Cuisine, Culture, Identity, and Adoption.

Amy’s comment on knowing more about Korean cooking than her compatriots got me thinking about food and culture/identity, especially because we’ve already discussed this in terms of the negative of racist food analogies [link].

I mentioned to my sister (a pastry chef/wedding cake baker) the other day that I really missed our “first Sunday” monthly dinners when we shared our apartment in New York. We would plan a menu, invite about two dozen people over, and then just let the evening unfold. My cooking was not specific culturally speaking; it also helped having worked at a food magazine for six years, so kind of eclectic. My sister, French Culinary Institute. So, two Americans cooking “outside tradition” as it were. I told her that I think this is one of the reasons that I look forward to Ramadan so much, when I cook for my friends in my neighborhood who can’t close up their shop like everyone else does, and only have a tiny burner to cook on.

Every night we plan a menu, map out tasks, and I cook at home and then bring the food to the corner where we have iftar sitting on the shop floor. One of the things that is so rewarding is hearing from those who know traditional food that I “know my stuff”…especially after “cooking blind” all day. In recent years this has gotten to a point such that word gets out, and extended family and friends (usually out working as cabbies) come by if they know a particular dish is “on the menu”; I find myself cooking extra for this, as tradition would also have it. Nothing makes me happier, and not much else makes me feel more “connected” to place here.

I’ll leave it at just this one anecdote for now. I’d like to ask others if there is anything for you where cooking, cuisine, foodways, etc. meet up with your original and/or adoptive identities that comes to mind along these lines? Feel free to expand at will….

13 thoughts on “Cuisine, Culture, Identity, and Adoption.

  1. Further expanding: What cuisine(s) did you grow up with? Was there an attempt from your adoptive family to cook from your originating culture? Did you break away/rebel/indulge in this in any way? Did you make attempts to seek out your “roots” in terms of cuisine?

  2. What a great topic. Cuisine is so important and defining culturally. As a matched domestic adoptee, grew up in the same culture as my birth family. (quite literally just a few town over from them). New England cuisine defines me, and that commonality, among many, made reunion with my first family at the age of 35 easier. Maybe easier is the wrong word, but it meant that we could focus on the adoption and maybe get down to business earlier in our relationship as we did not have to bridge differences of upbringing, region, culture

    My husband is a 2nd generation Chinese American. Food is incredibly important to him. He rebelled against his immigrant mother’s cooking when he was in his tween years. In his early 20’s her began to embrace his culture and food was his connection to that….a gateway back to his Chineseness if you will.

    I wonder about about adopted Chinese children who don’t have the same authentic reference point from which to rebel or return. Will young Chinese adoptees rebel against their white parent’s sweet and sour pork and chop suey only to seek out Americanized Chinese food again someday? No, they seek out and learn about Chinese cuisine. Of course, even within a cuisine there are regional differences that serve as strong markers of group membership, so it is not a simple endeavor. So That search and embrace will help them to claim their original culture, will give them a connection to their community of origin (and that is not something to take lightly as food and cuisine is such a powerful shared language .. but I imagine it will never have the same grounding feeling of ‘coming home’.
    I think of comfort food, specifically what our comfort foods are. So regionally and culturally loaded. Can you re-learn your comfort food? I don’t know, I rather think not. It will always mark who you are and where you came from. Maybe a child adopted at an older age, who already has that sensory memory will have something to go back to, to reclaim, in some way. But even then, food is so wound up with community and place.

    • You bring up really great points. The diversity of a given country’s culture, and how this varies from place to place hits home. As does the “Westernization” of recipes for a foreign palate. I have many Lebanese cookbooks, and I get really annoyed at how far they stray from what is more authentic to the place….

      Growing up was a cuisine designed to please my adoptive father’s taste. He had a rather dismal view of food (as I used to tell him), seeing it as more about survival than pleasure. Meat and potatoes always. Bland. My rebellion started early; going vegetarian when I was 15; turning the backyard into an organic garden. He referred to the magazines I ordered from Rodale Press as “communist literature….”

