Cultural Differences: Many to Come

I have mentioned before that I was raised by an American mother and an Italian father. Throughout my entire life, I never had one country with which I fully identified. As a child in Italy people called me “American”, as I never really fit in with the Italians, having watched very little Italian TV and having never gone to Italian schools. In the US I have always been referred to as “Italian”, having never lived there, been raised in that culture or having any kind of regional American accent. It’s more of a pan-US accent, and many Americans who meet me are unsure as to how to place it, and would believe me if I told them I was from a different English-speaking country. This odd position that I always had between countries has given me a knack for spotting and scrutinizing cultural differences, and they are things that I enjoy writing about.

However, it is also clear to me that many people have a very hard time understanding different cultural perspectives. I would like to illustrate what I mean with a very mild story, about pasta.

When I was very young, around 7 years old, I had an Australian art student as a babysitter. She was horrible, but that is besides the point. One day I was at her apartment, and she asked me if I would like to have some pasta. I said yes, of course, I was very hungry. She proceeded to boil some spaghetti, put them in a plate, cover them in ketchup, and ask me if I wanted cheese on that. At this point of the story, I pause for effect.

The reason I pause is because this gets a very strong reaction from all Italians that I tell this story to. It starts with this face:

Followed by a tirade of What?! I don’t believe it!! How could she possibly?! When I proceed to tell them that I politely pretended that I wasn’t hungry any more, they are admiring that I didn’t throw it in her face.

When I tell the story to people who are not Italian, some react in the same way, whereas others don’t understand why I pause in my story. “So?” they ask me. “That sounds like a real treat! My brothers/sisters/nephews/younger self would love that. What is the point of this story?” They scoff that I didn’t eat it. “If you’re hungry, you’ll eat pretty much anything”.

The fact is, I was not a picky eater by any stretch. At 3 you could find me eating very spicy mussels. At 2 you could find me eating caviar, which I called “grapes”. In my world there were 3 categories of food: Things I liked, things I didn’t really like but ate anyway to be polite, and (the rarest category) things I couldn’t eat, even to be polite, but which I must refuse most politely because it is rude to insult other people’s cooking. Pasta with ketchup was the first time I encountered food that I could not eat, even to be polite. I didn’t hate ketchup, I had a very little bit with fries, but I could never, to this day, eat a full cup of it. It tastes like chemicals, it is salty sweet and sour all at the same time, it burns my throat and feels like a sensory overload, like trying to eat a teaspoon of salt, or drink a tall glass of very salty lemon juice with a dash of floor cleaner in there.

The point of my telling you this story is that it can be extremely hard to put cultural differences into someone else’s context. If I try to explain to people how gross the idea of pasta with ketchup is to people who don’t see what the big deal is, I come off as either hyperbolic or elitist.

Me: She might as well have placed a bowl of crickets in front of me!

Them: Oh come on! Pasta with ketchup is not the same as bugs!

The truth? If the crickets are dead, cooked and spiced, I would definitely choose crickets over ketchup pasta. Who knows, I might even like them, I’ve never had crickets. If they were alive? OK, maybe I’d choose the pasta.

Me: OK then it’s like…. it’s like…. What if I made your kartoffelsalat with ketchup instead of mayo and… and… added soy sauce and fish oil and dumped a handful of salt and sugar on it?

Them: *eye roll* did you also throw a fit because there was no lemon wedge in your Evian?

There is no way for me to modify the story so that they can understand the Italian reaction.

What I am trying to get at is, when you see a post titled “cultural differences”, you might get the reaction of “what is the big deal”, when I describe the way other cultures react to a practice that is normal in your own. I am not trying to make judgements or place one culture over another. I will be telling stories in the interest of curiosity of what little things some people take for granted. I will be happy to delve into the nuance in the comments, if you have questions. Sometimes, you wont be able to find a way to relate, and will just have to content yourself with “I don’t get it, but that doesn’t mean everyone else is being stupid”.

I purposely chose a mild, simple little story to start with, so that you get the general idea. I’m curious to see where it goes from here.


  1. A. Noyd says

    A few days ago I was listening to some of my elementary school students asking one another if they’ve ever had caviar. Their tone that made it clear they think of caviar as something weird and foreign. All said they’d never had it.

    These are Japanese kids, though. A large variety of fish eggs show up in Japanese cooking all over the place—as garnish, as flavoring, or as the focus of a dish. There are even potato chips flavored to taste like marinated pollock roe (mentaiko), which is also, ironically, a common ingredient in spaghetti sauce.

    These kids have probably eaten more fish eggs individually than all the kids in some countries put together. But change the cultural context just a hair, and suddenly the everyday becomes completely unfamiliar.

