Yesterday afternoon as I was sitting in a computer lab on campus, learning about the different majors on Indiana University's campus, my throat started to itch. I hoped it was a weird fluke. Something in the air of the computer lab. Some pollen I'd swallowed too much of while I was walking to work. A bug I'd sucked in while open-mouth breathing. But really I knew the worst was to come.
I don't very often get sick and even now, a day later, it isn't that bad. My throat is sore and I've lost my voice. It's annoying and I'm grumpy about it, but my mood is probably the worst symptom. This morning I woke up and popped some Cepacol out of its package and straight into my mouth. I've got a little Cepacol tablet on my tongue right now, dissolving. This must not seem very relevant to food, but after writing about everything I didn't know about food before I left home, my brain is stuck on listing gaps in my knowledge. I didn't know about Cepacol until I started dating Justin. He had a package of it in the first aid box his mom put together for him in college and he gave me one the last time I was in my current predicament (that was YEARS ago, you all, YEARS). I was amazed at how much Cepacol kicked cough drops' ass.
Gaps in knowledge are so fascinating to me. There are so many, many things that we can't know, or know without some digging, that others may know as soon as they're teeny tiny babes. So much of what we learn depends on our environment or factors outside our control - our parents, our teachers, our school district, our location, our social class, our race, our gender. Some of us are given opportunities to break outside these restrictions through higher education or travel. I've been privileged enough to experience both and have greatly benefitted by learning more, but also from learning how much I don't know and how to recognize my own blindspots (I'm currently grappling with an essay about being anti-diet as a thin person).
When I think about food and trying new food, I think about people who are reluctant to do so. I remember a story that a good friend from high school told me about the first time she went to China. We were seventeen at the time and I had never flown on a plane before, much less left the country. She had gone on a trip with other high school students and stayed with a family in China where she ate pig's foot. It wasn't that I was horrified when she told me, stupid seventeen-year-old me, but I had never imagined pig's foot as a possibility for a meal. She ate it, I believe. Of course she ate it, and was polite and excited as we all should be when faced with something new. Especially when someone from a different place invites us to their table and shares their food with us.
I'm curious about the relationship between those who are hesitant to try new foods and those who are prejudice against people of different races, nationalities, and cultures. I don't have any science to back me up (but maybe I will after a Google search), but it seems to me that those who are reluctant to try foods outside their familiar diet could be less open to understanding and experiencing other cultures. I'm not saying that one necessarily leads to the other, but that maybe there is a common fear or discomfort at the root of both things. You don't try new foods because you're afraid of the unknown. You're afraid you won't like it, that it will feel gross in your mouth, that it will taste bad. A more science-y person could maybe track it back to some kind of "when-we-were-forgers-we-had-to-be-suspicious....", but I'm less interested in that (not to say that you shouldn't be more interested in that aspect, if you are). I'm more interested in the repercussions of that fear, how the fear of experiencing new foods inhibits us from being better people.
New foods offer new concepts of how food can be eaten, what food can be eaten, and how it's prepared. So in that way, each time we are presented with a new food, we are presented with a new idea, a new perception of the world. That can be very scary for people, to realize that the world they know is limited, sometimes even severely so. I can understand that shock, I've felt it. What I'm less sympathetic about is refusing to move beyond that surprise. The world and the people in it have so much to offer, it's so sad to shut down the possibilities without even trying.
Growing up, I didn't eat a lot of canned foods. Sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles. Those tasty, vinegar-based foods were totally foreign to me. This isn't true of a lot of people who grew up in the southern region of Appalachia, but it certainly is for me. I was very reluctant to try sauerkraut. I knew that vinegar smelled terrible. I remembered a taste test in kindergarten that involved vinegar, and I definitely hated that. I didn't understand at that time that just because a food has vinegar in it, doesn't mean it tastes like vinegar. Now I know that vinegar can add the perfect bite to a dish and it can give an extra lift to cakes and cookies (I mean that literally - it helps them rise). The first time I had sauerkraut though, I did not like it. The flavor can still be overpowering for me on its own, but I love to pair it with meat or mashed potatoes.
I'm very grateful that I've had the opportunity to travel and to experience food in ways I didn't know were possible. It's changed the way that I approach eating and the way that I approach relationships. My favorite restaurant story now involves a café in Barcelona, a completely Spanish menu, a waitress with limited English, three travelers with limited Spanish, and a bowl of tripe soup. But traveling isn't a necessity for experiencing new food, thank God. Traveling can be utterly unattainable at times or for certain people. There are plenty of ways to expand our food worlds in our homes and in the kitchens of others. The first time I had sauerkraut was in an ex's mother's kitchen. I just had to drive two hours north of my eastern Kentucky home to try not only sushi for the first time, but true Cincinnati style chili a few years later. You just have to walk through the grocery store aisle and choose one fruit, vegetable, herb, spice, or grain you've never worked with before. You might have to do a little research to know what in the hell to do with it once you've gotten it home, but you'll learn something. And after you're done, you might like it too. If you aren't much of a cook, or you don't want to waste good grocery money (very valid) on a risk, just say yes the next time someone offers you a food you haven't had before. And if you're really nervous about it, don't smell it first, chew immediately, and swallow fast. You may surprise yourself.