      We’ve talked elsewhere about the resonance of food/flavors that we like with what our mothers likely consumed during their pregnancy with us. I’m still at a loss otherwise to explain being drawn to foods which, at the time, I had no idea were even part of the local cuisine here, or even at a much younger age was drawn to: olives, yoghurt, lemons, etc.

      My mother made it very clear that she was not about to cook for a whole house and me something separate besides. So I took on my own cooking in my teens. My mom gave me full roam of the kitchen, which I appreciate. I remember buying falafel mix at the store and frying it up at home. My siblings referred to this as me “stinking up the house”.

      I think my father saw this all as rebellion against him personally; I think more it was a mix of wanting to break out of the endless parade of what I called “war-ration” vegetables: Turnips, beets, potatoes….I used to joke with him that the potato famine was over, he could eat real food now….

      Comfort food! Great point. My mom making me a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich when I visit? Blissful transport back to my youth. New York–style pizza? Can’t wait to get my hands on some. But there are also things I can’t live without from here, so one of my first stops when I’m back in NYC is either Kalustyan’s or else Sahadi’s in Brooklyn….

      • What?! the potato famine is over? 😉 (says the Irish Catholic girl who also grew up on far too many poorly cooked root vegetables).

        I am a former chef, my husband is a foodie – so this stuff is very present for us.

        Our daughter, adopted from China at 10 months, was adept at eating chicken feet when she was 2, well before one would consider it safe to let a child put tiny, and potentially swallowable, bones in their mouth. It has always been clear that she responded to the smells and tastes of Chinese food. From her mother? From her scant year in China? Probably a bit of both. That said, her first meal in the US was macaroni and cheese. She loves cheese, pungent cheese, ripe cheese. This she did not get from China.
        I think this is as it should be for her. She is growing up in a multiracial home where we organically incorporate food and culture from the area in which we live (which is incredibly diverse), her father’s Chinese American culture, and my history and habits. I am glad she has a natural connection to her culture of origin – or more accurately, the culture in which she lives as a Chinese American. I am also glad she connects to my culture and region as it is part of her life as a member of our family. We are a multiracial family and live that.

        But for her I think the Chinese/Asian American aspect is the most important. Beyond the food, what she learns from her extended family, from being in Chinatown, from knowing other Asian American families, is all the stuff around food: what food means, how food is shared and served, how not to hold your chopsticks, how to ask for more tea, how to fight for the check (LOL) etc. I think you can learn about food cultures and cooking, but you need to be with the community to learn the rules and customs, These things serve as such strong markers for group membership. As a daughter-in-law, I remember when I got small approving glances from my husbands family because I was did not take any food until his grandmother had been served, and I kept my mother-in-laws teacup filled. I also remember when I spent a month in Turkey and I learned, halfway through the trip, how to do a non-verbal NO by clicking my tongue and rolling my eyes rather than shaking my head. Even at restaurants, even as an obvious foreigner, my grasp on the non-verbals changed things, I was a tiny bit more welcome in the club.

  3. I was raised in the same culture I was adopted into, so have nothing to contribute there. However I was interested to learn after reunion with both sides of my family that all were cooks, some cooked professionally and all were very proficient and interested in food, that included my Grandparents and parents as well as my half-siblings. My amother hated to cook and was not interested in food, so I was relieved to find my own inclinations fitted perfectly with my families of origin. Something so basic to life and culture can be so discordant for an adoptee! It is perhaps not surprising then that my contribution to the Lost Daughters anthology is about cooking!

    • So many mothers who adopted were also of the class of women who were being told their place was not the kitchen or the home….might that have something to do with it? My decisions to be aware of food when I was young painted me as a kind of “freak”; like you, I’m glad to see they fit right in now that I’ve returned….

  4. Touching back on Catherine’s points about the prep and “way” of the food being as important as the food itself…I’m really lucky because these foodways are truly ingrained in the local character here. In the greengrocer’s everyone wants to know where the fruits and vegetables come from, meaning, “are they local”? There is still pride here, and I remember it growing up in the “Garden State” (as much as people find this laughable today) but it seems to have disappeared, except for regional food fairs that manage to hang on….

