Foodways: How a Festival Whets the Appetite for Culture

Like anything else in this world, food can be complicated. There are multiple ways to look at the role of ethnic food in a public festival. Scholars have written about the danger (and promise) inherent to festivals, especially cultural festivals like Tucson Meet Yourself. It can go either way; it usually breaks down somewhat like this:

Strange Food = Strange People =  Stereotype

or

Strange Food  = Strange People = Understanding

When you smell, touch, taste and consume a food from another culture, any number of things can happen. The food can reinforce a stereotype you had of that culture and its people (we can all evoke references in the general culture that associate people from one region or country with adjectives like “fiery,” “pungent,” “sour,” “sugary,” etc.). Or perhaps, the opposite happens: you experience such pleasure from the food that you become curious about learning all you can about that person or culture, eventually discarding some ignorant notions you were holding about this group or country.

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Perhaps it is fair to say that at a large public folklife festival like Tucson Meet Yourself one is likely to encounter both negative and positive scenarios playing out, most likely simultaneously. For many people their first exposure” to ethnic or regional foods can be a baby-step-of-awareness. Sometimes it comes down to an honest “geez-I-had-no-idea.” But we also hear from TMY attendees who who tell us: “thank you, you opened my mind.”

At Tucson Meet Yourself, food stands for many things:

1) it is the “big fat sugar-coated carrot” (as Big Jim has said) that attracts people to what is essentially an “educational event;”

2) it is a lot more than just “background” — in fact, foodways is “the program” –the actual vehicle we use intentionally to open up conversations about cultural diversity and respect for our differences;

3) it is a symbolic statement of how beauty and human resilience and dignity can be shared across places and generations;

4) it is a vehicle for cultural groups and small ethnic business owners to raise money, which then gets re-invested in their practices of cultural transmission;

5) it is an affirmation of the value of democratic pluralism (we are all Tucsonans — and no matter how far we traveled to get here or how long we have been here, this is now “home” for all of us –none better than the other).