Celebratory Food: How Dishes are Tied to History & Religion Through Sacred Stories

A soup of unleavened bread.

A crescent-shaped pastry.

A turnip harvested in the prairie.

What do these three foods have in common?

They’re celebratory foods made important through tradition and the stories we weave.

History, religion, and spirituality play a part in creating the lore and sacred stories behind our favorite holiday meals and treats, as well as our everyday gruel.

From Jewish passover to Viennese Christmas, let’s take a trip around the world with these celebratory dishes.

Jewish Matzo Ball Soup

Enjoyed during Passover, Matzo Ball Soup is presented at Seder supper.

In celebrating a holiday where the Hebrew slaves were freed from Egypt, the symbolic meal represents this tale in the Biblical Exodus.

The Jews ate unleavened bread when fleeing, which is represented in the Matzo.

The dash of bitter horseradish symbolizes slavery’s bitterness.

Austrian Vanillekipferl

The Vanillekipferl is a pastry that’s shaped like a “kipferl” – or crescent moon.

Originating in Vienna around four centuries ago, the pastry’s lore says that the kipferl was developed by Austrians to symbolize their victory over the Ottoman Turks, whose banner held a crescent moon.

Funnily enough, the Vanillekipferl’s shape was developed into other pastries – specifically, the croissant which found its way to France.

The French adapted it with puffed pastry, creating a whole new spin on the tasty treat.

Blackfeet Indian Prairie Turnips

Various native tribes in America viewed certain foods as sacred and tied them to important lore.

Prairie turnips, for instance, were believed to come from the “Sky realm” by the Blackfeet Indians.

Feather Woman (Soatsaki) learned how to harvest prairie turnips from her mother-in-law, the Moon (Ko’komiki’somm).

She then returned to Earth to spread the word, making the prairie turnip a staple in Blackfeet cuisine.

Food + Stories = Tradition

Each of these foods has its lore, and its lore is what makes eat bite special.

From the symbolic nature of the Matzo Ball Soup to the celebratory nature of the crescent-shaped Vanillekipferl to sacred staples like maize to the Mayans or prairie turnips to the Blackfeet Indians, the rich stories that accompany such foods keep the oven hot.

And they keep our traditions cooking.

9/11 Interpreted: Discovering Culture Through History’s Depiction in World Textbooks

From the North and South’s view of the Civil War to those of China versus Japan of WWII, interpretations of history differ wildly across the world.

When you enter your host country, knowing their historical perspective can help you better understand myriad aspects of their culture.

It can also help you avoid stepping on any landmines that might lead to a Monkey Moment.

History is in the eye of the beholder, and everyone wants to be the hero of their own story.

So, what “truth” do we choose to believe?

And what does it say about us?

Recent History in Textbooks

While distant history can still smart a bit, recent history often stings more.

9/11 is but one of those events.

The case of how 9/11 is presented in various textbooks across the globe shows how history isn’t necessarily skewed with time; it’s biased even in the moment, as originally reported by historical textbooks.

Graduate student, Elizabeth Herman, returned to her old high school about a decade after the tragic event had unfolded and discovered the school’s new history textbooks already detailed 9/11 and its aftermath.

She was curious how these events appeared in other school history textbooks around the world.

Interpreting 9/11

For her university thesis project, and later for research under a Fulbright scholarship, Herman analyzed textbooks from thirteen different countries to examine the differences in how this attack was being taught.

What she found:

  • American textbooks highlight the tragedy using volatile language and emphasize how the country came together after the attack
  • Pakistani textbooks call the assailants “unidentified terrorists,” omitting their identity
  • Turkish textbooks omit their extremist Islamic faith
  • Chinese, Brazilian, and Indian textbooks emphasize the “reckless” actions taken by the U.S. post-9/11 in their illegal war in Iraq
  • Chinese textbooks also interpret 9/11 as a sign of the decline of American authority on the world stage

So, considering all these selective details and interpretations of history, what exactly is “the truth”?

The Truth

As we’ve previously discussed, from a cultural context, there is no One Truth – at least none that we’ll ever know, as bias will always exist, in the writing of history and in the reading of it.

But what these interpretations can teach us is how different cultures view the world, how they view themselves, and how they hope to shape future readers’ perceptions of it all.

You might say, “If no one’s telling The Truth, then history is useless.”

