THE BLOG
09/16/2014 06:35 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2014

Why Do You Eat the Food You Eat?

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What we eat and don't eat is largely a result of what group we belong to," according to an article titled Food and Ethnic Identity, by Robert A. Leonard Ph.D. and Wendy J. Saliba, MA,MBA.

I met Dr. Leonard when we sat next to each other at a dinner at Hofstra University for the instructors of the Hofstra Continuing Education (CE) program. Leonard is currently Professor of Linguistics, and heads the Graduate Program in Forensic Linguistics at Hofstra. Along with being a world-famous forensic linguist, he was also an original member of the musical group Sha Na Na, and opened for Jimmy Hendrix at Woodstock in 1969.

In their fascinating article, the authors' state, "Food is an important part of who you are. The food you eat, and how you eat it, can identify you as a member of a group, and further identify what smaller group you belong to within that group." It goes on to name different cultures, the foods they choose, and how food choices change through generations as immigrants seek acceptance into an American lifestyle.

Growing up in a predominately Jewish neighborhood, and being Irish Catholic, I found my friends' families served different food than mine. Foods like brisket, knishes, or gefilte fish, where never served in my home yet commonplace in theirs. It was their ethnicity, not mine.

It's ironic that I read this article just days after attending my 40th high school reunion, where many of my classmates, returned to Long Island from various parts of the country. The common comment from the out-of-towners was, "I have to get bagels to bring back for everyone." Bagels are especially popular in communities with a large Jewish population, and a staple in my hometown. When people moved away they realized the bagels they grew up with, are an anchor to their roots, and part of their being.

Leonard points out that "Others' food generally amount to claiming that they eat what we do not." And, "Within our own groups, we affirm our membership by preparing and eating certain good or 'real' foods."

Understanding this may help you to realize why you choose the food you do, and why others' food selections may seem odd to you.

This rang true within my own family. In working with my Italian American clients, I have always heard them lament that on Thanksgiving it is not the American customs they find so challenging in managing their weight, it's the melding of their Italian customs along with the American. It's the antipasto, the large pasta meal, followed by the turkey, trimmings, and desserts. Being of Irish decent, this type of celebration was alien to me, until my Italian sister-in-law joined our family. On the first Thanksgiving she hosted, she served both the Italian and American menus. It was then I truly understood the challenges for my Italian American clients.

In their article, Leonard and Saliba discuss three food type concepts that provide insight into different cultures:

Indispensable Foods: Foods that must be included for people to feel they've had a complete meal. For example, American meals include a piece of meat, while Italians want pasta and bread.

Emblem Foods: Foods that are used to identify a culture's cuisine by outsiders. As an example, non-Chinese may view chop suey and fortune cookies as emblem foods of the Chinese, yet these are barely eaten at all by Chinese, themselves.

Insider Foods: Foods that only people within a culture eat and outsiders do not. An example would be that Thais use 'meng da', a water-bug-like insect for seasoning, while Koreans enjoy kim chi, a spicy vegetable pickle.

According to Leonard you can be accepted by another person's culture quickly by eating their insider food. It's as important as knowing their language and customs. This concept is invaluable in today's culture where the world is smaller and business is conducted on a global scale.

A later version of the article appears in The Asian Pacific American Heritage: A Companion to Literature and Arts (Garland Reference Library of the Humanities) Hardcover -- October 1, 1998