Food Traditions

Have you heard the term, “food traditions?” Talk about food for thought! What the heck does this mean? This semantic butterfly has been fluttering through my brain waves the last three days trying to find a place to land meanwhile keeps hitting my radar. I first heard the term used by a friend when discussing the idea that eating good healthy food costs an unfair amount of money. This was when friend, MJ whipped out the idea that, “food traditions are being lost when people choose to eat fast food, processed foods and cheap foods.” Hmmm. Food Traditions? Then I saw a YouTube piece with Michael Pollan talking about “Food Rules” where the term was used in the intro as if I had already heard it a thousand times, and then I was on the Slow Food website and it popped up again. Under the charms of gastrological influence, this matter of semantics is finding its way into my vernacular.

So what is a food tradition? I eat food every day. Is that tradition? We gather family for food around holidays. Is that tradition? We eat certain foods different times of the year. Is that tradition? MJ gave my processing brain a little context clue by contributing that many immigrant groups coming to the U.S. still have strong food traditions. With that tidbit, the semantic is finding a brain file where it fits and makes sense. People with a strong food tradition eat the traditional foods from their culture and are not eating copious amounts of processed junk.

Although the brain feels somewhat satisfied, it continues to question. I imagine my students from South East Asia who eat freshly prepared real foods each day, but who are also being indoctrinated into the gluttonous eating of Skippy and Hot Cheetos. Will they too lose their food traditions? We live in a dangerous place. We have easy access to foods that undermine healthy food traditions, but we don’t give adequate warnings. Our immigrant kids don’t know that these foods are dangerous, and I am not sure their parents do either. So, are they creating new food traditions? Or does “food tradition” insinuate healthy? Does it imply some sort of identifiable ethnicity?

And what about people like me? Do I have a “food tradition?” I love foods and spices from other cultures, but tend away from traditional American foods. I choose mostly healthy foods to eat, and cook from scratch. Does that constitute a “tradition?” Well, Max made himself lunch today, and upon seeing his plate, it became clear to me that I do, indeed have a food tradition and I am sharing it with my son (and all of my dear readers for that matter). In pondering the possible connotations behind the phrase, I’ve come to the following conclusions about what a “food tradition” is:


This play on words signifies that you come from a healthy palate and you have a preference for the cooking style you grew up with. You are part of a family that cooks and teaches cooking to each other, and you share food with a group. You cook food from scratch – real food. You know how to put ingredients together in a palatable formation, you use ingredients that are local or indigenous to your culture, you have spices and flavorings that signify your food tradition, you have grown your own food and you know where food comes from. Ultimately, you understand what “healthy” means and your home cooked food is better than processed or fast food so you would rarely, if ever, consider eating anything else. Ultimately, food traditions are shared so that each generation that follows can build on the knowledge base bestowed. Creating and supporting food traditions is no small undertaking.

This land of roads paved in gold is perhaps the most dangerous place on earth to live for maintaining strong food traditions. Good food can be expensive, food companies make fake food and call it healthy and many Americans do not cook. Adults who do not cook stop the development of healthy food traditions by not teaching their children to cook from scratch. Americans face too many constraints: we have to work very long hours, both parents have to work, many of our families are broken. Many people don’t have access to fresh foods, don’t have time, don’t know how and are bombarded by cheap and convenient foods. Americans are losing food traditions because we erroneously believe they are not necessary or preferable and many people simply don’t think about it.

However, all is not lost because in the place of old food traditions lie the new. Many people are realizing the importance of living a healthy lifestyle and they are learning that farm fresh and organic means not only taste but viability, stewardship and environmentalism. Lots of people are having fun picking up the spoon and shovel and getting creative in their kitchens and gardens. An inspiring example I recently heard about is in North Minneapolis folks are growing community gardens on abandoned lots and asking a Local Land Trust to buy the land so that these places can remain gardens and not face future development.

Food is a common factor in human existence to celebrate and share – there is no greater tradition. It just seems like we need to redefine ours here in the US. If you have any thoughts about how to define “Food Traditions?” Just scroll up to the “Leave a Comment” button to share your ideas.

Read about Renewing America’s Food Traditions on the Slow Food USA Website.