Can Good Food Lead to An Existential Crisis?

20 Jan

“I would like a large carafe of ennui with some angst on the side” – Bourdain

In the Rome episode of “No Reservations” (aired in Summer 2010), food and travel writer and critic, Anthony Bourdain ponders over the question “can good food lead to an existential crisis?” His beguiling culinary experience in Rome leads him to question why he hadn’t been born there, why he hadn’t visited it before and why he didn’t speak the language (Italian in this case). While many regard Bourdain’s opinions and critiques as self-indulgent there are some including myself who may not even buy into this existential crap. Let’s just eat our food and get on with it. Why intellectualize the experience of eating food?

What we perhaps don’t realize is that it’s not even really about intellectualizing – we are subconsciously asking ourselves or are at least faced with similar questions as the ones Bourdain poses when we travel to different cities.

Bourdain in Rome - Source:

Existentialism per se not withstanding, after watching this episode, which by the way I did enjoy, I was motivated to think of experiences in my own life where I visited a place and asked myself the same questions. While I have certainly enjoyed foods in most places I have visited, I have, quite truthfully, not been overcome with a strong sense of why I had not been there before with food being the stimulus. Yet I can relate to the transformational quality of food not because food magically changes the way we perceive things but because it embodies traditions and relationships. Can I really claim to have enjoyed food in Italy in its essence without acknowledging the contributions of countless mothers and grandmothers who have perfected recipes over generations. Can we ever really appreciate and understand something including food without knowing the story it tells? Moreover, can we understand that story without being from that society?

For tourists it’s common not to have much knowledge of the local cuisine of flavours and feel a sense  of alienation with something as basic as food. The sense of isolation that food may create is not a product of taste or flavour being different to what we are used to but rather a result of food being a cultural symbol. Indeed, food can be equally isolating as a language you don’t comprehend, a religion whose beliefs and traditions you are unfamiliar with and a land whose geography and history you are unaware of. At the same time food can also serve as a wonderful cultural icon that you fall in love with, that you can be nostalgic about, whose aftertaste tingles your taste buds even months and weeks later. It depends entirely on the perspective.

Another aspect I have often wondered about is the medium of language and whether it can ease or exacerbate the sense of isolation that food itself can create. Language can be a huge barrier to understanding local menus as well as communicating what you would like to eat. I realized over multiple trips to Latin America where although Spanish is the language widely spoken, there are local variations that extend particularly to food and drink often making it difficult  even for those who do speak Spanish to decipher the ingredients and ultimately decide what to eat. I recall that during a trip to Istanbul the best meal we had was with my friend and her parents who ordered exactly what we would have wanted to eat without us even letting them know our choice. We had constantly tried to order similar dishes when we would go out ourselves but would either end up ordering what we were familiar with based on dishes from Turkish restaurants in New York or the ones in which the ingredients were seemingly familiar. The language barrier limited our ability to try the best that Turkish cuisine had to offer.

Has the food in a certain country inspired you to ask yourself similar questions or created a sense of “IwishIwasfromhere”? Please do share your experiences and thoughts!


One Response to “Can Good Food Lead to An Existential Crisis?”

  1. Jayne May 17, 2017 at 1:31 AM #

    Mencius, where should I emigrate to? I need to get out of this so–otonbe balkanized – or even worse, Zimbabwe’d or South African’d – hellhole. If only I had enough money to emigrate. And if only the rest of the world wasn’t a total shithole. Sigh.

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