Cultural Stowaways

Readjusting back into the United States has been an interesting process. What I have discovered is that once you’ve lived in a different culture for long enough, culture shock impacts you once again when you shift back to your home country. Culture shock works in both directions.

This post isn’t necessarily about the moments of culture shock I’ve experienced since I’ve been back in the United States. Although that would be pretty interesting. It is more about the cultural items, behaviors or thoughts that I’ve brought home with me from Peru. Things that I do, think or say that remind me of Peru because they are specifically and culturally something I learned during my two years abroad.

I want to start a new series of posts that reflects on some of this “cultural baggage” that I’ve brought home with me. Both good and bad. We shall call it Cultural Stowaways. Like the Little Changes I See series, about the things I’ve seen change in me change while living in Peru, the idea is to be conscious of myself and the differences I see as I reintegrate into a new (but old) society and culture.

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For the first edition of Cultural Stowaways, I want to write about cold food.

Where I lived in Peru refrigeration is not nearly as idolized as it is in the United States. At first glance this is because having a refrigerator or freezer in the home, store or restaurant is harder to come by. Some people just don’t have them. This is normally due to questions of economics. But it’s also a cultural thing.

What I have found is that the lack of refrigeration is not necessarily a bad thing. Yes, keeping something cold can extend its life cycle before it turns rotten, but technically, if you’re eating everything within a a couple days and then restocking, it’s actually unnecessary. In this regard, if you think about it, the lack of refrigeration actually creates a more hand to mouth eating culture. One where fresh foods are bought and consumed daily. And not a culture that leans on processed food and preservatives to extend longevity. Or a culture that over buys and over consumes only to hoard too much food in the refrigerator or freezer.

Some foods that are bought and stored without conventional refrigeration in Peru, that always shock Westerners to see unrefrigerated, are: eggs, dairy products (milk, butter, cheese), bread, beer, vegetables and fruits.

Another interesting thing about cold food in Peru is that when you go out to eat, lets say for lunch, your food may come out cold. The reason for this is because the chefs have pre-prepared all the food early in the morning. They cook multiple things for the daily menu and then keep it ready for the lunch hour. If you arrive early, the food may come piping hot. If you arrive a little later, your food may come warm or cold. This is perfectly normal. I learned to be grateful for my food with whatever temperature it came out with.

The same goes for leftovers. They rarely get reheated. Microwaves are even harder to come by where I lived in Peru than refrigerators and freezers. And since a lot of families cook on wood burning stoves, building a fire each time you want to reheat something is completely impractical.

Now that I am back in the US, I see the heavy reliance on refrigeration as a little bit silly. The fetishization of the refrigerator as being a focal point of the home, akin to the plasma screen television, seems over played. If you buy in small amounts, consuming all that you purchase, and storing a little here and there, you find refrigeration to not be as crucial. With that being said however, I like watching my movies loud and on a big screen, I love my beer cold and my ice cream unmelted.

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