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      Did you tell them that they are the same thing? You would have blown their minds!
      In my context the “foreignness” of the dish in question was never an issue, nor something I even realized. The world was divided into good and bad food, only. I already traveled between countries fairly often, and I had friends from all over the world. My mother still remembers bringing me to a Japanese place in California when I was 3 and the chefs falling in love with me, because I thought their udon was the best thing in the world and wanted to eat it every day (I’m guessing that in those days not many white people, especially white children, visited their establishment). My father taught me how to eat with chopsticks when I was 5. I think that introducing your kids to foreign food from a very early age is a good way to normalize the presence of different people and cultures, before they even start to comprehend categories such as “different” or “foreign”

      My reaction, and the reaction of the Italians that heard the story, does not stem from a place of “that’s not how you make pasta”, it stems from “how can anyone eat that much ketchup? Is it even possible without getting sick?” Hence my comparison to trying to eat a full spoon of salt in one mouthful

  2. A. Noyd says

    I didn’t get the chance to bring it up since I was helping another kid at the time, alas. I love blowing kids’ minds, though. Perk of being a teacher in a foreign country. So many cultural differences to explore and share. One that never fails to amaze is the fact that there are no set phrases to say before and after a meal in English like there are in Japanese.

    I’m really looking forward to more tales of differences for cultures I don’t know much about.

  3. lorn says

    A family story from Hawaii said to have happened in the early 50s:

    A military family moves to Hawaii and invites their boys friend to dinner. The family is Italian and serves spaghetti. The boy, a native, looks horrified when the spaghetti is served. He politely sips the tea and sticks to the bread sticks but doesn’t touch the spaghetti. When the lady of the house asks why he isn’t eating the spaghetti he looks embarrassed and horrified, he swallows hard, and then, meekly, admits that he ‘cannot eat white worms’.

    Maybe it happened like that, maybe not. But the point is clear, experience and context matter. I know that feeling of revulsion. In Japan I couldn’t countenance what they considered a taste treat, fish eyes.

    Sometimes it is a cultural understanding.

    For some Americans ketchup is a delight. It is purposely complex. It is also an acquired taste. I like it on fries and the occasional dry meatloaf but never really used much of it. Come to think of it I haven’t had ketchup in the house for … a couple of years now … and didn’t miss it until now.

    A friend used to smother virtually everything this side of ice cream with it. According to him his mother was a terrible cook and drowning her culinary work product in ketchup was a way of choking down the cavalcade of boiled, overcooked, bland, and tasteless dishes.

    Of course not all ketchup is equal. Most Americans, according to an account of a taste test I read lately, consider Heinz to be the standard. I agree. Heinz gets the balance about right. Others have too much salt, or vinegar, or sugar, or they are watery, or lack any tomato taste. Lots of things can go wrong with the delicate balance. I’ve never loved ketchup, not even the good stuff, but your average off-brand is hard to take. Well worth the extra dollar to get the real deal.

    Of course people are going to have different tastes. I like a good, strong, spicy mustard. Most of my friends can’t stand it. I like a horse radish strong enough to make a grown man weep. I mix it in with the small amount of salad dressing I use.

    Then again I don’t remember liking any of that growing up. I used to hate Lima beans. Now I like them. Same with Brussel sprouts. What I like is a moving target.

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      Personally, Heinz is the only kind of ketchup I can eat. However, I think I need to make clear that I’m not talking about a plate of plain pasta with a little ketchup drizzled on top. I could have eaten that out of politeness no problem. There was a good half a bottle in there, tossed in the spaghetti, as if the ketchup were a normal tomato sauce. I have since discovered that this is pretty standard fare in many places. An Irish friend of mine told me his grandmother used to prepare Bolognese with ketchup instead of tomato sauce. To me, however, no quality of ketchup can make me be able to eat a half a bottle of it in one sitting.

  4. says

    I couldn’t even imagine eating ketchup on spaghetti or something like that, but I love it on Kraft Dinner (macaroni & cheese for the non-Canadian parts of the world).

  5. says

    I think that introducing your kids to foreign food from a very early age is a good way to normalize the presence of different people and cultures, before they even start to comprehend categories such as “different” or “foreign”.

    Taken to extemes, it can backfire just a wee bit. Example: I’m from Texas, HFW is from Arkansas. We grew up on traditional southern cooking. But, we’ve both traveled a lot and our favorite cuisine is Asian (most heavily Korean, but love pretty much all). So YOBling ended up having way way more of that than southern. For many years, when visiting Grandma’s house, we had to make her a separate bowl of rice with soy and nori while we ate chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes. She thought those were “weird”.

