The Space in Between: Food’s Effect on Identity

Want food for thought?

Recently I attended a talk with Lev Golinkin, a Boston College grad whose family emigrated from Soviet Ukraine in the late 1980s, at the height of a mass exodus of Ukrainian Jews. Throughout Lev’s stories of cultural conflict and identity formation, I found myself thinking about recipes.

Now you might be thinking, “what’s wrong with you? This guy survived the political turmoil of the Soviet Union, had the conviction and courage to write about his own identity search, and you have the gall to bring up recipes?” But hear me out.

At one point, Golinkin reflected, “I have learned to live in the space in between.” Of course, he was talking about the space in between cultures, but this got me thinking about how food allows us to move, and indeed live, in between cultures.

I come from an immigrant family. Nearly all of my grandparents emigrated from southwestern France in the late 1940s, bringing with them a few spare belongings and a deep love of cooking. My maternal grandfather soon became a chef, while my paternal grandfather apprenticed in a bakery. Though neither of my grandmothers cooked professionally, they could both put Julia Child to shame. My grandparents taught me to appreciate a full stomach and an empty plate, to work out my stress over the stove, and to share my love through mousse au chocolat. Food is in my blood. Not surprisingly, food and French heritage have become inseparable in my mind. After all, I learned the most about France not through books or conversations, but rather through bites of tarte tartin or fromage de brebis. If we are what we eat, then I learned to become French through French food.

Like Golinkin, I grew up in the space in between cultures. I struggled with the basic question: who am I? Am I French or am I American? While Golinkin reconciled this question through introspection and writing, I reconciled it in the kitchen. Not that this reconciliation is complete. As Golinkin mentioned, he still struggles with his complicated identity. Undoubtedly, we all do. I still grow frustrated with my grandmother’s broken English and hesitate to tell American friends that one of my family’s delicacies involves bloated duck liver. There are the parts of us that will never quite fit into who we want to be or how we want to appear. When you add a language barrier or radically different customs to the mix, those unwanted parts of ourselves become painfully obvious. No amounts of apple pie or PB&J can erase that difference. If food provides identity, then we must accept those recipes and rituals that make us different or that create a cultural divide within us.

Although food can in some ways draw lines of distinction, it also bridges gaps. When we eat, we experience the culture from which that food came. Each tamale or quesadilla teaches us something about Mexican culture, while a banh mi sandwich can transport us to Vietnam. These dishes don’t necessarily become a part of our identity, but they invariably touch us in more than a physical or culinary way. They also provide us with an opportunity. If food reflects culture, then we can use food as a tool to understand unfamiliar parts of the world. Before Golinkin’s talk, I might have tried borscht, a typical Ukrainian soup made of beetroot and tomatoes. This dish couldn’t make me Ukranian any more than a trip to El Pelon makes a person Mexican, but it could certainly begin to bridge our worlds.

For a culturally conflicted person like Golinkin, or myself, this realization could change everything. We need not hide those parts of ourselves that don’t fit nicely into American culture. Nor do we need to live in the space in between cultures alone. Through food, we can bring people into this lonely and confusing place, passing along pieces of ourselves through plates of paella or slices of paska. The space in between can transform from a barren wasteland to a place of welcoming and learning, a place in which honest and authentic identities can be formed. To that thought, I raise my fork.

Featured Image by Lucius Xuan / Heights Staff