Have you ever thought about how much food means to you? I really hadn’t, at least not before moving to another country. Whether you’ve lived overseas, traveled Europe for two weeks, or spent a weekend in Mexico, you may have discovered the role food plays in your life—your health, your satisfaction, your mood.
I apprehended this while living in Ghana the last couple of years. When we found a restaurant that makes “pizza” (hooray!) only to discover that their version of pepperoni is actually salami (boo!) and I cried. Or when I walked through the market and found cow heads for sale, and learned they’d be served for dinner that night. Or when I stood in the produce aisle longingly staring at the peaches that cost $27/lb (so close, yet so far away).
Or when I felt like I was in heaven as I licked my bbq stained fingers and savored every last bite of my ribs. Or when we had a dance party in the kitchen because we scored Cherry Coke at a supermarket. Or when my heart skips a beat because I opened a package from “home” to find Starbucks coffee (my mornings just got so much better, and livelier).
I’m embarrassed at how much food affected my mood. It could put me in an ethereal mood or an irritated mood. It affected how I treated others. It made or broke my day. How can food own me this much? Can it really contribute to my comfort, relief and security? Wow, powerful stuff.
Of course there was an upside to leaving America: the forced desertion of highly processed foods, prepackaged foods and fast foods. I learned that you can actually make your own mayonnaise, broth, BBQ sauce and syrup. I learned how to pasteurize my own milk. I even got to look the cow in the eyes that produced the milk I was about to consume and say “Thank you.” And to top it off, I learned how to cook in the dark by headlamp—thank you, Electricity Company of Ghana!
But, oh, the adventure of awakening new taste buds—new flavors, new spices, new textures! I spent time in a friend’s outdoor kitchen watching and learning how to prepare Ghanaian stew and light soup with not much more than an asanka (a clay grinding bowl with small wooden masher) and a pot over open fire. Food kind of becomes a language for understanding. My memories of Ghana are tied to my senses, particularly my tastes and smells. Ghana was spicy, fishy soups with fingers full of doughy fufu or fermented kenkey and tall bottles of room temperature Orange Fanta.
It’s astounding the impression food has on our lives. Smells and tastes evoke home, or are strange and unsettling. Tastes are learned. Textures grow on us. How many of us enjoy vegetables or coffee in our early years? Whether family holiday traditions around the table or exploring fare overseas, food stirs up emotion and memory. Wherever you find yourself today or 10 years from now, I hope you really savor your favorite flavors. And don’t forget to put your adventure hat on when you find you’re a guest at a table with unfamiliar smells wafting about!