Posted On: 10/06/1999
Xenophobia is defined as an unreasonable fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers or that which is foreign or strange (Webster's). I would like to propose a new word for inclusion into the gastronomic lexicon: xenofoodophobia, or unreasonable fear or hatred of foreign or strange food. I suppose most of us are born xenofoodophobics; that is, an infantile culinary disobedient stance against all things green (except jellybeans and chocolate-chip-mint ice cream). On some level the rebellion is just that: as a child you must do everything conceivable to behave contrary to your parents desires and expectations.
As one gets older, that fear develops into habits and quirks that evolve from the classification of finicky eater to ethnocentric, frightened diner. There are aspects of xenofoodophobia that are completely justifiable: the idea of eating the brains of another animal is just downright revolting. There are even aspects of xenofoodophobia that are just plain confusing. Exactly what is Euro-Pan-TexMex-Sushi anyway?
The trick is to be open to other cultures and by way of extension, their dining eccentricities - you must also never, ever, ever expect everything to taste like a Big Mac. Surmounting all excuses from the olfactory to the aesthetic - that smells like funky toe jam or that looks like throw-up on a pancake - is the first step in joining the ranks of gastronomic diversity. Nowhere is it written that once you embark on this culinary If It's Tuesday It Must Be Belgium crusade, you have to abandon macaroni and cheese or meat loaf or apple pie. No, no, no. It means you have to just try it - once is enough!
Airline travel is no longer necessary to access another culture. Just open to the yellow pages and start your culinary journey. Here in St. Louis there is a veritable plethora of ethnic restaurants - we could start our own United Nations! Migration patterns of a city often reveal themselves through the restaurant industry and The Hill is just one example of such an influx - in this case, Italians. For example, Volpi's is known throughout the country for having some of the best proscioutto (Italian smoked ham) outside of the Old Country. DiGregorio's carries fabulous Italian cheeses and homemade ravioli (definitely not for toasting) and an assorted plethora of interesting meats and salads that will indoctrinate you to the culinary genius of the people of Italy. (Just watching one episode of the Soprano's will give you a glimpse into Italian culture where food does supersede everything else - the mafia storyline is just a cover. The show really belongs on the Food Network).
There is an Ethiopian restaurant, Addis, on Delmar in the University City Loop that specializes in the authentic cuisine of that country. The atmosphere is totally reticent of the culture and its customs, including the ritual of eating the delicious lentil and chicken and beef dishes with your hands using the traditional Ethiopian bread made from a grain called Teff. For Thai food, Sen in downtown St. Louis not only supplies some of the best Pad Thai and Thom Yum Soup in the city, but the atmosphere, culled from the Buddhist principles of minimalism and simplicity, give you a glimpse into some of the aesthetic customs of Thai culture.
Food is one of the most accessible facets of a country's ethnicity; therefore, sampling its authentic fare will give you a glimpse into that country's history, anthropological development, geography and climate.
Think about it. When someone from a foreign nation comes to America for the first time you make sure they taste Apple Pie or Barbecued Ribs or a breakfast of Scrambled Eggs, Maple Cured Bacon and Hash Browns. It's your way of saying - get to know me better, get to know my country better - they don't have to like their Chocolate Malt, they just have to taste it. They'll either get it or they won't. Either way it's the experience of broadening one's cultural and culinary horizons - eat more, learn more. What could be simpler?
Just think about where we'd be if Nixon didn't want to try Szechuan Beef or Reagan refused a sip of Stolichnya or Clinton rejected a Falafel ? The point is not to fear food. Food is about more than eating. It's a catalyst to learning about the rest of the world and bridging the gaps between our cultures. One small Spanikopita for man, one giant step for mankind.
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