The other night I was astonished - repulsed, rather - by a co-worker’s assertion that a toast-peanut butter-baked beans combo was the triumph of his culinary explorations. It seemed to me that this combination was an abuse of peanut butter that should never exist; surely this abhorrent concoction would end in a regurgitative outburst? The claim led to a rather heated debate about other surprising food combinations, some of which were charming (sliced bananas fried in bacon fat), others rather chundersome (salt and vinegar crisps dipped in yoghurt). Ideas were discussed, trampled on and praised; hopes burned and opinions braised.
I’ll admit, in the past my eating habits have raised eyebrows. It’s not a rarity for me to eat mango chutney on its own, or make curry for breakfast. As someone who is not only a foodie but a foodie with a huge appetite, three meals a day just won’t cut the mustard and my need to eat something different for each of the many meals means I’ve tried all sorts of weird and wacky things. Although now on a plant-based diet, I’ve found the limitations of veganism encourage creativity, and cutting out dairy has led to a discovery of the wonders of nut-based milks (current experiment: coffee with hazelnut milk; best creation: rooibos tea and oat milk).
It was strange, then, for someone with my unusual eating habits to dismiss the PB/beans dish without trying it. Something that I’ve always thought is, why shouldn’t one eat spicy food for breakfast? Why shouldn’t one eat something sweet before a savoury course? And by that logic, why shouldn’t one eat peanut butter and baked beans? The reason people - myself included - find these things bizarre, I realised, is because these habits do not follow the rules of what I’ll term ‘food normativity.’ But this normativity is culture-specific, and what people find weird in England might be par for the course in India, and vice versa.
Food, anthropologists argue, can yield great insights to different cultures. For example, in Islam, food practices are tied closely to the teachings of the Qu’ran - namely, abiding by the rules of what is halal or haram. Likewise, Vietnamese cuisine is linked to spiritual beliefs: five taste senses are associated with five colours and five elements of nature. Meal composition involves trying to balance the forces of yin and yang through the use of ‘heating’ and ‘cooling’ ingredients - not dissimilar from ancient and medieval notions related to humourism. Food practices are linked inextricably to culture, and culture in turn is influenced by things such as religion or geography. In Southeast Asia, it is common to eat fruit such as mango, papaya and coconuts for breakfast as these are foods that the physical environment there supplies in abundance. Even the concept of breakfast-lunch-dinner is a cultural one; in many places people eat multiple little ‘meals’ throughout the day - something nutritionists are now claiming is better for you. In Britain, we’re so concerned with what fits according to our rules that we will often blithely refuse to eat something that lies beyond the realms of the norm. But if the norm is something different, then the rules are arbitrary.
While multiculturalism in Britain is diffusing a wider acceptance of foods beyond this longstanding ‘norm’, it is still commonplace for people to have fish and chips on a Friday, and a roast on a Sunday. The tradition of fish on a Friday originates from Roman Catholic practices, that prohibited eating meat on Fridays. The Sunday roast concept, too, is linked to Christianity - it was to be eaten after returning from church services, because meat consumption was not restricted on Sunday and a larger meal would break the fast of Sunday mornings. Yet these practices are still upheld by the secular populations of today, many of whom probably don’t know why they feel compelled to drown themselves in Yorkshire puddings and gravy on Sunday. Isn’t that allusive of how the masses unquestioningly abide by cultural rules that are arguably no longer relevant?
In the UK our diet is no longer limited, as it once was, to certain foods; we can now easily access ingredients that range from across the globe. We might find it strange to eat fish for breakfast, but in Scandinavian countries it is commonplace to do just that - their food normativity allows it, but ours does not. So if we are no longer impeded by the physical environment, or religion, why are these factors still influencing what is acceptable and what is not in our dietary practices?
What I’m saying is that, while things might sound ‘weird’ or ‘wrong’, refusing to try unusual foods or fusions is probably more reflective of the shortcomings of cultural rules, not the food itself. If food is so important to any culture because the need for it unites people, and sharing it brings people together, then let’s approach different culinary habits and creations with an open mind. Unlikely combinations might actually go together like two peas in a pod; you never know until you try it and based on that logic I personally am going to try unlearn food normativity and attempt to stomach the PB/beans meal. I’ll see you on the other side.