The Cross-Cultural Power of Food: Domestic and Abroad

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

“It’s no secret that Italy places food very high on its cultural significance index,” says Senior Lecturer Jay Lipe. For the past five years, Lipe has led the Made in Italy Brand Management study abroad course for the Undergraduate Program. “From homemade pasta to artisan cheeses to gelato, Italians take great pride in their foods,” he says.

Take Italy as an example

During the class’ in-country time, students visit the Castello Banfi Winery in Montalcino and learn how important wine is to Italian culture. “From a very early age, Italian children are taught of the benefits that wine provides,” Lipe says. “One of our contacts has mentioned to me that she would put a few drops of wine in her young children’s baby bottles to get them acclimated to the taste. Why, I ask? Because it is part of our culture, she answers. Imagine that happening in America without a call to child services.”

But there is more to cultural understanding than just variations in countries’ diets. Variations in table manners—dining etiquette—is just as important. Some cultures place a hierarchical value on seating placement. Others with a collectivist bent are adamant about sharing. Even the dining times and pace of a meal are subject to specific cultural norms.

“Food is an event in Italy. It’s not uncommon to see people enjoying a meal over the course of hours,” Lipe says. “We Americans slam our food and leave. Italians relish the art of conversation and food provides the medium with which to have great conversations and gatherings.”

An American farm visit

Last fall, Carlson School Undergraduate Program Academic Advisors Kathy Evenson-McDermott and Jessica Himmerick brought several international students to Himmerick’s family farm south of Mankato for a meal. The students enjoyed local and organic foods picked straight from the garden and sourced from a nearby neighbor. “Yet, in the midst of the local foods we were enjoying at the meal, we were situated on a large, 4,700-acre farm—a sixth-generation family farm that is also a corporate farm, producing corn and soybeans on a grand scale,” Himmerick says. “In the midst of highly controversial food and farm politics, here the students were, blissfully enjoying the paradox of both small-scale and large-scale agriculture.”

The students were also able to view farming in action, as they visited a field where Himmerick’s brother was combining beans and others were loading wagons and trucks with the harvest. “The students were commenting on the size of things in the U.S.—the trucks, roads, land, and fields,” Evenson-McDermott says. “They were all very taken with the food and enjoyed the peacefulness of the farm and the interaction with Jessica’s family.”

Consequently, as students travel the world in their international experiences, it is often food and how it is consumed that becomes a strong basis for cross- cultural understanding. 

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