But that’s not the case. A country’s interpretation of history allows us to understand their rationale, to seek the “why,” and that’s the whole point when you’re trying to accept and adapt to a foreign culture.

As Herman said on the results of her thesis:

“If you hand a student thirteen different ways of looking at 9/11 from thirteen different countries and ask them, […] Why do you think it’s different? Why do you think that Pakistan tells this story one way and Brazil speaks about it a different way? I think that that’s the only way that we can actually reach a new understanding of this event.”

The Heroes of Our Own Story: How Cultural Bias Enters into the Teaching of History

We all want to be the heroes of our own story.

And with this desire comes bias.

When entering a new culture, learning to read between the lines of what is taught about the culture’s history will help you better understand their cultural perspective

You may still agree with and believe in the historical interpretation of your own culture, but getting to the roots of another culture means getting to know their view of themselves, which is never more apparent than in their teaching of history.

This knowledge will give you insight into the “why” of cultural norms, values, and traditions in your host country.

To gain this knowledge, learning what is taught is important; but, sometimes, learning what is expressly not taught is even more so.

Russia and North America

“Back in the USSR…”

While it’s obvious that Russian and Western cultures view things differently, what may not be so obvious is their extraordinarily different interpretations of history.

North Americans often view their liberal values of freedom and individualism with pride, and that is reflective in their teaching of history.

They view Marxist ideals and communist values as restrictive on individual liberties and enterprise.

Russian history, however, is taught from a Marxist viewpoint.

It teaches that the American working class – and overseas labor from American corporations – is exploitative.

Like Americans, their view of their own history is also one of pride.

They present their communist system as more egalitarian, distributing wealth more fairly amongst the working class.

While American historians present Russia as oppressive, so do Russian historians present America.

And from an outsider’s perspective, if you’re being honest with yourself and viewing these arguments and their history objectively, you can see truth in both…however, you’re probably more biased toward the history that aligns with your own values and norms.

Japan and China

Japan and China are two other examples of nationalist takes on history.

The Japanese take pride in their long and glorious empire. However, the tragic recent history of WWII and the events surrounding it is often deemphasized in classrooms.

Mariko Oi, a Japanese teacher who studied abroad in Australia, puts this into perspective:

“Japanese people often fail to understand why neighboring countries harbor a grudge over events that happened in the 1930s and ‘40s. The reason, in many cases, is that they barely learned any 20th century history. I myself only got a full picture when I left Japan…” 

According to Oi, only 5 percent of her Japanese textbook (19 out of 357 pages) dealt with the recent history of WWII and the events that led up to it from 1931 to 1945.

A single line was dedicated to the Rape of Nanjing (also known as the Nanjing Massacre) which occurred during the Sino-Japanese war of 1937 when Japan invaded China. That war too was given but a single page.

On the other side of the East China Sea, Chinese students are taught in detail about Japanese war crimes and about the Rape of Nanjing in particular.

And as for other WWII enemies, the subject receives different treatment in American textbooks versus Japanese textbooks. 

The Manhattan Project is often heroically emphasized by American historians who detail the justifications for dropping the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In Mariko Oi’s Japanese textbook again, a single sentence is dedicated to this event.

Cultural Bias in Ourselves

The point of all this is that a nation tends to have a specific view of itself. 

And, in doing so, that nation will cast itself and its history in the best light while deemphasizing certain aspects that today bring shame. 

Cultural bias is difficult to recognize within ourselves. We’d like to think we’re “above” it.

But in the end, we all want to be “right”; we want our values to be right, our norms to be right, and our version of history to be right.

We want to be the heroes of our own story.

History is in the Eye of the Beholder: Why There Is No “One Truth” When It Comes to Culture

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” – or so the saying goes.

And so is history.

History may be “written by the victors,” but in most cases, the “victors” don’t permanently wipe out all other perspectives (thankfully).

Opposing views of history co-exist and, if you’re doing business in a new culture – or living in it – an awareness of that culture’s perspective of history, particularly its own, will help you succeed…and avoid some serious cultural faux pas.

How?

UPS in Germany

Consider this: when UPS tried to introduce new business in West Germany in 1976, the company didn’t consider the historical roots of brown uniforms there.

UPS’s recognizable “brown shirts” were reminiscent of Hitler Youth uniforms to locals.

Tensions arose due to this serious oversight, and UPS was forced to introduce green employee uniforms instead. 