    Found this [link]:

    During a summer spent working in rural Mexico, I experienced what it feels like to be so connected to your roots, your community and your environment through food. In the mornings I watched a group of women from the village grind their local maize into cornmeal which were then used to make fresh corn tortillas on an open fire and sold or traded to the local shop, restaurants and other families.

    And it got me thinking about how much foodways truly get you into a culture.

  5. Penchants from the womb: I’ve alluded to these articles here and there. The ones I’m more familiar with are of a more scientific bent; this one is on the fluffy side. No doubt there is no inkling of the existential dilemma this brings up for some.

    “How a child’s food preferences begin in the womb” [link from the Guardian]


    It may be a survival mechanism that’s come back to bite us on the bum, but human beings are born to love sweets. We love them even when we’re in the womb. Some 15 to 16 weeks after conception, foetuses will show their sugar appreciation by swallowing more amniotic fluid when it’s sweet, and less when bitter (pdf). Penchants for salt and umami tastes are also innate. Most of our food preferences, however, are learned, and a growing body of research shows that this learning also begins before birth.

    It is reckoned that at 21 weeks, foetuses can discern full-on flavours using their senses of smell and taste (amazingly, a study recently found that humans can distinguish a trillion different smells, and smell is the dominant sense in flavour perception) and Julie Mennella of the Monell Chemical Senses Centre in Philadelphia says, “amniotic fluid is a complex ‘first food’ that contains chemicals that have both tastes and smells.” Developing flavour awareness five months before most babies start ingesting their calories makes good sense, because when it comes to taste, familiarity breeds fondness. You can train yourself to enjoy most foods through repeated exposure – and the younger you are, the easier it is to mould neural pathways. So, the thinking goes, if a foetus gets used to tasting vegetables in the womb, then weaning the baby on to nutritious grownup foods will be a relative doddle.

    My mother used to relate to me stories about how at the youngest age, I would attack their cocktail setting during parties in order to eat all the olives and lemons. I never used to think much of it; I don’t think she meant it as a “cultural link”; I imagine she found it to be odd, especially coming from a Dutch/English background where “spice” meant “black pepper”! I don’t know why this sticks with me so much; now it makes so much sense. But it also makes me think of children growing up in, say, the Midwest, eating bled meat and bland potatoes, while secretly longing for pungent kimchi, or fish sauce, or even garlic….

  6. You are right, the science on that is fluffy. Amniotic fluid is not a food source for the fetus.
    And children, really all children, show a preference for sweet and salty flavored. This is likely linked to plain old survival – sugars for energy, electrolytes for hydration. Though infants are generally more sensitive to taste (as the elderly are less so as a function of aging.

    Breast milk flavor does change based on maternal diet. And no doubt smells and favors in an infants environment are huge. I suppose I lean more to the side of learned preferences influenced by biological need rather than a sort of fetal imprinting.

    I remember loving anchovies and olives as a child- for the saltiness as well as my parents stunned reaction that a child would have such a mature palate. As an adult, I am a fan of neither.
    I think one can go back to culture, region, nurture, exposure. The biological connection is comforting but fuzzy.

    • I think the science is probably dead-on; it gets more and more precise with each “update” (here, testing actual amniotic fluid)….the article states what you echo here about salty and sweet, but then goes on to “prove” that the mother’s diet is sensed by the fetus.

      I’m trying to separate the “fluffy” “hmmm, that’s interesting” from the romantic and, for me kind of depressing “that explains x, y, z” (connection now lost). Especially when I think of myself as a three-year-old yearning for lemons and olives….

      What you say about “growing away” or “retraining” is interesting though. Those in this region attempting to emulate an American or European diet have not only changed their own diets, but have had an impact on food consumption in general….it reminds me of ex-pat shopping in France at Marks & Spencers, for example….I’m rambling now….

