Opinion | Columns

Columbia's cuisine crisis

“His mother invited you into her kitchen? Oh my goodness. You guys are practically married in her eyes.” My Moroccan friend was exaggerating the last bit, but not by as much as you’d think.

When I stood side-by-side with my French boyfriend’s Corsican mum, learning how to make paper-thin crêpes and trying not to burn the coq au vin, I immediately understood that allowing me to handle the food with her—this act of making it and then consuming it together—was her way of announcing her approval of my presence in her son’s life. My handmade scones, macaroons, and the traditional Taiwanese mu-er dessert sitting on the dinner table testified to my appreciation of her approval, something our language barrier doesn’t allow me to communicate as eloquently.

Fortunately for me, she fit the mold of the French foodie, placing an emphasis on the enjoyment and creation of eatables—she comes from a culture that, after all, is the purveyor of haute cuisine. The Taiwanese and Chinese cultures in which I grew up look at food in the same way. 

Coming to America, one of the biggest turn-offs that I encountered was the food culture. There’s the hypocritical health critic who analyzes food to the point of paranoia when his calorie counter app breaks down, the vegan who binges on pizza while claiming that she’s eating healthily, the girls trying to lose weight on Kashi GoLean bars, and the self-proclaimed food lover who just has money to blow. This is on top of long-standing problems such as oversized portions and fast food. However, worst of all, I see people assembling bits of processed supermarket fare saying that they know how to cook. Food doesn’t seem to be for the nourishment of the body or of the soul.

What I find most disturbing is that fast food is acceptable. I’ve seen fast food—in the form of KIND or Kashi energy bars or Ferris’ thawed chipotle wraps—be consumed without second thought, justified by the fact that people are “too busy” to eat properly and cook for themselves. Their fast-paced lives are rendering them incapable of taking care of their bodies because taking half an hour to wash fruit and roast vegetables is a waste of their time. I cooked Sunday night dinner today, and every dish was a flavor bomb—but none of them had meat as the dish’s protagonist, or canned soup or packaged dressings. Hence, I have to say that some American eating habits confuse me, and I hope that it’s not a reflection of the culture. A habit of cooking and eating whatever I want, but from scratch and from local sources, was more healthful than I had realized, a fortunate byproduct of my Taiwanese and Chinese culture of which I became aware only once I came here.

Every Saturday for almost a decade, the six o’clock alarm would ring to wake me and my grandmother up for the village market. For all these years, I watched her gossip with vendors while measuring the transparency of one squid tentacle against another or squeezing bean curds to check for elasticity; market visits meant socialization, friendly competition for the freshest bok choys, and anticipation of meals that bring together family and friends. I have yet to see such familiar banter and interaction over ingredients, even in farmer’s markets, at Columbia. “Have you eaten?” is an appropriate greeting in my culture, because food is a medium of communication and an expression of love. This is why I find it incredible when some American students say that an acceptable dinner consists of a bottle of Barilla marinara sauce, a pot of boiling water, a packet of fettuccine, and (if they’re being really fancy) microwaved chicken breast. 

Because of my upbringing, I see cooking, baking, and consuming food as integral parts of my life. Bearing the responsibility of feeding my family forced me to learn new cooking techniques to create nutrient-dense yet tasty meals in 2009, when my father was diagnosed with colon cancer. Continuing to cook in college, I now see food as an outlet for creativity and a means to bond with flatmates and meet new friends. It’s not surprising, then, that for somebody who wrote her college essay on her daily morning ritual of baking bread, there’s a bit of disappointment at the appropriateness of frozen meals and pre-cut “baby” carrots.

Of course, not all of my compatriots base their identities off of food as much as I do. We do, though, have a good time bonding over our shared lack of good Asian food, much in the same way that we ironically watch “Mulan” or “Kung Fu Panda” just to point out what’s not Chinese about the animation. Authentic cuisine is something that breaks our hearts and mends them all at once, an experience I often share with any other international student. It’s generally agreed upon that the taste of home, or any imitation of it in various degrees of paleness, is something that cannot be manufactured precisely unless you really are home, whether you’re a Texan craving barbecue sauce made with dark molasses, an Indian longing for air-bubble-permeated naan, or a Taiwanese girl who just had a delicious beetroot sandwich, but still somehow has the lingering ghost of oyster omelets on her lips.

Yvonne Hsiao is a Columbia College first-year. Happily Homeless runs alternate Mondays. 

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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Anonymous posted on

While this article is certainly commendable, I think that there are some significant flaws with the assumptions you draw. I think its all nice and dandy for you to say that cooking is integral to your life, but you draw assumptions from what you have seen here at Columbia, and you MUST know that Columbia isnt representative of America as a whole.
There are a few issues that I see here,
1) you dont take into account how many students here are just that, students. They generally dont have the time nor the resources to cook for themselves everyday, and therefore often find that any food will suffice.
2) "However, worst of all, I see people assembling bits of processed supermarket fare saying that they know how to cook. Food doesn’t seem to be for the nourishment of the body or of the soul." Food is sometimes food. Time for you to get down from your culinary high horse.
3)There is an extremely strong food culture in the United States...You just have to look for it. Remember that America is a mix of other nations, and that New York is the melting pot of the world, you seem to have ignored that fact in your essay.
Calm Down.