But cultural insensitivity was their first impression.

This could have all been avoided with a little bit of historical knowledge and common sense.

Moreover, another important thing to remember about history is that, when it comes to cultural understanding, it’s open to interpretation.

Interpreting History

Although there may be one truth, no one will ever know it.

Historical events can be perceived differently by opposing cultures and are subject to interpretation.

Knowing that, when introduced to your host culture, look at their history not only through the lens of your own culture, but through their own.

If you look at another’s history only through the framework of your culture’s historical perspective of it, that singular interpretation of the facts likely won’t provide the same view.

In the sense that you’re trying to understand the perspective of another culture, that interpretation is pretty useless to you.

While we hope for objectivity in history-telling, the reality is that subjectivity colors history writing a great deal.

Historians often write within the biased framework of their culture’s own national and political interests.

Cultural bias is difficult to recognize, particularly coming from academics or historians, whom we’d like to believe are “above” bias.

But nationalist tradition often enters into historical interpretation, and cultural preconceptions and stereotypes are extremely resistant to facts.

Only when faced with foreign opposition of said facts may any sort of bias be detected.

We’ll illustrate this contrast of opposing historical views next week.

When Religion Meets History: Confucian & Communism in Chinese Culture

“If you can revive the ancient and use it to understand the modern, then you are worthy to be a teacher.” – Confucius

History. Religion. Language.

We’ve been talking about these cornerstones of culture the past few weeks, taking them one at a time.

But what happens when they meet?

And how can you, as Confucius says, understand the modern by reviving the ancient?

Welcome to the Beijing Olympics

It was 2008. Beijing, China. Olympic Opening Ceremony.

“Friends have come from afar, how happy we are.”

A quote by the Chinese philosopher, Confucius, was presented at the fore.

Later, the Bird’s Nest was invaded by 3,000 Confucian disciples. The performers held bamboo slips, upon which some read the ancient Chinese character, “He,” which means harmony.

The religious philosophy of Confucianism was present at the international ceremony, as the great philosopher represents the Chinese mind.

Alive from 552 to 479 BC, “The Uncrowned King” remains today, 1,500 years later, Chinese history’s most influential person.

He is so influential that his traditional ideas and teachings remain a part of modern Chinese thought.

A Culture Influenced By Religion and History

Although Confucius was once deemed “The Number One Hooligan Old Kong” by Mao’s Red Guards, the Communist Party realized that the great philosopher might be useful for their agenda.

Only, instead of true harmony in the way Confucian taught, the Communist Party Confucius emphasizes obedience and loyalty. He bucks Western ideals and pushes for authoritarian rule.

“Harmony” – a Confucian concept – is used a lot by Communists; harmony, meaning no dissent.

The true Confucian take on harmony, however, is one in which each person in a society works together toward prosperity. 

A research paper entitled, “The Relevance of Confucian Philosophy to Modern Concepts of Leadership and Followership,” explains Confucius’ views as follows:

“Confucius observed that because society is a weave of relationships between individuals, a healthy community depends upon an attitude of human caring among its members.”

By cherry-picking and restructuring Confucian values, the party is able to create a version of a modern political system that it can say is based on the traditional past.

In this way, Chinese history and religion tell us why a nationalistic central government, guided by moral individuals who have the people’s best interests at heart, is the way China chooses to be led – and to become a major world power.

History and religion tell us why a democratic Western political system does not sit well culturally in China.

This demonstrates that, in the end, to truly understand the ways and mentalities of your host country and its people, you must study its history and religion – and also the ways in which that history and religion might be politicized in the modern world.

Why Learning History is Important to Cultural Integration

History can tell you a lot about the present reality of a culture’s values and norms.

Understanding the rationale in a culture’s roots – the “why” – is often traced to history’s distant past.

Traditions, customs, and behaviors, as we saw last week, have their roots in language, religion, and, lastly, history.

For instance, due to largely voluntary European immigration and forced African immigration, American culture, for instance, became a “melting pot.”

On the other side of the pond, European history has been shaped by multiple major wars.

Languages were spread worldwide through colonization, with English becoming the primary language of Australia and the U.S., while Spanish and Portuguese were spread through Latin America.

China, Japan, Russia – their societies have all been shaped by influential dynasties.