      • If we wanted to be scientific about it, there are a bunch of steps to suss out; let’s just take lemons and olives.

        (1) if there is some direct link, then one would expect it to be specific kinds of lemons and olives, and if not, we would have to explain why
        (2) we must establish these were, in fact, the diet of the mother (or any other relevant person) and not just find lemons and olives plausible because of the region;
        (3) why not pita and labna also then, yoghurt or eggplant? Obviously, the problem of specificity hits up against the impossibility of asking the source explicitly.
        (3a) the equation “lemons and olives = Lebanon” is too narrow and obviously problematic
        (4) looking for the source across the sea may be going too far; why are there not (or aren’t there) local factors that lead to lemons and olives?
        (5) how much exposure is needed to establish this sort of connection; nine months in the womb
        (6) what if “incidental contact” transfers a preference; if someone in the US decided lemons and olives was an appropriate snack (before a kid was aware what she was eating), maybe the preference starts there.
        (7) if lemons and olives point to sour and bitter, then any food in those categories may be a factor to establish a predisposition for lemons and olives

        I could think of more, but I think the above list shows a very wide gap between the plausibility of the hypothesis and what it would take to scientifically establish it.

        I do think you get more at the core of the matter when you consider why such a hypothesis might be advanced or desired in the first place. If lemons and olives represent half of the main food tastes, it’s statistically very unlikely there wouldn’t be overlap, possibly not even distinguishable from random chance.

      • We’ve had this argument before, and I would say in my defense that in stark contrast to my skepticism of falling into romantic traps, they keep “pushing the envelope” with their testing, which, in this article, clearly states that a large variety of distinct “flavors/smells” can be detected in amniotic fluid. As such, I don’t really see lemons and olives as representing half of the main food tastes.

        So I don’t know that the debunking is warranted, because we’re on the same page here. Having said that, I don’t think we are talking about a Sherlock Holmes case, such that “lemon+olives=Lebanon (aha!)”. No, we’re saying that my mother was likely of this region, that she likely ate a local diet, and that this might explain a child’s (me) penchant for foods that are completely not in the diet of the adoptive place of acculuration. Pita is silly because it’s just bread, but garlic, yoghurt, and eggplant I would venture become markers, simply for being foods that to unfamiliar palates often are acquired tastes.

        I do agree that the “romantic trap” is still there, and I do admit that I still avoid it. I bring it up because the science gets more and more refined, and instead of disproving just adds fuel to the romantic fire.

        I was thinking about this the other day, and I categorized it with attempts to “refind” memories. Further reflection made me see it as perhaps wishing to have a sense or memory from across the line that divides “pre” and “post” adoption. Having lived here for ten years now, I’m not really that desperate for connection; I’m growing into an identity as it were that is much more about social and communal interaction. But food plays a big part of this too….

        The flip side of this might be: I never did acquire a taste for boiled cabbage and corned beef. Why or why not?

    • Catherine: as a note about sweetness.

      My pet rabbit is a fussy eater. She has her timothy hay, which rabbits normally eat, and she has her rabbit pellets, which she seems to eat rather sparingly. If you try to give her a carrot, lettuce, a vegetable in general, she literally turns up her nose at you, which is very cute.

      However, offer her a square of Life cereal and she shivers like a heroin addict (I exaggerate for effect). She will, however, animatedly run around the house if you shake the cereal box, and when you pass by the area she spends most of the day in, she will charge to the edge of her space, expecting a square. She clearly has a sweet tooth.

      I’d contextualize this by noting that in England at least prior to the seventeenth century, sugar was well-nigh a rare commodity available almost exclusively to the very rich. The slave trade changed that and slaves provided sugar for hundreds of thousands of people in England of all classes. They got very rabbity for sugar. So while we may show a preference for salty and sweet, if given the chance, salt and vinegar seems to have read as a treat prior to the wide-spread availability of sugar. (I’m making sugar the only source of “sweet”, which obviously goes too far.)

Adoptees, what do you think? We welcome your replies!

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