Sunday, February 20, 2011

Discussion: Culinary Identity

Whether you're new to cooking or have been at it for a long time, I think most people tend to follow a basic rule in their kitchen: cook what you like. There are surely exceptions here and there, but if you spend much time cooking food that you don't want to eat, how long will you keep cooking?

When it comes to what kinds of food we eat, there are a variety of factors that influence our choices: tradition,  price, religion, preferences, cravings and many more. When it comes to how and where we eat, even more variables enter the picture. We eat anywhere between the car and the kitchen table off of anything from paper plates to fine china. When you factor in how many kinds of ingredients exist in the world the possibilities of your culinary experiences are quite literally endless.

If there are so many drivers for the choices we make, how do we figure out what kind of eaters we are? On the most basic level, biology breaks it down to omnivores, herbivores and carnivores. As far as classifying eaters goes, this breakdown is where the simplicity both enters and exits the pictures. Herbivores, for example, encompass much more than just vegetarians. Vegans, fruitarians and raw foodists all fall under the herbivore umbrella, but the specific habits of each group have stark differences. Omnivores have fewer mainstream subsets, but based on consumption percentages alone of meats versus plants, the spectrum of eating is fantastically broad. The only group that remains straightforward are the carnivores only because an exclusively carnivorous diet is one that humans do not typically maintain over a lifetime.

It's simple to classify yourself as ominvore or herbivore. It's a far more complicated process to define just what kind of ominvore or herbivore you are. So what is the benefit of understanding your unique brand of omnivore or herbivoreism?

I eat meat, so I am by classification an omnivore. However, I usually eat it for three or fewer meals per week. I'd venture to guess that I also have at least three vegan meals per week. I could break it down into percentages, chart it, analyze it and try to really understand the statistics behind it, but the point is that the percentages don't matter. They don't matter because I eat what I like. Sure, certain things influence my preferences. I like vegetables, so I tend to eat more of them. When bell peppers are ringing up $1.50 each at the grocery store, I avoid them like the plague.

When you cook for yourself or others, your end results are always judged. That's why its so important to have a clue of what kind of cook you are. How can you have confidence if you can't begin to define what you're doing or why you're doing it?

I believe finding your culinary identity is a permanently incomplete process. And it should be! Knowing even one food you like is the starting line. Exploring that food, perhaps introducing a few new ingredients moves you along the path. After a while the exploration will lead to both discovery and a slight comfort with the unfamiliar. Understanding your culinary identity, nebulous though it may be, makes you more confident with anything you're cooking or eating. 

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