Monday, March 23, 2009

Ruminations: Space, Place, and Diet

Leaving your hometown and eating elsewhere raises worthwhile questions about the relationship between place and food. I've been reading Yi-Fu Tuan's Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience and it's gotten me thinking:

Specific memories, senses, and associations are deeply assigned to certain spaces, but this sensation is highly subjective. According to Tuan, when a space feels familiar, it has become a place-- but the definition of space and place vary by individual. Beyond that, every individual's personal sense of place is ringed by a haze of mythical space, which is the "fuzzy area of defective knowledge surrounding the empirically known; it frames pragmatic space." Mythical space is the area with which we are familiar, but weren't necessarily taught, and it is often too abstract to be illustrated. For some places, physical structures are representation enough (i.e., the Empire State Building = NYC), but for many others, it is fleeting sensations and memories that describe them best.

With relation to food, this mythical space can be understood as the knowledge that certain regions have certain specialities: in the US alone, think of chowder in the Northeast, muffalettos in New Orleans, or bagels in New York. We may not like these foods or ever have eaten them, but our inherent knowledge that they represent a place can convince us of their value. We need not necessarily consume these foods to feel connected to a place-- oftentimes, the mere mention of them (imagined consumption) is enough.

When I was in Cape Cod last week, I found myself affected by a common travel-diet sensation: the desire to eat foods representative of the region, i.e., chowder or stuffed quahogs. On a superficial level, it's simple: I can't get quahogs in New York, therefore, I should take advantage of them on the Cape. But after a few days, I began to question my subconscious motivation: am I ordering X, Y, or Z because I want to, or because I think I should? Because by eating this bowl of clam chowder I can shift my experience of Cape Cod from a space to a place? The consumption, or the idea of the consumption of these foods can become a physical representation of an intimate experience of place.

A big part of why we travel is not only to participate in new, novel experiences, but also to become a part of older, more established ones. Foods are one of the most tangible manifestations of mythical space. Eating a black-and-white cookie in New York or deep-dish pizza in Chicago is a simple way to make those spaces more familiar--that is, to make them a place.

1 comment:

madgomez said...