As I drove into the office today, I got to pondering if perhaps I was way off base yesterday about Turkish food, and also why the Istanbul capital of culture website made no reference to food or eating. And then tweeting with Tom Aikens about the subject made me wonder if food is not considered culture?
After all, do I remember when Liverpool was the capital of culture a rich outpouring of interest in British food? Perhaps not here, maybe overseas, which is perhaps part of the whole PR campaign for these designations. During Liverpool’s year Taste Lancashire 08 was running, bringing a whole region’s food into focus, and there was a Food & Drink Festival during the year. It doesn’t look like either got major PR pushes though.
So, what is culture? If I google it, then I get definitions that include a particular society at a particular time and place, and the tastes in arts and manners that are favoured by a social group. What I think gets closest for me is the connection to anthropology, and would therefore link culture to the distinct ways that people living in different parts of the world classified and represented their experiences, and acted creatively.
Now if that doesn’t involve cooking and eating, I don’t know what does. Early man went out to basically look for food to survive, which would have then led him to different experiences, places with different foodstuffs. There would no doubt have been long tales around the campfire about how difficult that day’s mammoth was to catch, and that story could have expanded and grown, been put into a poem, put to music. Someone eventually found a way to record it through drawing it on walls. But without food, none of this might have started.
One of my favourite reads this year was Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. It was a fascinating read, to see how hunting just one food led different cultures to meet, combine, clash, part and also share. There were very unusual recipes using every part of the fish, and I mean every part. But without the fish, these traditional recipes wouldn’t have developed, and nations wouldn’t have crossed oceans to hunt and trade in the fish.
And then there’s the act of sitting down to eat and drink together. Where would all great artists be without meetings in cafes and restaurants? How much debate went on at those gatherings? Every city in the world seems to have a restaurant that was a favourite gathering place of the writers and artists of the day. My favourite is Bagutta in Milan, where they founded the first Italian literary award. Not to mention they make a fabulous risotto, and their stuffed courgette flowers when available are perfection.
Certainly if you bang food and culture into the search bar on Amazon you get back over 700 results. I’m no academic, but for me culture and food are intertwined, and so I am just slightly bemused, and saddened, that these cultural celebrations don’t have food very near to the heart of them. What better way to show people your culture than how you sit and break bread together?
Given the richness of Turkish cuisine, not to mention the melting pot of cultures represented in Istanbul, I think it would be a real shame if they were to let their year go by without celebrating the thing that probably kicked off every aspect of culture. So, go cook, invite friends round, start a conversation, debate, argue, agree, laugh. That’s culture to me, as much as the next big artist. And, lets face it, foodies, gourmands, food lovers and all are a cultural movement all of our own!
Fabulous photo of the camaraderie of eating together by Simon Blackley on Flickr.