done and deliciously decadent. More than the satisfaction of an overfull belly, however, I felt a satisfaction in my soul.
Here was a class of young men and women who now knew more about the cultures of 18 nations than many of their peers ever will, and they learned it through the medium they love- food.
A culture’s food doesn’t develop in a vacuum- the geography, the climate, the average lifestyle, the religion and spirituality of the people, and their history all play a part in forging what goes on the dinner table.
How many staples of Eastern European cuisines came from the need to travel quickly and keep food fresh?
How many dishes in the Middle East were born from the merging of native cuisine and that of one-time conquerors?
How many of our comfort foods were born from moments in a country’s history when the people were poor and had to find some way to eat?
What can you eat when you are a stranger in a strange land, and cornerstones of the native cuisine are utterly forbidden by your faith?
These students now know how to answer these questions. This class is a force for good in this world. It is a step in the right direction toward destroying the evils of nationalism, ethnocentrism, jingoism, and appropriation. Evil happens in this world when people stop seeing others AS people. This class reminds us that not only are we all people, but the people sitting across the dinner table from each other, with stories and histories to share with every bite.
We open our country’s eyes and minds by first opening their mouths.
Bon appetit, and bon voyage.