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Students with differing cultures explain how the importance of food unites them

Illustration and description of tamales, sadza, apple pie and schnitzel.
Photo by Michael Kraft

From sharing hot chocolate on a snowy day to preparing warm tamales, BYUH students from Europe, Africa and the U.S. say food is a means to uplift others and unite families and cultures.

Joana Chibota, a sophomore from Zimbabwe majoring in biology, said food brings people together because food is a common denominator across all people and cultures.

Chibota said, “We all have to stop talking to eat; it’s a time where instead of finding things to argue and disagree about, we can unite in our one common biological need: food.”

Food unites people spiritually

In addition to the biological need, Thomas Nebeker, a sophomore majoring in biology from New Mexico, said food can work to unite people on a spiritual level. He said food plays a significant role with missionaries as they learn and experience new cultures.

In regards to missionary work, Nebeker said, “When we eat, we are calm and you just feel great with a full belly.” He explained these good feelings can open up people to feel the Spirit better. Nebeker added the key is time, “The longer you are together, the more time the Spirit has to work, and that time is what makes all the difference.”

According to Nebeker, food can increase morale. At one point, his father was unemployed and money was tight. “So, whenever someone needed help, we would just bring food to them. It was what we could do. It was our way of showing charity and just giving what we could.”

Sharing food with people, for Nebeker, helped him learn to have more charity for others because he was constantly serving them, even when he and his family were struggling.

Food unites through culture and celebrations

For Rahel Meyer, a sophomore from Germany majoring in communications, food not only connects her with her peers, but with her ancestors. Meyer said in a similar way Polynesian art and stories connect them with their ancestors and family. In German culture, food serves the same purpose. Meyer said, “It’s a German thing, our grandmothers always teach us how to cook different types of food.”

Meyer said because family recipes and ways to cook are passed down from grandparent to grandchild, food is a way to keep her family tightly knit across generations.

Nebeker said Latin culture and food has played a significant role in his life. He explained his mother’s family emigrated to Mexico and lived there for three generations, before moving to the United States.

Nebeker said his family comes together over food during holidays such as the Semana Santa [week long Easter celebration], or when they prepare tamales and other traditional Mexican food.

Food and celebrations also go hand in hand in Kayli Whiting’s home, a sophomore from Utah majoring in cultural anthropology. Whiting said food was always special during the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons. She said her mother’s family comes from Sweden and passed down “amazing pie recipes.” Whiting said her favorites were her grandmother’s apple and lemon meringue pie.

“Thanksgiving isn’t Thanksgiving at my house without pie,” said Whiting. She reminisced on one of her Thanksgiving memories from her time living in the Dominican Republic. Whiting said her first year in the Dominican Republic was “incredibly hard.” She said this was because it was her first time living outside the United States, and she experienced heavy culture shock.

“Even though it was hard, having Thanksgiving dinner with my family and eating apple pie, it made me feel at home for the first time in months, even though I was still in a new place.”

Sharing food unites families

Meyer repeated the phrase “you are what you eat” as she explained how food helps form people’s identities. She said, “I only realized how much of my identity came from German food when I came here, and there was no German food anymore.”

She said the food she misses most is German chocolate, specifically Milka: Toffee Ganznuss. It is a chocolate bar with toffee, hazelnuts and caramel. Meyer shared one of her favorite memories of her and her brother, involving her favorite chocolate.

Meyer said she and her brother had gone out on a cold winter day and bought Milka: Toffee Ganznuss. They went home and made some hot chocolate to warm themselves up when they had the idea to add their Milka chocolates to their drinks.

Meyer smiled and said, “It was the best hot chocolate I ever had, I loved it so much, I think it was just the mix of being with my brother and the candy and being warm, it just felt amazing.”

According to Chibota, food tells the story of "where and how people grew up; it serves as a nostalgic reminder of the past.” Chibota noted anytime she eats food from home, she is “... immediately transported back to [her] childhood.”

Chibota said the food that brings her back is a traditional Zimbabwean dish called “Sadza.” She said it is made by grinding corn into a powder and then boiling it in water until it forms a firm, but not hard, mass.

She said growing up, she and her family would eat this dish all the time, as it is a staple in the Zimbabwean cuisine.

She said although it brought her family together when they ate, she was not fond of Sadza at all, “We ate it all the time, so of course I hated it, I was tired of it. Even though I didn’t like it back then, I love it now. Whenever I get to eat it, it brings me back to my childhood and my family.”