A President's Reflections
People and Places

Food as cultural touchstone

Posted on January 12, 2011

Food is a wonderful lens on a culture and speaks to myriad influences. As we returned to our little country restaurant last night, we thought about Poland and it’s hundreds of years of deprivation. I mean, this is a place that had its best centuries during the medieval period.

A flat landscape, decent agriculture, and a coastline made it the main avenue for one invading army after another and it has spent much of the last 500 years carved up by other countries. In the grip of the Soviets, it is said to have had the worst food shortages. In sum, the Poles have suffered long deprivation for hundreds of years and the food reflects that reality.

It is hearty “survival” food, based on the root vegetables that could be grown and stored in this cold climate. Think beets and potatoes. It is meant to fill bellies that were often hungry. It lacks the spices that made their way into European countries south and east of it. It is peasant food, yet when done well it provides comforting response to be foggy cold that has enveloped us here.

Indeed, when we finished our dinner last night, the owner asked (through pantomime) if we were walking back, a trek that was less appealing as the night was darker and the road without sidewalks. When we nodded yes, she sent the chef to drive us. Such wonderful hospitality.

Consider the desserts we learned to make in our cooking class in Budapest. Complicated, multi-layered, and sugary. A lot like the baroque architecture all around us. A lot like the gaudy empires that spawned them.

I sit on the Board of a small, new non-profit started by a former student of mine, Sarah Khan. Sarah’s passion is to look at culture through food and food practices and she does some of the best travel and eating of anyone know. Check out her work at:


2 thoughts on “Food as cultural touchstone

  1. Maria Ashton says:

    I’m enjoying readying about your trip.
    My mother is Lithuanian (she fled the country when she was about 18 yrs old) so I grew up eating the foods that you’re enjoying.
    I went to Poland in July 1998 for a 10 day trip. Warsaw and Krakow were both on the itinerary.
    In June 2009 I traveled with my parents to Lithuania….her 80th birthday gift from my father. It was wonderful to see how the country had recovered since the end of the Soviet occupation. It truly had been an occupation all those years after the war. In Vilnius we saw a prison where all manner of torture had been performed. It was kept as a record of what the people had suffered and overcome.
    We were able to see the town where my mother grew up. We stood on the spot where her home had been, walked past her high school (now a law firm) to the chapel (statue of the saint still at the edge of the lawn) and then walked to the cathedral (which had been destroyed during the war and rebuilt as an exact replica).

  2. Gregg says:

    Been reading and waiting for each new blog entry. Sounds like an amazing trip. As a big fan of the Travel and Food Channels, these logs have been a combination of both. Great sense of the local culinary fare and architectural perspectives.

    Good stuff and thanks for the contributions.

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