While this common knowledge is useful to have, it barely scratches the surface in regards to learning and understanding a foreign culture.

Respect and Genuine Interest

A deeper knowledge of your host culture’s history demonstrates your regard and respect for that culture.

National pride is an element of every culture; it is part of a group – and an individual’s – identity.

When I moved to the U.S. in early 2000, I viewed the American Civil War like I did that of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, in that it was remote and distant, left in the deep realms of the past.

Due to the volume of European wars, that’s how many Europeans view battles and wartime periods that took place prior to the first and second world wars.

From this perspective, I didn’t think it necessary to study up on U.S. history beyond the broad culture and recent past. 

I knew the basics about the American Civil War – that it was fought between the North and South over the abolition of slavery – but beyond that, I knew not much else, nor did I consider the war to carry much direct relevance (beyond racism and prejudice) in present-day America.

When I relocated to Richmond, Virginia, I realized I was mistaken.

Richmond was the southern secessionists’ capital, and the Civil War is still very much a part of the “recent past” there.

Some view Abraham Lincoln – widely considered one of the United States’ greatest presidents – in a negative light and the Civil War, in general, as “when the North attacked America.”

In 2003, when a Lincoln statue was unveiled in the center of Richmond, it was received with protests by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

You can see why knowledge of the past – and the different perspectives of this shared history by various regions of the United States – would be pertinent to your cultural integration.

Cultural sensitivity about topics that are considered controversial in some areas is necessary to developing and maintaining positive business and personal relationships wherever you set down roots.

Learn History to Learn Culture: Hungarian Toasting Customs

“Here’s to joint success in our current venture!” you say cheerfully to your Hungarian colleagues, as you hold up your beer pint for a clink at a Budapest bar.

Instead of getting a “here, here!” or the expected return, you are on the receiving end of blank stares.

You’re oblivious to the fact that you’ve just made yourself the monkey.

If you’d done a little research into the history of the culture and its traditions prior to being relocated to Budapest, you may have avoided this “monkey moment.” 

You may have learned how to toast in proper Hungarian fashion.

Learn History to Learn Culture

As we’ve discussed over the past couple months, learning language and religion inherently teaches you about culture.

The last of the trio – history – tells an important story about the beginnings, the evolution, and the present reality of any great nation.

Activist and journalist, Marcu Garvey, once said: 

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” 

The roots of cultural baobabs – aka, the invisible parts of culture – impact the behaviors and norms that we do see aboveground.

History is a major part of these roots. 

It defines us – our customs, mentalities, and traditions; it shapes our identity.

Nearly every modern country teaches its history in schools. It’s often a watered-down version, but it’s a historical framework nonetheless. 

Data indicates how institutions, subcultures, and entire nations are created and how they evolve. Such data allows us to infer how cultural norms and values are formed.

Hungarian Tradition

Back in Budapest, you’ve read up on your Hungarian history.

You learn that, according to legend, during the rule of the Habsburg Empire, Austrian executioners shared in a clink of their pints whenever a Hungarian general was killed during the Hungarian Revolution of 1848.

When the revolution was defeated, it is said that this is how the Austrians celebrated in Vienna.

This has led to the Hungarian no-clinking tradition during toasts with beer, which strays from most other European countries’ cultural toasting customs.

While you might have just accepted the norm at face value and abstained from clinking in the future, taking the extra step of educating yourself about your monkey moment did you a favor.

Understanding helps clear up cultural ambiguity and uncertainty and gives you a solid footing in a foreign culture.

This is just one bit of proof that learning a little history goes a long way to learning a culture. We’ll offer more next week.

Descended from a Sun Goddess: Japan and the Shinto Religion

At the beginning of the world, only the sea existed.

Using a long stick, a god and goddess – Izanagi and Izanami – began to stir up this sea which surfaced mounds of mud. 

These mounds became the more than 6,800 Japanese islands spotting the Pacific Ocean.

Next, the godly couple birthed three children: the god of the moon, the god of the storm, and the goddess of the sun, Amaterasu.

Amaterasu and all the gods are called kami – aka, sacred spirits that appear in the form of nature, such as trees, rain, wind, and mountains.

Similar to the Biblical passage, “From dust you have come, And to dust you shall return,” the Shinto religion teaches that humans become nature after they die; they become kami.

The sun goddess birthed her own children. When these children had children, the first Emperor of Japan was born.

