There are many reasons why we eat what we eat. Obviously, we eat when we are hungry; we also eat when we are emotional or to socialize with our friends. Certain smells, aromas or the taste of a particular dish evoke memories of meals past. Definitely, the link between food and memory is a powerful one. Food becomes a travel machine that transports us to a moment in the past where we enjoyed ourselves in a time/space/food continuum. Food memories engage all of our senses and are easily triggered. However, some of us purposely engage in what I call “cognitive eating.”
Cognitive eating goes beyond food memories or mere emotional eating. We all have to eat to survive (biological eating), and we also tend to eat foods we are accustomed to or with which we are familiar (cultural eating).
People eat at different levels: to satisfy hunger, quench a craving or evoke a memory. When we eat, pleasure and reward sensations are activated. However, when we eat culturally, the food and the act of eating take on a cultural context, and the reward is different. When biological and cultural eating come together, we have cognitive eating, which has a deeper purpose and reward.
When seeking, cooking and eating authentic food from one’s country or ethnic enclave, they engage in cognitive eating. Foreigners are not the only ones affected by this type of eating.
Americans seek types of food they grew up eating in their native state or community. But, their culture is still ubiquitous. For people born in other countries, it is a different story.
When I asked Luz Velasquez, born and raised in Santo Domingo but residing in the United States, if she craved and sought her native cuisine, her eyes grew in size. She prefers eating and cooking Dominican dishes for many reasons. “I seek my native food because it is part of my identity,” she said, “part of my DNA!” Of course, eating the food her grandmother and mother cooked evokes childhood memories; however, she says that
“When I eat my native food, I am remembered about my roots and how important staying in touch with my history is for me. If you do not know where you come from, you do not know where you are going.” Velasquez also stresses the importance of teaching her son about Dominican culture, including native food. “You cannot separate culture and food; they are one,” she says.
When asked how important is authenticity for those engaging in cognitive eating, Rebecca King said it matters.
“It is very important,” claims King, born and raised in Germany now a resident of Fayetteville. “I am always on the lookout for authentic German food because it reminds me of home, which I miss.”
There have been many discussions about authenticity in the culinary and food studies fields. Some maintain that authenticity is essential in helping future generations understand traditional cuisine and food habits.
Others claim that authenticity is archaic in today’s global food scene.
To this foreigner from Naples, Italy, and others like me who engage in cognitive eating, authenticity is that umbilical cord that connects us to our motherland.