I’ve been writing some contributions to the Footprints Recruiting website’s Georgia Information section – check out the Food in Georgia section to view my first two articles – but of course they’re just glosses because there’s so much to say about food in Georgia and the submission guidelines called for about 500 words, which, for reference, is less than half the size of my average blog posts. (In fact, wordpress has a “word count” feature that updates every few seconds, and when it hits 1000 words I know it’s time to start wrapping up an entry, although some entries run to almost 2000 words.)
There’s a lot to say about the underlying ideas of food and the culture of food in Georgia. Things like meal structure and content (for instance, the fact that Georgians eat eggs in the afternoon instead of the morning, or that the heaviest meal is the second rather than the third) are fairly obvious differences that get covered in things like TLG orientation or my information article for footprints. But food philosophy is what really interests me.
Growing up, I was always expected to finish all the food on my plate. Not so much in a “how can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat” sort of way – I can’t recall my parents ever using desert as a motivation for me to finish my dinner – but more of a “there are starving children in Africa” sort of way. My parents literally said that to me. Their attitude was that it was a sin to throw out food when there were people in the world who didn’t have any food at all.
Of course, even my young mind saw the flaw in this argument – after all, it’s not like I could somehow ship my leftovers to Africa, and those starving children had no way to know or care what I was doing with my dinner, and if my parents were really concerned about world hunger, Sally Struthers was on TV every day telling them what to do about it. But still, we were expected to eat every last bit of food that we were served.
And then there was the “all-you-can-eat” buffet. Restaurants would have a sign saying something like “take all you like, but eat all you take.” This sign was meant to counter the “your eyes are bigger than your stomach” phenomenon, in which people would take a whole giant crapload of food and then eat like half of it – which is economically bad for the restaurant serving the buffet. This reinforces the culture of plate-finishing in the US.
So why have I gone on at such length about American food culture? Contrast, obviously.
Many volunteers get to their host families and quickly begin to suspect that their host families are trying to overfeed them to the point of pain and/or death. A typical story goes like this: “My host family keeps feeding me! They gave me a full plate of food and then when I finished that they gave me another full plate and insisted that I eat it!” A lot of volunteers have been impressed, and some even uncomfortable, with the amount of food that they seem to be expected to eat.
My belief is that what we have here is a simple signaling malfunction. In the US, we’re trained to take about as much food as we think we would like to eat, and to finish all of it. Thus, an empty plate is a sign of a job well-done. It means that we’ve successfully eaten everything we set out to eat. It’s an accomplishment. The buffet owners and starving children have nothing to complain about. We’ve passed the threshold of being allowed to have desert.
In Georgia, an empty plate seems to mean “please serve me more food.” I think it’s as simple as that. When I met my host family, if I finished a plate of food, I was automatically given a second, equally large plate of the same food, because by finishing – and finishing quickly – I was inadvertently signaling that I still had room/desire for more. If, on the other hand, I took my time with a plate and left some food on it, my host family would generally ask me if I wanted more. Sometimes I said yes, sometimes I said no, but I haven’t overeaten once since I figured this out, and my host family now has a very accurate sense of how much food I like to eat during a meal and doesn’t pressure me to eat more, which means that now – in my third week here – I actually can finish a plate without being expected to have more.
So I think that what’s going on is that at first, host families are trying (maybe not even on a conscious level) to figure out how much their guest can/needs to eat, and when the guest finishes their first plate – out of politeness, or cultural habit – they’re signaling to their host family that the answer is “a large amount of food.” I think because of different cultural expectations, this initial miscommunication can persist in some cases and host families can develop grossly overinflated expectations about their guests’ eating habits if the guests don’t figure out some way to communicate their actual preferences to their host families.
I’ve also noticed that Georgians almost always seem to make/order extra food. At home, Georgians make more than they’ll need, and leftovers carry over to subsequent meals, so there’s little actual waste. At restaurants, Georgians tend to order more food than they’ll need, and tend to leave food – and even alcoholic beverages – on the table when they leave.
In the US I’ve had countless conversations at restaurants where we try to determine if we’ve ordered the right amount of food. Generally we never worry too much about whether our order will be enough – we only ask whether it will be too much. If we do order too much food at a restaurant, we can request to have the leftovers wrapped up and taken to go, and most restaurants can accommodate that. It always weirds me out a little to walk out of a restaurant knowing that there’s still food left on the table, which seems to happen every time I get taken out by Georgians.
All this speaks to a fundamental philosophical difference in approach to food quantity. In the US, the approach seems to be to try to cook/order exactly enough food, because the primary directive we face when dealing with food quantity decisions is not to waste food. Also, restaurants are expensive, so over-ordering isn’t really economical. In Georgia, the approach seems to be to just make sure that there’s enough food. The fundamental question isn’t “did you finish your food?” but “did you eat enough?”
Of course, my grandparents grew up in the Depression, when food shortages and bread lines shaped cultural attitudes about food, whereas in Georgia, as I’ve said before, the basic subsistence economy never really failed the way it did in the US during the 30s and 40s. (Well, failed, or was sabotaged, depending on how you feel about FDR destroying crops and paying Americans not to grow food in an effort to drive economic recovery for large industrial and commercial corporations – I mean, you might think the Bush/Obama bailouts were bad, but at least there’s food to eat – this guy literally starved the American people in the name of economic recovery.) Also I grew up poor and urban, so I may not speak for all Americans.
Anyway, my word count is at 1200 so I guess it’s time to call this one a wrap. I wanted to write about approaches to meat, but I guess that will have to be its own post now.