This emperor, being the direct descendent of the sun goddess, holds great power.

After hearing this creation story, you might understand how the Japanese have historically viewed their emperor and the world at large.

Japanese is the World

The Shinto religion is as old as the country itself.

Notice that in its creation story, as the sea was stirred up, only Japan was created, not the world at large.

This differs from Christianity, where Genesis indicates that all the world and the universe were created by God.

The Japanese gods not only created the country; they lived there.

Again, unlike Christianity – or other religions or mythologies – where the gods often reside in otherworldly places and only visit Earth, the island nation of Japan is heaven and Earth to its people.

The nationalism felt by the Japanese can be explained by this religious belief…which can also explain some of the nation’s history.

Shinto & Nationalism

“Shinto can’t be separated from Japan and the Japanese, but in the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries Shinto became an established state religion, inextricably linked to the cause of Japanese nationalism.” – BBC

Being that the Imperial family of Japan was believed to be so descended from the gods, this leaves little room for questioning the authority of the Emperor and his relationship to his people, particularly after the Meiji Restoration and State Shinto was established.

Bringing the Imperial legend back into the light after it had been shunted to the side by the popularity of Buddhism for centuries, the mid-19th century saw the Emperor gain new power and the “divine right” to rule the world.

Moreover, the Japanese people, themselves, were descended from the gods and, thus, a superior ilk.

This gave rise to nationalism in Japan which crescendoed to its climax in WWII.

In 1946, in a transcript called the “declaration of humanity,” Emperor Hirohito renounced his divine repute, after which the country’s Constitution was rewritten toward a more secular separation of church and state.

David McNeill of The Japan Times writes that today, Shinto has “two faces.” 

“Spokesman for the religion’s International Section, Katsuji Iwahashi, stresses Shinto’s essentially peaceful roots and its overwhelmingly benign role in the lives of millions of Japanese as well as its modern, internationalist outlook. Organized beliefs can be used in any nation, he explains, for good and bad.”

Over the next few weeks, we’ll discuss how religion has been used across different cultures and nations, for good and bad, and what the beliefs and values of religions can teach you about culture.

“Tolerance Ends Where Harm Begins”: The Boundaries of Active Cultural Tolerance

As with everything, even active tolerance has its limits.

Certain cultural traditions are inhumane and do not have a place in today’s world (or in past worlds either).

Examples spring to mind: corporal punishment in schools; female circumcision; adultery resulting in the death penalty by stoning.

Must we apply active tolerance toward such norms in order to be culturally sensitive?

The answer is no.

The legitimization of such cultural traditions is criminal.

But, to many, where to draw the line of tolerance is not strictly defined.

The Line for Tolerance

The best definition for the boundaries between tolerance and intolerance regarding culture comes from Randy Cohen, a columnist for The New York Times.

In his column, “The Ethicist,” he explains why we should not tolerate all norms for the sake of religious and cultural respect, writing,

“Tolerance ends where harms begins.”

Actions and behaviors do not get a free pass simply because they are deeply ingrained in a culture’s history and tradition.

While some actions may conflict with moral barriers cross-culturally – like the polygamy in certain cultures discussed in last week’s post – the question is whether or not there is explicit harm as a result of the action.

My father did see some harm in the fact that polygamy could lead to forced marriages of underage girls, and he focused on remedying that by building the affected women a shelter. However, he found consenting polygamous relationships were not, in and of themselves, harmful, so he chose to actively tolerate them, as doing the opposite would directly harm all women involved.

However, as Cohen states, harm – both physical and psychological – is where you might draw the line.

Active or passive cultural tolerance should end there.

The Line for Tolerance is Not Universal

Search Wikipedia, the largest human knowledge repository, for the term, “tolerance,” and you will find, in accordance to the many philosophers who’ve written upon the topic, the idea of the “right of man.”

The “right of man” is the basic human right to live without being harmed by others.

As there is no universal line for tolerance, you are on your own to draw it for yourself when living and working in a foreign culture.

But isn’t this where you should draw that red line?

Asking yourself whether or not physical or psychological harm is done in regards to another culture’s norm or value is the delineation of tolerance.

Keeping your personal integrity intact means knowing your boundaries of tolerance.

Staying within these boundaries will fortify your own beliefs and values while allowing for your understanding and acceptance to explore to the very edges of those boundaries.