I was invited to speak in a symposium on edible insects at the Institute of Food Technologists conference in Chicago on July 13. Food Navigator did a report on our session and interviewed all of the participants. You can watch the video below or check out their full post here.
I am in Croatia working on my book. It's pretty romantic, actually. I sit in little coffee shops/pubs every day just writing. I couldn't ask for a better setting.
I am staying with a dear friend of mine and we see her parents multiple times during the week and join them for dinner. I have thus had most of my meals at home instead of at restaurants. Immediately upon arriving to Croatia, I began noticing an interesting cultural difference when it came to food. It really started with bananas. I personally hate bananas, but my friend eats them almost every day. Every time she would have a banana, she would offer me one, or half of hers, and every time I would tell her that I didn't like them. After about 3 days and 10 inquiries I finally convinced her that I would never eat a banana. It hasn't stopped her from asking, but now she just always answers her own question and we have a laugh. I then realized that the food offers didn't come only when she was deciding to eat something - I get the politeness of not wanting to eat in front of someone without offering - but that it would be any time she was engaging with food, often just seeing it in the kitchen. It was the timing of these questions that gave away that something more was going on. If she saw food, it didn't matter when, I would get an offer - it could be immediately upon returning home from a gut-busting meal, it could be while I was head-down focused and working, it could even be right after I was getting into bed at night. A generosity that knows no bounds, for sure. I have never said "no" so many times in my life, and with each one I have a tinge of guilt like it is rude to refuse when she is being so gracious.
It is even worse at the family dinners. I ultimately eat twice as much as everyone at the table because there are three people trying to put more food on my plate, yet none of them offer the food in the same way to each other. It is so ingrained in me to avoid over-eating that this has been quite a challenge. For the first meal, it was a like a special occasion welcoming me to Zagreb, so I obliged every offer. But eating like that almost every day? I can't. We also eat so early! We are technically eating lunch when we sit down to these big meals because that is traditionally the big meal of the day. So with modern work schedules, these lunches are pushed back as far as possible so that a whole work day can be had, but it means that we are eating at 4:00. I am then useless the rest of the night.
I came up with a metaphor for my experiences at these meals. For some reason wildlife photographers came up in conversation today and I asked my friend if she had seen the photos/heard the story about the leopard seal that kept trying to feed the photographer penguins. It's really an amazing encounter. I hate to anthropomorphize the seal, but she genuinely seemed interested in getting the photographer to eat a penguin. When one method would not work, she would try another. When live penguins kept swimming away, she kept trying other methods, ultimately shoving a dead penguin into the photographer's face. So at dinner, it would never matter how many times I refused food, efforts would continue, just like those of the leopard seal.
I was inspired to write this post because we just had a large birthday dinner for her dad. We had a traditional Dalmatian meal (from the coast, where her dad is from).. broiled mackerel with string beans. It was delicious. But I could not help but feel more culture difference as I looked at the whole fish and really had no idea what to do with it. Ultimately my friend's dad just de-boned it for me. I sat at the table like a 5-year-old waiting for someone to cut my meat for me. Below is a stock photo I found online because I did not want to interrupt dinner by pulling out my camera and being like "They're staring at me! I need a picture!"
I learned that mackerel must be eaten smothered with olive oil. It is a traditional Dalmation saying that the fish swim three times: once in the water, once in the olive oil, and once in the wine in your stomach. I was absolutely OK with this.
We finished dinner with a "cake" that is popular here. I've seen it in the bakeries and the layers can even be bought so as to not need to make it from scratch at home. These layers are actually meringue instead of cake, and then it is layered with berries or other fillings. So sweet. So delicious. I managed to take a picture of the cake.
This has really been an additional benefit to the writing retreat that I had not anticipated. I spend some time in the book discussing the complexities of food culture, so it is fun to be immersed in one that is in so many ways different from mine at home. It is really difficult to explain why people do what they do. I asked my friend why she thinks Croatian culture is so generous, and it was difficult to come up with anything other than "that's just how it is; that's how we are raised." She then gave me an extreme example of Dalmatian generosity. Apparently, when someone leaves their home in Dalmatia, there is a chance that someone could come to visit while they are not there. In order to make sure that their guest's trip would not be completely in vain, it is important to make sure that they could still could be fed and people leave soparnik, a traditional dish, on the windowsill before they leave, just in case!
We started to think about these traditions more.. why would it be custom to go out of your way to make sure your guests are well-fed? We realized that it likely has a deep history in relationship building with neighbors, representing the anthropological concept of reciprocity. Although no one here ever wants to ask for something, if these customs are in place and their networks are strong, they should never want for anything.
Julie Lesnik received her PhD studying the role of termites in the diet of fossil hominins and has since started exploring insects as food more broadly.