Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Food Cultures: Where Is Eating On-the-Go a No No?

I always knew different cultures had different relationships to food, but after living in Spain for two years, I am beginning to realize how deeply embedded these differences are and how profoundly our cultural sensibilities can be offended in moments of discord. In the blink of an eye, someone we know and like can appear barbaric or even alien.

Case in point, one of my Spanish clients recently traveled to New York where she said she saw people eating as they walked. I nodded. Then she said again,¨EATING as they walked.¨ Still not getting her point I asked, ¨And?¨

She looked incredulous, ¨Couldn´t they have stopped and sat down?¨
¨It just sounds like they were multi-tasking to me.¨
¨Multi-tasking … while eating???????¨
Apparently we were at an impasse.

To her it seems both uncivilized and unhealthy to eat on the go. By contrast, it seems perfectly acceptable and sometimes even admirable to me. Nothing says go-getter better than a walking power suit, eating a sandwich and rushing out the door.

But where a North American sees ambition, a Spaniard sees imbalance and ignorance. Don´t even try to explain that eating CAN BE a competitive sport or that the ability to enjoy a meal almost anywhere, from a kitchen to a car, is a human adaptation worthy of appreciation.   

Instead say, ¨Vive la diffĂ©rence¨ and accept that the Spanish see eating as an experience and well-prepared food as an expression of love. For them, mealtimes are about relaxing and reconnecting, not refueling, so little rituals such as setting the table (even if it´s just for one) are important. A person´s failure to make mealtimes a priority, in terms of both time and place, is seen as a lack of respect for not just others, but also for oneself. Like it or not, there is something very logical about that.

Don´t get me wrong. I still get off the commuter train with the remains of the breakfast bar I scarfed down hanging from the corner of my mouth.The difference is, now I understand those looks of pity on Spanish people´s faces and occassionally, in deference to them and their traditions, I slow down, set the table and eat a home-cooked breakfast on my own.