Food: The universal human experience

Culture, trends, identity and even migration patterns can be found by examining what we eat

person cutting food with knife and fork


Though holiday traditions may vary between countries and cultures, no festive gathering would be complete without that most ubiquitous imperative of human life: food.

On a rudimentary level, food’s job is to provide us with the vitamins and nutrients that keep us alive and well. But food also nourishes our souls.

“Food brings people together,” said Frank Infurna, Arizona State University associate professor of psychology. “It really fosters a sense of community and belonging.”

The son of Sicilian immigrants, Infurna grew up in upstate New York, where his “stereotypical Italian family” would spend Sundays at his grandparents’ home noshing on pizza and lasagna. Nowadays, he and his wife co-own and operate an organic farm in Gilbert, Arizona, named La Campagna (Italian for “the countryside”).

It reminds him of his grandparents’ home and the garden there that supplied the Sunday feasts.

“It’s part of who my family is,” Infurna said.

For many people, food is a reflection and celebration of identity. In the midst of the holiday season, ASU Now spoke with professors across disciplines — including transborder studies, nutrition and agribusiness — to take a multifaceted look at the role food plays in our lives.

Food and identity

In spring 2019, School of International Letters and Cultures Spanish instructor Ileana Baeza Lope will teach a new course offered by the School of Transborder Studies titled “Mexican Foods in the Southwest.”

The course is presented in three parts: pre-Columbian food and its relationship to spirituality; food as an evolving reflection of Mexican identity; and food as the materialization of Mexican culture in the U.S.

“Part of Mexican identity has to do with the enjoyment of being alive,” said Baeza Lope, a native of Merida, the capital city of the Mexican state of Yucatan. “Mexican culture is a very cheerful culture. Humor is part of our identity because it was also a survival tactic, because of our history of colonization.”

Simin Levinson, a clinical associate professor of nutrition, teaches a course called “Cultural Aspects of Food” that asks students to research and cook a dish that represents their cultural heritage.

That can get tricky in America, a nation of immigrants, where just because your ancestors are Irish doesn’t mean you’ve ever tasted corned beef and cabbage. And Levinson, who was born in Iran, can relate.

“I grew up in the U.S. eating my American mother’s tuna noodle casserole for dinner,” she said. “So even though I identify as Persian, tuna casserole is part of my food culture. My mom made it for me, and now I make it for my kids. It has become a comfort food for us.”

Food trends

From organic to gluten-free to local, food trends can have a big impact on what we eat.

“It’s a constantly evolving relationship we have with our food,” said Lauren Chenarides, an assistant professor at the Morrison School of AgribusinessThe Morrison School of Agribusiness is in the W. P. Carey School of Business.. “When we look back historically, most of the foods we consume today were not necessarily available to early humans.”

In her “Food Advertising and Promotion” course, she emphasizes to her students the importance of messaging on how we as consumers make choices when it comes to what foods we purchase.

For example, you might be tempted to order the salmon at your favorite restaurant because it’s the evening’s special, but it’s probably only on special because the restaurant got a deal on a bulk purchase. And you might think Chipotle’s sales would suffer after an E. coli scare, but if they follow it up with the right promotion, consumers will likely come back.

“Their No. 1 priority is getting people in the door,” Chenarides said. “So being a conscious consumer is really important because marketing and all the other aspects of the food business can be very confusing.”

Food and spirituality

There are the religious food customs we’ve all probably heard of in America, such as Jewish kosher law and Catholic fasting, and then there are the more obscure ones.

For the indigenous Maya of Mexico, food was more than just a material substance. It had a spiritual element that inspired the act of leaving food at ancestors’ graves on the Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) holiday; it is thought that the ancestors imbibe the spiritual essence of the food, leaving the material portion for the living.

Though the ritual may seem macabre, it is not a celebration of death, said Baeza Lope: “Dia de Muertos is a celebration of life. It’s about being able to share with the ones that have gone for one day.”

One religion that Levinson encourages her students to take a deeper look at in her course is Rastafarianism. Many practitioners of the religion actually follow strict dietary laws, and some are completely vegetarian.