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Anonymous posted on

Whoa there. Just because other people don't prioritize their lives exactly the way you do doesn't mean that American culture is "disturbing". Perhaps they'd like to spend that time taking another class, or working at their internship. Food, to many people, is nourishment and you can't deride them for that. Many people can't afford the time or money that you seem willing to devote to food. I've read your restaurant reviews and your other column, and you're awfully pretentious. No one forced you to come to Columbia, nor to America. Stop pretending that you're better than everyone here, because I sure you, you are not.

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Anonymous posted on

I think that what Y's trying to say is that there are things about the American food culture that needs to change. She says that it is not healthful to be at all the extremes that she has encountered, and watching out for what people put in their mouths is not a bad idea at all. When you say "food is food" she points out the same thing, that food is for nourishment and eating processed things don't do good for the body. The food culture she points out has flaws, just like every culture does and she is trying to explain how she didn't know American fast paced culture would produce these side effects until she came here.

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Anonymous posted on

She isn't modest at all in her writing. She points out flaws, without recognizing that her own food culture and culture might be flawed. She doesn't recognize sweeping issues that go along with food culture, and essentially, one can extrapolate that although she directly attacks the American / Columbian food culture, its really the culture as a whole (see her remarks about the girl trying to lose weight, the self-proclaimed foodie with a ton of cash to spend, etc.) because our culture as a whole is intertwined with our food culture. She essentially says that we prioritize our time incorrectly

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Anonymous posted on

This piece is self-exaltation masquerading as a constructive message. You are saying that because you've observed an attitude toward food here that isn't in line with yours, our culture is somehow inferior to yours. I hope you realize how horribly pretentious that is. Shall I proceed to fly to China, observe a different attitude toward food, and criticize it as disturbing because it's different than mine? Get over yourself. And by the way, I don't know if you've noticed, but you are not the only international student here. You are not special for it.

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Yvonne Hsiao posted on

My column was submitted titled “Speaking with Food” because I intended to describe how my Chinese and Taiwanese culinary background allowed me to change my dietary patterns for social and health benefits. I find this parts of American culinary culture disturbing, because while it is a reflection of the fast-paced lives everyone lives (which has good and bad ramifications, just like its other), it's not a healthy lifestyle. There’s not much to argue about there. Many people choose to ignore this rather than confront the issue head-on. You’re right – the average person doesn’t seem to care, and is that so trivial (or, conversely, sensitive) an issue that somebody can’t point it out?

Having a father who was on the brink of death because of his lifestyle (sleeping and eating at bad times) habits who was only saved by a surgery with a 30% success rate and a strict diet, I tend to realize how much this can affect people's bodies. Especially in Columbia, students are subjected to a combination of stress, lack of sleep, and unwholesome nutrition – but somehow that’s deemed “okay,” even if eating better will help students become more efficient in their studies? I overhear conversations that describe such extremist dietary patterns as those pointed out in my article, and wonder how else to get the information out than to write. There is a movement towards better nutrition now (as demonstrated by guidebooks such as Clean Plates), but just as your attitude shows, many people can find justification for not choosing proper nourishment. Diabetes, obesity, surgeries that split open your stomach – that’s not at all desirable to the average human being, yes?

There's nothing wrong with spending time taking another class or internship, but even changing one meal a week from something processed to something wholesome can help without significant time or academic or extracurricular commitment dents.

You're perfectly right in quoting me - “food is nourishment,” indeed. I happen to be committed to this particular lifestyle (and am able to because of my upbringing), because I know the consequences of not doing so. If you were responsible for nursing your father back to health since your family can't afford chemotherapy, you might also find that you care enough about others to very pretentiously and very arrogantly acknowledge the bad parts of American food culture so that they might not suffer in the future liked a loved one did.

I could totally write an article about the strange and unhealthy aspects of having stir-fry and stall food daily – but my column is about the international student’s experience here in America. Being careful about not generalizing my experience is important to me, because I recognize, as you wrongly assume I don't, that my time here at Columbia is not representative of every other international student's. I apologize if I come off as culturally imperialist, because this article was originally submitted with a focus on both health and cultural influences, but please look for the second part of my article (cut out of this one because it was too long) which examines the limitations of culinary authenticity.

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Anonymous posted on

You can't whine that your column was misunderstood because parts were cut out as a result of it being too long. As a columnist it is your responsibility to be intimately familiar with your word count and to convey your message within this word count. If you fail to do so, it is entirely your fault. Additionally, your column is not centered around health; it would be much less controversial if it were. It is centered around how you look down on American culture because it is too pedestrian for you, with some self-congratulation thrown in.

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Anonymous posted on

You are again being self-congratulatory, this time about your handling of your father's unfortunate health problems. I empathize. And, again, I'd like to remind you that you're not the only one. I've had a similar experience, and I similarly believe in the importance of eating healthy food—but I'm not seeking pity or congratulations for it. Recognize that no one wants to read a column in which the author simply praises herself, regardless of her dubious original intentions. I'd also like to remind you that it is entirely possible to eat wholesome food and take care of yourself while not being a food snob. In fact, I could not care less about culinary excellence, but I do care about my health and eat accordingly. Many other people at Columbia are the same way. Your piece and your comment have no nuance whatsoever.

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Anonymous posted on

You should take Food, Ethnicity, and Globalization- amazing course and discusses exactly these issues in an academic setting!

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Anonymous posted on

This piece made me both angry and hungry!! I feel like the Hulk. I think I'll go whip up some Barilla marinara and fettuccine...and hey, I'm feeling fancy. Maybe even some chicken breast.

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