BY KEVIN MOE
Food is an important context for global and cross-cultural understanding. It is both highly global, as it is consumed worldwide, yet highly local, as there are significant variations in food across countries and cultures.
“It’s no secret that Italy places food very high on its cultural significance index,” says Senior Lecturer Jay Lipe. For the past five years, Lipe has led the Made in Italy Brand Management study abroad course for the Undergraduate Program. “From homemade pasta to artisan cheeses to gelato, Italians take great pride in their foods,” he says.
During the class’ in-country time, students visit the Castello Banfi Winery in Montalcino and learn how important wine is to Italian culture. “From a very early age, Italian children are taught of the benefits that wine provides,” Lipe says. “One of our contacts has mentioned to me that she would put a few drops of wine in her young children’s baby bottles to get them acclimated to the taste. Why, I ask? Because it is part of our culture, she answers. Imagine that happening in America without a call to child services.”
But there is more to cultural understanding than just variations in countries’ diets. Variations in table manners—dining etiquette—is just as important. Some cultures place a hierarchical value on seating placement. Others with a collectivist bent are adamant about sharing. Even the dining times and pace of a meal are subject to specific cultural norms.
“Food is an event in Italy. It’s not uncommon to see people enjoying a meal over the course of hours,” Lipe says. “We Americans slam our food and leave. Italians relish the art of conversation and food provides the medium with which to have great conversations and gatherings.”
Last fall, Carlson School Undergraduate Program Academic Advisors Kathy Evenson-McDermott and Jessica Himmerick brought several international students to Himmerick’s family farm south of Mankato for a meal. The students enjoyed local and organic foods picked straight from the garden and sourced from a nearby neighbor. “Yet, in the midst of the local foods we were enjoying at the meal, we were situated on a large, 4,700-acre farm–a sixth-generation family farm that is also a corporate farm, producing corn and soybeans on a grand scale,” Himmerick says. “In the midst of highly controversial food and farm politics, here the students were, blissfully enjoying the paradox of both small-scale and large-scale agriculture.”
The students were also able to view farming in action, as they visited a field where Himmerick’s brother was combining beans and others were loading wagons and trucks with the harvest. “The students were commenting on the size of things in the U.S.—the trucks, roads, land, and fields,” Evenson-McDermott says. “They were all very taken with the food and enjoyed the peacefulness of the farm and the interaction with Jessica’s family.”
Consequently, as students travel the world in their international experiences, it is often food and how it is consumed that becomes a strong basis for cross-cultural understanding.
When junior Jackson Ridl moved to Hong Kong to work at consulting firm Mazars as part of the Carlson Global Institute’s summer business internship abroad option, he expected a rapid pace—flashing lights, speedy luxury cars, and fifty-hour work weeks. What he didn’t expect was the leisurely attitude around the traditional Chinese meals. “Dim Sum and Hot Pot are the two meals that come to mind when I compare Hong Kong’s cuisine to the United States’,” he says. “These meals take time to slow down from the fast-paced lifestyle of living in a megacity and reflect and unwind with those around you.”
When he was first introduced to Dim Sum, his co-workers described it as kind of like a Chinese version of tapas. Dim Sum translates in Cantonese to “small snack,” and during the meal, many small dishes—ranging from chicken feet to custard buns—are ordered and shared between those sitting around the table. “When enjoying Dim Sum, traditionally, multiple hours are invested into the meal to allow time to sip tea and talk with those around you,” Ridl says.
The other traditional dish, Hot Pot, is another lengthy meal where everyone shares the food. “I’d liken it to a Chinese version of fondue that uses soup instead of oil to cook the raw ingredients on the table,” Ridl says. “You can spend hours at the table snacking and talking, and I’ve found this to be very intentional.”
The leisurely hours spent at these meals are trust-building in Chinese culture, Ridl says. “As people spend more time with you, get to know you as a person, and start to understand your personality, they will begin to trust you more,” he says.
Dim Sum and Hot Pot are woven into the fabric of Chinese culture to grow and build relationships. Ridl adds that even other underlying Chinese traditions are expressed during these meals. “The youngest member of the table cleans the dishes and chop sticks before the meal. This shows respect to your elders, an idea that goes well beyond the table and finds its way into every aspect of Chinese culture,” he says.
Born and raised in Minnesota, Thomas Pedretti, an accounting and finance major set to graduate next year, thought it was important to try something different for his semester abroad. “I thought Asia would be perfect,” he says. “After hearing about the kindness and friendliness of the Thai people, I knew that Thailand was my choice.”
In Thailand, Pedretti noticed two things about its food traditions. First, Thai people often like to order a wide variety of food for the entire group and then share each of the dishes among everyone. Second, all of the street vendors across Bangkok had almost identical prices for the same dishes.
