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Why my grandmother's relationship to food is just a metaphor for the shit, divided world we live in


Ben Sharp

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The “It's complicated” column is Ben Sharp’s uninhibited (and English-language) approach to subjects that deserve attention but perhaps shouldn’t always require academic research or too much intellect. Discourse over doctrine or coded commentaries. Ben – a British-born, Berlin-based, gay 20-something with passions for fashion, fried chicken and overthinking – looks to pose questions that are answered differently, in intrinsic relation to our individual experiences and identities.

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My beloved grandmother – my nan, who is getting a new share of international airtime thanks to this column – has always had this peculiar way of judging people based on what or rather how much they eat. She might exclaim “she ate a good meal” to suggest that she approves of somebody she’s just met, specifically because they ate well. Except to eat well, for Nan, is to eat large amounts of the kind of food that she enjoys and has always enjoyed eating. Ain’t no mention of superfood at Beryl’s, I can assure you.

As a young child and a then fussy-ish eater, I battled a little with my grandmother’s food-centric approach to affirmation. I was all too often not a fan of the meals she would prepare. (In the Wes Anderson film version of this article, we’d now be shown groovy shots of traditionally English fare – those who know what I mean by a “meat and two veg” setup, know what I’m talking about). And if I wasn’t a fan, I wouldn’t eat, instead pushing food around the plate and eventually building myself up to an expression of disappointment. Of course, within the context of a young boy not eating meals prepared with love and a clear intention of nourishment, one understands my grandmother’s feelings of disappointment, even frustration. 

When the recipient of such disdain – at not devouring a steak and kidney pudding doused in dripping-based gravy, or liver and bacon, or even hearts, for example – is not a child, things feel a bit different. Predominantly when it’s no longer unclear as to whether this fascination with somebody “eating a good meal” has anything to do with wellness or health. Indeed, my grandmother’s definition of a good meal might consist of fatty meat, potatoes cooked in fat and token vegetables – cooked probably in fat and, as a rule, too long for nutrition to still exist anyway. We're talking long-established British classics, adored because we know them, not for how they taste.

So I guess it’s cultural. I suppose it’s a question of generationally rooted cultural differences. Since she’s old and cute, it’s easy to find it charming or humorous that my grandmother should cling so fervently to traditional grub and want everybody to indulge in the same, traditional meal options. But as I explore the idea, I’m becoming aware that it represents her arguably more closed-minded stance on… well, the world.

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To be very honest, I’ve long since dealt with the fact that Beryl and I have different tastes, as well as different baselines from which our culinary worlds have developed. (I also now love a lot of her home cooking and would urge anybody to try many of her signature dishes.) This being said, these parallels that can be drawn between one’s level of open-mindedness towards food and one’s general level of open-mindedness do seem to outline an interesting microcosm of sorts. 

Comfort zones (like our favourite food) offer warmth, familiarity, a sense of reliability. But do they obstruct us from growth?
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“You are what you eat,” they say. And I’m fascinated by how incredibly typical of my grandmother it is that she should stick so stringently to her understanding of the DNA of a meal. I’m also confident that if you were to examine society cross-culturally, the same could be said for many, many people. Not just my nan. Not just British octogenarians. Not even just British people, although we might be known for less-than-celebrated gastronomical efforts. This comfort zone-based, creature-of-habit approach to eating transcends generations and cultures alike. As I think about for a moment, I’m finding it an eyebrow-scrunching level of concerning to think that so many people can’t and won’t challenge something as rudimentary as the fundamentals of a meal. How do we stand a chance at enriching, developing and ultimately changing views on more complex, more nuanced subjects?

The idea of a comfort zone is certainly key. Food is, after all, often as much about comfort as it is nourishment. Comfort zones (like our favourite food) offer warmth, familiarity, a sense of reliability. But do they obstruct us from growth?

Maybe it’s on me to introduce my nan to more different types of food and to develop her palette’s awareness. There’s this idea that new food opens one up to a new world. I think, in this case, it’s more about understanding a world that’s always been there. It’s less important, no, unnecessary to force somebody to consume “new” food. Much in the same way that encouraging open-mindedness is not about forcing people to adopt cultural practices that they have grown up and live unaware of. Rather it’s about becoming aware in order to understand that things – cuisines, cultures or people – not being the same doesn’t make them unequal. 

As previously suggested, it is not only Beryl whose limited view of how a meal should look correlates with a limited definition of “normal” and “right” in terms of people and how they live their own bloody lives. When she looks down on a guest for not lapping up copious portions of a no doubt antiquated English heritage dish, she offends one person momentarily. Scale it up though. Scale it up and you’ve got the world we live in, where customs and even individual acts that differ somewhat from what we know seem to justify cause for contempt for whole groups of people. Alas, that’s neither charming nor humorous. And actually it shouldn't be that complicated.

Artwork: Lena Stewens