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Food and Culture: An Introduction and a Look at What I Know Best
(by Anthony Ziehmke)

One of the goals of BikeAbout is for our trip to serve as a forum for cross-cultural exchange. Culture (on a very simple level) is that which you know and with which you are comfortable. It is the traditions that you grow up with and that you find yourself returning to time and time again. It is what you learn from your parents and what you teach to your children. Culture forms the foundation of the world in which you live. For me, one of the joys of traveling is the exposure to different cultures; experiencing and learning about another culture is not only fun and occasionally exciting, it makes you more aware of your own culture.

During the BikeAbout voyage around the Mediterranean, I have adopted food as my personal project. One reason I chose this subject is that, while biking around the Mediterranean, I seem to spend most of my time hungry. This, in a nutshell, is one of the reasons why I like bicycle touring so much: climbing mountains and riding hundreds of kilometers while dragging tens of kilos of gear heighten and intensify my metabolic rate to the point where I cannot seem to get enough to eat. This serves me well because while some people seem to eat to live, I live to eat.

However, my motivations go beyond mere gluttony. During the traveling that I have done prior to BikeAbout I have noticed that food and culture seem to go hand in hand. In every country I have visited, the people have paid very close connection to, and taken great pride in, the place they were raised, their history... and the food they eat. Traditionally, food preparation methods and what is actually cooked are influenced by products that were locally grown and available, history (what your ancestors ate), plus the culinary influences of colonization and immigrants on a local population. All these elements become intertwined and form a part of the culture of a country or region. So to study a country's cuisine is to learn a little about its history and its traditions, and vice versa. Ideally, in doing so, you also learn as much about your own culture as you do theirs.

So let me talk first a little bit about the food and culture that I know best.

Trying to explain North American culture to people in the Mediterranean is perhaps the hardest task we face (aside from pulling the B.O.B. trailers up hills). More than any other country, the United States is made up of immigrants from many different cultures. The 'melting pot' culture that we know is more apparent in larger metropolitan centers but it is also present in small communities far from traditional urban immigration centers. This is obvious even when you look at American cuisine. Over the last 200+ years, American cuisine has moved from its Native American and European pioneer roots and has become blended with the culinary influences brought to North America by later immigrant groups. The Mexican, Jewish, Italian, Black, Chinese, Japanese, Indian (and many other) communities have added their foods to create a cuisine as telling and informative as any in the world. While people from other countries often dismiss American cuisine as being composed of soft drinks, snack food, hamburgers and hotdogs, a closer look reveals much, much more.

The original American pioneer family had two basiccooking utensils as it made its way across North America: the cooking pot and the skillet. The influence of these tools can be seen in the fact that most North American food is either fried or stewed. Examples abound from all across the country, whether it is Boston baked beans, Ohio pot roast, Texas chili con carne, or Creole gumbo. North Americans also have a taste for rustic cooking which we see in a fondness for the barbecue; whether it is fish, shellfish, ribs, T-bone steaks or, simply, hamburgers and hotdogs we love cooking over an open fire.

Looking at the variety of North American cuisine, it is also possible to see the influence that native populations, as well as immigrants, have had on the creation of a national culinary identity. Whether it is the British influence in New England (chowders, pot roasts, and corned beef), the French influence in Louisiana (Creole gumbo, pātisserie and jumbalaya), the Scandinavian influence in Minnesota (the smörgasbord and pickled herring), the German influence in Wisconsin (marinated sweet and sour meats), the Native American cuisine of Middle West (jerked meat, fry bread), or the Spanish and Mexican influence in the Southwest (tacos, picadillos and tamales), other cultures are well-represented in American cuisine.

Thanks to nationally televised cooking shows, 50+ monthly magazines committed to various types of cuisine, and a revitalized national interest in ethnic food of every shape and taste, many regional foods have broken out of their classic boundries and become part of the national landscape. It is now possible to find couscous on the shelf of your grocery store along with refried beans, tortillas, sticky rice, egg roll skins, lentil beans, tofu - the list goes on. Everytime I go to the grocery store it seems that the "ethnic" section seems to have grown. More than ever, food that has been considered "ethnic" is moving into everyday use in the homes of everyday people.

Next: The food of the Maghreb.

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