Every year on Shrove Tuesday, I put aside the time to make my family pancakes – despite the fact that my parents would much prefer to simply have toast and my brothers almost certainly won’t like the addition of cinnamon, blueberries or whatever so-called “wacky” ingredient I’m experimenting with that year. I’m not religious, but there’s something ritualistic in the act of whisking together flour, eggs and milk into a smooth batter to then watch tiny bubbles form on the surface.
For there is something powerful in re-enacting a traditional practice in our own kitchens – it’s like bringing a tiny piece of history into our modern lives. And whilst I may not make pancakes for the same reason as Christians – to confess and repent sinful behaviour in preparation for the fasting season of Lent – I can still appreciate its cultural heritage and historical importance.
Shrove Tuesday is just one of a multitude of days dedicated to celebrating food. Before Oxford, I had never experienced the wonders (or horrors, for some!) of Burns Night, complete with bagpipes and poetry. Through traditions like these, we expose ourselves to new and exciting cultures, or simply celebrate the ones we already proudly identify with.
Chinese New Year is one of my favourite festivals, largely from the symbolic meaning attached to the food. ‘Zongzi’, for example, are small, sticky rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves that are said to commemorate the famous poet Qu Yuan. After throwing himself into the river, these dumplings were cast in so that fish would feed on the rice instead of his beloved body.
Many characters in the Chinese language share the same sound, which is why some Chinese foods have a meaning that is a homophone of the Mandarin name. For example, ‘nian gao’ also means tall or high, its pronunciation sounding like ‘year high’. This is why the sweet cake is often served at Chinese New Year, as eating it is considered to bring good luck and symbolise greater success in the following year. Another Chinese homophone is ‘fa cai’, a seaweed dish also sounds like a word that means ‘to prosper’.
We attach so much meaning to food, whether it’s to mark an occasion, evoke a memory or symbolise a particular identity. Many people celebrate food festivals regardless of their nationality and often without religious motivation – like lamb on Easter Sunday to symbolise Jesus, the Lamb of God. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Rather, it is testament to how food can bring together people of entirely different identities, customs and values to rejoice in cultural diversity.