Oxford Dictionary defines food as the following: Any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink, or that plants absorb, in order to maintain life and growth.
I think this is a heartbreaking definition. It takes all of the history, power, and even personality of food and condenses it to a simple matter of nutrition. Food is a colorful glimpse into each nation’s history, a helping staff for the weak, comfort for the heart-broken, and a tool that can reconcile the most awkward parties and the bitterest of enemies. What makes food so powerful? Perhaps the reason food is so powerful is because it’s something that all humans have in common, and it allows a human to communicate with any other human on earth, and even some of its animals.
Ethnologue, a website devoted to tracking and monitoring the world’s languages, reports that there are currently over seven thousand living languages- that is, still spoken languages. No person living today can even imagine being able to speak so many languages- many are proud that they can speak two. Alexander Arguelles reports that he can understand thirty eight languages- and his claims have been backed by an interview. He is familiar with many more languages; the thirty eight is only counting languages he considers himself at least 93% proficient in. According to Alexander, 93% proficient means you can understand 14 out of 15 words or more. However, not even Alexander Arguelles, one of the world’s most prolific language learners, can possibly imagine what it’s like to speak seven thousand languages. Alexander’s thirty-eight languages, though quite impressive, is only ½ of a percent of the world’s spoken languages.
Obviously, it’s impossible to be able to speak with anyone in the world, but how about simple communication? At this point, you might be thinking about basic hand communication. Maybe a good ‘ole ok sign with your fingers? Before you do, I think I should warn you: common American signs mean very different things in different cultures. In Japan, the ok sign (making a circle with your thumb and forefinger and pointing the remaining three up) means money. Now that’s not too bad, but in France, it means zero, and in Brazil, it means something much, much worse. In the Philippines and many Asian cultures, even beckoning someone over with your pointer finger is a horrible insult: its equivalent to calling them a dog.
Okay, if I can’t speak every language, and even a thumbs up can be extremely offensive, then what are we left with? Food, my friend, food. Take a journey with me with me to Kiev, Ukraine, in July of 2009. Watch what’s happening. Three Ukrainian women in traditional dress are supporting a large tray between themselves as they walk up to United States Vice President Joe Biden. On the tray is an elaborate round bread approximately six inches high. The bread is intricately woven along the border with a beautiful golden-brown finish to it. In the middle of the Korovai bread sits a small tray of salt. Biden rips a chunk of Korovai bread off, dips it in the salt, and takes a bite.
A person unfamiliar with what just took place may think it insignificant. However, you have just witnessed basic communication by food. Korovai is a bread presented to guests of honor and importance, and it is a symbol of friendship. The Ukrainians extended their welcome to Vice President Joe Biden- through food.
Bread is not used just as a welcome. Tom Reiss, in a biography, reports that Kurban Said found caches of bread found in a Central Asian dessert. Tom Reiss speculates that these caches of bread were used to communicate to other passing nomads information about traveling conditions, weather, and who had traveled through the area. This is getting pretty specific!
However, such specific communication by food is not very common. Food can be used in a general way to express gratitude, love or welcome. If you know a person well, you might know that a certain dish will make them feel especially loved and appreciated. Chocolate near Valentine’s Day is a common way to let someone know you care.
Communication by food is not limited to just people, however. In Star Wars Episode VI we see Princess Leia convince a furry little Ewok she is friendly by offering him a morsel of food. While this probably never actually happened, the principle still applies: animals love food, and offering them food will generally make them more receptive to you. However, tampering or handling their food might provoke an attack from some species.
Although we will never be able to speak to everyone in the world, we can learn many languages, like Alexander Arguelles. After all, how cool would it be to know thirty eight languages? However, because we will never be able to speak every language, maybe it’s time we leverage what we know about communication through food to both strengthen the relationships we already have, and, just maybe, gain a new one.