“We explore certain stereotypes because learning about different groups and cultures around the world is how we learn to respect people who are different from ourselves and how we gain an appreciation for things that are different than what we’re used to,” Levinson said.

Food and migration

Food can even unlock the secrets of the past.

“Looking at regional migration patterns shows us how certain foods have shaped history,” Levinson said.

The Irish Potato Famine in the 19th century caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, resulting in a surge of Irish immigrants — and their recipes — coming to America. In the Midwestern United States, German immigrant influence can be seen in the popularity of cheese, broth and beer there today. And there is a distinct French influence in the cuisine of New Orleans.

In some areas of the U.S., different cultures have embraced aspects of one another’s food cultures to create fusion dishes. Chino-Latino blends Chinese and Latin food while Chino-Bandido blends Chinese with Mexican food. And residents of Southern Arizona will be familiar with the Sonoran dog: Unique to the region, it’s a hot dog wrapped in bacon and grilled, then finished off with such toppings as pinto beans, onions, tomatoes, mayonnaise, mustard, jalapeños and salsa.

Associate Director of the School of Transborder Studies Lisa Magaña is fascinated by all of it.

“This region has such an interesting history,” she said, “and through the food fusions, you can see how it really does transcend borders.”

Favorite cultural dishes

Frank Infurna, associate professor of psychology


Origin: Italy

Flavor profile: Creamy and slightly spicy, lasagna is possibly one of the oldest types of pasta, commonly made with stacked layers of pasta alternated with sauces and ingredients such as meats, vegetables and cheese, and sometimes topped with melted grated cheese. Typically, the cooked pasta is assembled with the other ingredients and then baked in an oven.

“My mom and my grandma’s lasagna is second to none.”

Simin Levinson, clinical associate professor of nutrition


Origin: Iran

Flavor profile: Sweet or sour, depending on the recipe. Flavored with pomegranate paste and ground walnuts, it is traditionally made with braised duck or chicken. Fesenjan can also be made using balls of ground meat or chunks of lamb, but fish or no meat at all are very unusual. Served with Iranian white or yellow rice, yogurt, pickled veggies, bread, feta cheese and lots of herbs.

“In Iranian cooking we eat a lot of rice and stew; it’s called khoresh. My favorite type of khoresh is fesenjan. It’s made with pomegranate molasses. I cook it down until it forms a paste. It makes a sweet, tart, velvety sauce. Now my mouth is watering!”

Ileana Baeza Lope, Spanish instructor

Queso relleno

Origin: The Yucatan Peninsula

Flavor profile: Savory and meaty with a Dutch influence. Translated, it means “stuffed cheese,” and consists of a round of Edam cheese hollowed out and filled with minced meat, raisins, nuts, various spices, sometimes olives and hard-boiled egg, wrapped in muslin and steamed, then topped with a red tomato sauce and a white, flour-based sauce.

“Our culture is very different from the rest of Mexican culture. Yucatan cuisine is a mix of European ingredients with local ingredients. But all of Mexico is very diverse — just as diverse as the U.S. population — and the food reflects that.”

Lisa Magaña, associate director of the School of Transborder Studies


Origin: Mesoamerica

Flavor profile: Starchy and savory or sweet, tamales are made of corn-based dough called masa, filled with such ingredients as meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables and chiles, and steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf. The wrapping can either be discarded prior to eating, or be used as a plate and eaten from within.

“Growing up, my mom’s big thing was tamales. It was an event. First you soak the leaves, then you go buy the masa, then you make the meat, then you soak the chile … and so on.”

Lauren Chenarides, assistant professor at the W. P. Carey Morrison School of Agribusiness


Origin: Japan

Flavor profile: A generally mild-flavored raw fish meal, traditional sushi is prepared with Japanese rice seasoned with vinegar, salt and sugar. Flavorings can include soy sauce, wasabi and pickled ginger. Sushi is meant to be eaten in one bite so that all of the elements — the feel and taste of the fish, the texture of the rice grains and the flavor of the seasonings — can be experienced at once.

“My grandma and I connected over food. She was Greek, and we would spend hours in the kitchen. However, I’ve sworn off pasta and pizza because I just ate too much of it at home as a kid.”

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