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The Language of Food

Ethan Watters | September 20, 2018

People | Our Food Journey Podcast

For anthropologist Tanya Rodriguez, every meal tells a story

When Tanya Rodriguez introduces herself as an anthropologist for Hormel Foods, she’s used to people misunderstanding what she does. Often they think she digs up artifacts like Indiana Jones (although he was an archaeologist). The confusion isn’t that surprising. Professional anthropologists usually keep to college campuses when they aren’t on trips studying far-off cultures. But once Rodriguez explains that her job is studying American food preferences, she almost always gets the same response. “People immediately begin to tell me about their favorite restaurants or the family dishes that they cook,” she says. “Everyone has their own food history.”

Originally from San Antonio, Texas, Rodriguez got her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has been following food trends for Hormel Foods for nearly a decade. While Rodriguez studies demographics and consumer data, she also spends a great deal of her time simply observing people as they shop and cook – and listening to their stories about food. With an omnivore’s palate and an insatiable curiosity, she’s snacked on crickets and candied larvae. She’s eaten meals with Hmong families, college students, and cancer patients going through chemotherapy. She’s been served dishes with endless combinations of ingredients she could never have imagined.

Making sense of all that information is no easy task. Food preferences and habits are difficult puzzles for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the American food landscape is changing at an accelerating pace.

“Diversity is increasing,” says Rodriguez. “It is a really interesting time to study food.”

The Grand Mixing

Americans have never been snooty about food. We were, from the beginning, a nation of immigrants indebted to the bounty of the land. (The Joy of Cooking, perhaps the best selling cookbook in America, still has helpful advice about how to cook bear, opossum, raccoon and squirrel.) Historically, our hearty diets have been shaped by local ethnic traditions and the meats, grains, fruits and vegetables available in our region. The Northeast was influenced by the abundance of seafood and the traditions of the Puritans. Southern cooking came from a unique mixture of European herding cultures along with French and Haitian immigrants. The sausages and liverwurst served in the Great Lakes area are connected to an influx of immigrants from Germany, Scandinavia, Holland and Poland. It wasn’t too many generations ago that you could tell where you were in America by what was on your dinner plate.

While regional food influences still exist, Rodriguez notes, things have gotten a lot more complicated. The advent of food packaging technology and rapid transportation has increasingly broken down barriers between regional food preferences. Americans no longer stay put within their ethnic enclaves − they travel, emigrate and intermarry. To make things more complicated, the regional mixing of tastes is rapidly becoming global. You usually find a great Ethiopian or Brazilian restaurant in most any large town or city, and cooking traditions are continually combined to create new dishes and cooking styles.

“In anthropology, we call it de-territorialization of culture,” Rodriguez says. “You take things out of context and then you make them your own and adapt them. We’re seeing the fusing of a lot of different traditions.”

Rodriguez has documented this new wellspring of creativity in restaurants and home kitchens across the country. Social media has become a particularly vibrant environment for connoisseurs and home cooks alike to share their preferences, recipes and family traditions and learn about those of others. “Everyone is dialoguing,” she says, adding that the conversation is happening at all socioeconomic levels.

Working-Class Food Innovation

While high-end restaurants and famous celebrity chefs often get the most attention for being at the cutting edge of cuisine, Rodriguez believes that’s not where the real action is. “People in lower socioeconomic strata are very innovative and very savvy,” she says. “I’m a passionate supporter of the value consumer. They’re some of the best cooks around.” Often times, she’s watched consumers use convenience foods and pre-cooked meats to put new spins on traditional dishes — saving themselves both time and money.

Lower-income populations, she notes, are where major food trends often begin. American traditions of BBQ and soul food were born of making delicious meals out of inexpensive meats and produce. Skirt steaks, to take another example, came to popularity when Hispanic chefs used them in fajita dishes. Rodriguez’s observation that value consumers are often the most engaged and creative with food, comes from both her anthropological research and her own experience.

One of three raised by a single mother, Rodriguez often found herself cooking for her siblings on a tight budget. “I grew up having very little and needing to make great dinners,” she says.

What We Eat Says Who We Are

Rodriguez keeps careful track of what people eat and also how they eat it. Our increasingly busy lifestyles have seen a proliferation of snack foods and on-the-go meals. Not only are today’s families not sitting down at a table for many meals, they rarely stop moving. In addition, they prefer food that they can eat one-handed, the other hand holding the ubiquitous smartphone.

In her years of studying food habits and preferences Rodriguez has come to deeply understand how our food history and choices shape our identity. When she talks about this, her gratitude for all the people who have invited her into their kitchens becomes clear.

“When you cook someone a favorite dish, you are introducing yourself,” says Rodriguez. “For me, I always make flautas and caldo for people when they come to my house. That’s my first dinner that I make, and that’s the entrée to tell them who I am as a person.”

Food is a language we use to communicate affection and tell people about ourselves, with dialects and accents that vary from family to family and across regions and ethnicities. Despite those differences, however, what we communicate when we share a meal is universally understandable. It transcends class, nationality and politics.

“I think the crux of food is that it’s our way of showing nurturing and affection,” Rodriguez says. “Good food brings people together and helps you tell the story of who you are. That will never change or go out of style.”

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