“I think that both of these elements display their high level of collectivist values,” he says. “They prefer to share their food with others because they want each person to try everything, even if that means they receive less food because others eat more.
Pedretti also was surprised that the Thai dining experience centered far more around the group than the individual. “In American culture, we seem to be focused on our individual experience,” he says. “If food is not up to the standard a customer expects, they might send it back in America. But in Thailand, even when served a completely different dish than the one you ordered, you just say ‘Mai pen rai’—which means everything is fine—and eat it anyway with a smile on your face.”
Seth Werner, a senior lecturer in marketing, often teaches abroad for the Carlson Global Institute. Last fall, he hosted a dinner at his house for four exchange students. One student guest was Jingyi Su, then a junior at Tsinghua University in Beijing. An economics and finance major, she took advantage of the exchange program between her university and the Carlson School because she had visited the U.S. in high school and wanted another taste, so to speak.
The major difference she noticed between the culinary cultures in China and the U.S., besides chopsticks versus knife and fork, was the serving attitude. In China, people say “try this” and put food on your plate for you. “This is usually done for children; parents use this as a way to show their love for the children,” Su says. “I don’t like being treated in that way because I’m not a kid anymore.” In American culture, people are recommended certain dishes, but they help themselves, she adds.
Su also noticed that sweet food is popular in the U.S., but in China, salty is more preferred. “People in China may consider eating sweet food too easy to get fat. Sometimes it’s just too sweet for us,” she says. As for the Chinese preference for a salty flavor, she isn’t exactly sure of the reason, but thinks it may be because their ancestors cooked that way. “People nowadays just follow their traditions,” she says.
Following up on the sweet motif, Su also pointed to homemade desserts as a difference between the cultures. “When people go out for dinner, there is usually dessert in China, but not in cooking at home,” she says, offering a couple of ideas why. “In China, people consider dessert as something you eat for some special meaning or to celebrate something. It is also very hard to cook Chinese dessert at home, so we usually buy it.”
Su said she liked how U.S. culture is open in how foods for one dinner could reflect different tastes and cultures, pointing out that Werner cooked many Chinese dishes for the students. However, having the host cook the meal is something seldom done in China. “They usually talk with the guests while their wife is cooking,” Su says. “They sometimes help, but usually they are not involved in the cooking part.”
In summing up how she learned about American culture through its food, Su thinks tradition as well as lifestyles play a heavy part. “Of course different cultures have different food, but I think this has more to do with the tradition than the culture reflected,” she says. “You eat something this way because when you are young, your parents teach you to eat in this way and your own tastes and preferences are built. For example, in the U.S., people prefer fast food. I think maybe it’s because they are too busy. This reflects their lifestyle.”
Courtney Messinger was in her last semester in the MA-HRIR program before graduating this year. It was her final chance to study overseas, so she jumped at the opportunity. She chose New Zealand because she wanted to break out of her comfort zone. “New Zealand is one of those countries that you don’t really hear much about,” she says. “I wanted to limit how much information I exposed myself to before going so that I could form my own opinions—and so I could gain a more objective view about the U.S.”
One of the first things she noticed while dining out in her new home was that nine times out of 10, you order at the counter, and that water is self-served. “Sometimes I would sit down and wait for someone to bring me water and take my order only to watch the next customer come in and get their order in, grab water, and sit at a table,” she says.
This custom plays into what Messinger noticed about New Zealand’s culture overall—its casual nature.
“There are more formal events, but, for the most part, casual is the norm,” she says. “That made for some interesting observations of people’s attire at dining facilities. Being barefoot is an acceptable thing, as is mixing loud patterns. You could see someone in a suit next to a table of university students in shorts and with bright hair.”
The casualness breeds comfort. “I learned that food is comforting,” Messinger says. “The Maori have hangi pies—meat and potatoes—and seafood is common because of New Zealand being surrounded by the ocean. At the end of the day, food is a reason to come together and connect with others. It’s taught me to think outside the box when it comes to eating and to really enjoy the eating experience—who you’re with, what they ordered, and how eating with one another sustains a relationship.”
Like the U.S., New Zealand is a melting pot, so much of its food has external influences, particularly Asia, which was another surprise to Messinger. “There weren’t too many foods typically associated with New Zealand, other than a dessert called pavlova,” she says. “Sushi was everywhere and Indian is popular.”
Messinger notes that it is common in New Zealand, as well as in neighboring Australia, to connect with coworkers over drinks and dinner after work and use food as a way to share time with one another. She finds this a valuable takeaway. “It may be a standard thing to do, but you still feel included and liked as your dining counterpart wants to spend time with you, so I will be more mindful of using meals as a way to get to know people,” she says.
Overall, Messinger finds the experience has given her a more global mindset in general. “This experience has taught me that we can all coexist, no matter our differences, opinions, and behaviors so long as we respect one another and come from a place of understanding and consideration,” she says.