Food is so much more than something we eat. It has been the source of some of the most amazing scientific advances known to humans. It has been a source of conversation and compromise since humans began to form communities. It has existed at the center of tall tales and legends, historical narratives, and intercultural exchange. We don’t just put it in our mouths and chew; we live the food we eat, and it cultivates us as much as we cultivate it.
Don’t Like vs. Not Good
Having worked with ages 2 through 11, I’ve heard students use an innumerate number of adjectives to describe the food they eat. In my experience, many American students tend to describe foods they do not enjoy the taste of as “yucky,” “disgusting,” or simply “not good.” By describing foods in this way, many students make it clear that, to them, the merits of food lie exclusively with their taste. A food that they enjoy the taste of is identified as “tasty” or “good,” and a food they do not enjoy the taste of is identified as “yucky” or “not good.”
An example I have used time and time again to challenge this culinary mindset with my students is my own lactose intolerance. Dairy products are some of my students’ favorite foods, which means they come up in conversation all the time. They love to ask questions like, “Mr. Misha, what is your favorite ice cream?” and “Do you have cheese in your lunch?” I word my responses very carefully, responding with something along the lines of “I can’t drink milk or eat cheese. It makes me sick, and sometimes even makes me throw up. I’m allergic.” Milk does, beyond the shadow of a doubt, make me feel disgusting, but that does not make milk a disgusting food. I often go out of my way to follow up my explanation of why I don’t drink milk with a conversation about the ecological importance of milk. Even though I don’t like it, it is still one of the fundamental building blocks of mammalian growth. It is the liquid used to nurture the young of countless incredible animals from yaks to otters to spider monkeys. It is without a doubt one of the most incredible and essential foods ever to exist in nature. In short, milk is undoubtedly “good.”
In other words, food is so much more than its taste. There are countless aspects that should be considered when designating a food as “tasty” or “yucky.” Food can be good on account of its nutrition, presentation, aroma, history, freshness, method of preparation, or for a myriad of other reasons.
My time living in Japan was instrumental in teaching me the importance of freshness. Compared to most other culinary traditions, the spice rack of Japanese cuisine isn’t incredibly diverse. Most indigenous recipes are flavored using a combination of soy sauce, sugar, and rice wine. But the simplicity of flavoring agents is no accident. The Japanese tend to value the freshness and intrinsic flavor of their ingredients more than anything else, and the spices they use are often implemented with the intention of intensifying the innate qualities of their ingredients instead of masking them.
There is a folk tale that older Japanese farmers like to tell to teach children this lesson. The story involves a Chinese chef and Japanese chef who meet and decide to engage in a cooking showdown. The Chinese chef brandishes a carrot and tells his opponent, “Do you see this carrot? I am going to make this carrot taste more like duck than any duck you have ever tasted before.” The Japanese chef calmly responds, “Do you see this carrot? I’m going to make this carrot taste more like a carrot than any carrot you have ever tasted before.” Complexity of flavor, therefore, is often considered a detriment to a great meal in the mind of many Japanese foodies. Authenticity of flavor instead becomes the primary criterion for determining which foods are “tasty” and which are “yucky.”
In short, food is far more complex than we often consider it to be. Flavor is a powerful tool when it comes to getting children to try new foods or consume foods that are nutritionally good for them. But ignoring the many other aspects of a food severely limits the potential for genuine understanding and appreciation of the contents of one’s lunchbox.
At A New Leaf, we believe that it is important to discuss food at length with children. They are incredibly receptive and curious about where their meals come from and how they got from the field to their lunch table. Knowledge is an invaluable way to connect them to foods they eat and open their minds to the merits of the thousands upon thousands of foods they have yet to try.