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Like the ubiquitous Michael Pollan, I am a collector of food rules.
By food rules, however, I mean more than simple, health-oriented precepts about eating your veggies and avoiding any cereal that turns the milk magenta. I mean those weird bits of food lore passed down unquestioningly from generation to generation: the strange taboos and enthusiasms that are often radically different from culture to culture, like the Japanese prohibition against combining clams and clementines, or the deep-rooted Italian conviction that cucumbers make you burp. Rather than reinforcing an expansive sense of common humanity, of the time-tested and universal nature of folk wisdom, these are the rules that make you realize how very odd other folks can be—and, by extension, how very odd they must find you.
These rules are not about exotic dishes of fetal ducks or fried beetles or drinks of fermented human spit, or even the peculiar Australian penchant for slapping a slice of cold boiled beet on a burger. Instead, they're about the simple stuff: what to eat to promote digestion, to help you sleep, to make kids grow. You'd think a lot of this would be the same from country to country—yet while a few common themes emerge, for the most part, you'd be very wrong.
My own first experiences with cross-cultural food rules came from my Italian in-laws. In the early years of my marriage, I'd sit at my mother-in-law's elegant table in the handsome Veneto town of Portogruaro and try to absorb her nuggets of food wisdom without blinking. Cucumbers, as mentioned, should be avoided, since they are well known to produce indigestion. Red peppers and eggplant are heavy, and act like daggers to the liver. Drafts, put simply, are lethal—almost any illness can be traced back to exposure to a sudden draft, and a cold breeze blowing across the belly causes the digestive apparatus to freeze up like an engine out of oil.
As I settled into Italian domestic life, this all became second nature. I may not have subscribed to the draft theory of mortality, but I dutifully covered my children's bellies and barred cucumbers from the communal salad bowl. Yet I found myself sensitized to this issue of international food theories. I began to ferret them out from friends, passing acquaintances, and particularly from spouses in cross-cultural marriages, a situation where people are most likely to butt up against each other's culinary preconceptions.
Like any good collector, I like to break my resulting finds down into categories.
The timing of food is a recurrent theme. The Portuguese, for example, insist that you must never eat oranges at night. There's even a lyrical saying: "Laranja de manhã é ouro/Ao meio dia é prata/E á noite mata," which, roughly translated, means "oranges are gold in the morning, silver at noon, and killers at night." A Jamaican client tells me that goat soup is best eaten after sunset (presumably because of its aphrodisiac properties); a Cape Verdean nurse counsels against eating sweet potatoes after dark; and Italians, of course, find milk distasteful once morning has come and gone, which explains the precipitous drop in cappuccino consumption after 11 a.m.