  6. lorn says

    Ahh … I see. With heaped on discount Ketchup it would be awful.

    Pasta moistened and flavored with a bit of ketchup might be okay, but not great.

    I used to boil up some pasta and mix up a dressing of good olive oil, minced and crushed garlic, and some spices. I never had a recipe, just used whatever was on hand. It was quick and dirty, but not too bad. Add a few strips of stir-fry chicken and a salad and it is a rough meal.

    I like a good meal but, push comes to shove, I can get along just fine with just about anything.

  7. AeolianPlankton says

    Growing up in Rome as a third culture kid, I still remember our family visiting Chicago at the age of about 5, and being presented with a Chicago deep dish pizza. I think my parents still have a framed photo somewhere of my expression when the first pan was brought to the table. Cultural differences barely even begin to cover it!

    Come to think of it, I had a very similar experience with an (American) babysitter while living in Rome, but rather than spaghetti and ketchup it was a bowl of boiled-down mushy frozen spinach. For a boy used to lovely fresh Romano greens, it was a bit of a shock!

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      Haha! Yea, my mother is American, but still when her brother in law looked at her and asked “So… is the pizza any good over there? I mean, every one knows that ours is the best in the world, of course, but is it alright there too?” she nearly smacked him in the face

  8. Ivo says

    Sorry to join this party so late, but I just must add my own pasta-with-ketchup story to this thread.

    When I was 20, I went to Australia with a friend and spent a couple of months backpacking un and down the east coast. At some point we were on the fabulous Frazer Island, a natural reserve with strict visiting rules, and we ended up sharing a jeep and a tent with a bunch of other tourists for a few days. We also had to buy common provisions before our trip so we could prepare evening meals together on a portable gas stove. Here is the crucial info: my mate and I are Swiss of the Italian persuasion (i.e. from the Southern region, which borders with Italy and is culturally and linguistically Italian), while the other five or six (can’t remember precisely) were Dutch, Danish and English.

    So everything went fine for a couple of day, until we had spaghetti for dinner. Wary of the notorious Transalpine overcooked pasta, my friend and I managed to take over the boiling duty so we could make sure the spaghetti were done “al dente”. When the moment came to add the condiment, we thought that we would just add a little olive oil and grated cheese. But to our shock, *all* the others wanted to empty the ketchup bottle in the pot and mix it in with the spaghetti! After a while we understood that they were not joking and really wanted to do it because “that’s how you eat spaghetti”, so we said OK, just let us take out our two portions and then you can do whatever you wish with the rest, possibly out of our sight please… But they didn’t want to! They could not understand that we really preferred naked spaghetti to spaghetti drowned in ketchup. They made fun of our disgusted reaction and told us to stop being silly etc etc, so we ended up having a big fight, the only one of the whole camping trip.

    So that’s how I learned about this particular cultural difference. Not so harmless, after all, as it nearly ruined an otherwise awesome holiday.

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      From my cultural perspective, you were being incredibly reasonable by suggesting you just take your portions out of the mix. But recently I have come to realize something when it comes to food, particularly Italian food. There are many people who want to eat “foreign” food the way they like it, but hate the idea that their way of eating it is not the “authentic” way of eating it. They can get very touchy when you even suggest that their version of your food is an invention of their own country, not yours. As an Italian/American, I grew up fully understanding that other countries butcher my food, so when a Chinese friend of mine told me that the Chinese food I was eating in Italy had nothing to do with real Chinese food I was not only not offended, I was already sure that was the case. I told him that I enjoyed the Italian-Chinese for what it was, fully conscious that it was not “real” Chinese food, and said that I would be more than happy to try the real stuff if I ever got the chance. It took me years to discover that not everyone reacts that way when confronted with the reality that the foreign food their eating is unauthentic.
      BTW, this realization also made me finally understand why Jamie Oliver is so damned popular. I never understood it, I thought he was an idiot, but then I realized he is a marketing genius. He taps into this mindset, giving ridiculously Britishized recipes for Italian dishes, all the while assuring his audience that it is the “real, authentic, Italian” way. It’s actually genius, regardless of how insulting I found it at the time.

  9. Ivo says

    Concerning the cultural appropriation of food line of thought, something else I find fascinating are the notions of “curry” that I’ve met so far in my life. (Swiss) German, French, English… and we’re not even in Asia yet! Then I lived in Singapore for a year, and was blown away by the variety of curries I got to try there, especially the various Indian, Thai and Malay ones. (I also learned it’s a dish, not a sauce!) When I think back to the French and Swiss versions, my brain refuses to process them as curries at all…

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