7/16/18

The European food culture



Each time we travel to the Czech Republic, we live like a "local." That's because Karel has all his family in Czech and they have strong family food traditions. While I can only make generalizations from what I have observed while traveling to Europe, I've learned a lot from spending time in Karel's small town of Znojmo, Czech Republic.

A few observations:
  • People walk a lot. It's very easy to get around via walking paths and sidewalks. 
  • It's a burden to go by car when you can easily go by bike, bus or feet. With tight streets, expensive gas prices and little parking, it's much more practical to leave the car at home (if you have a car) and use a more physical way to get to your final destination. 
  • There are no fast food establishments in this town. You can't just pick up a meal or eat on the go. Meals are either consumed at a restaurant or at home. 
  • Children have traditional Czech meals at school for lunch. The kitchen staff begin cooking early in the morning - with real food found in the community from gardens and farms. 
  • If you eat on the go, it's usually a pastry, bread or a small scoop of ice cream...as you walk. 
  • Pastries are not overly sweet or drenched in sugar. 
  • Lunch is the biggest meal of the day. Many places close for lunch so people can go home and eat.
  • The town shuts down around 5:30-6pm for people to go home and spend time with family. 
  • Grocery shopping is almost a daily occurrence. 
  • People are active - there's a lot of bike riding, walking, bike touring, playing in the local pool, playing on the playgrounds and just overall, being outside. 
As for food, I feel this is an area that I appreciate the most when traveling to Europe. Perhaps it's because I don't understand the language and thus, I don't hear any chatter about dieting, food trends and body image. Maybe this is something to consider for where you live - how much are your dietary patterns influenced by what you hear and read around you? While this can be good if you are wanting to improve your diet, far too many times, individuals follow strict, rigid and extreme styles of eating in an effort to change health, body composition or to improve fitness.

Oddly, America is a food-obsessed culture that is rather unhealthy. Food is cheap, quick and easy to access yet health care is extremely expensive. Interestingly, Europe (or Znojmo - where Karel grew up), is also food-obsessed. But in a much different way.

For example, Karel's mom thinks about our lunchtime meals well in advance. There's a lot of care, attention to detail and passion spent on cooking. A home-cooked meal is not just for a special occasion like a holiday but it's how you eat here - everyday. Again, a generalization but it's also how Karel grew up.  Food is fresh, local and nutritious. People care about what they eat. There are at least half a dozen grocery stores (and probably over a hundred at-home gardens) within a few miles of this small town so it's easy to get food. Meals take time to prepare and it's something that people want to make time for. It seems like people aren't "too busy" to cook. Eating is a time of celebration in the day - not in the year. Much unlike the relationship with food in most of America, people want to stop their day to eat as they are too busy.

Here, it seems like people care about food and there's little (if any) debate over what's good versus bad food. Karel tells me that there's little discussion on fad diets here. While there are processed snacks, candies, ice cream and lots of pasties available, I find there's an overall attitude that this meal or snack is going to be delicious, satisfying and good for you because people here care about ingredients, where they are produced, how they are produced and how things are made. Food is good for the people and the environment. And you can feel it too - when we eat food here (pastries to ice cream), it doesn't feel heavy or uncomfortable in the gut. Maybe it's just our observation but we notice a vast difference in the digestion of food in American vs. Europe - with our Czech meals/snacks digesting so much easier.

With every home-cooked meal that we have consumed in Czech, it is one that is memorable, satisfying and satiating. Essentially, for most American's, food provides calories to survive the day and that's pretty much it. For some people in America, eating is a chore or an afterthought. Far too many people in America don't view food as memorable. If a person does care about food ingredients, there's a tendency to care too much - the point of obsession. Certainly, there are far too many questionable ingredients in America but there are also far too many diet trends, strict styles of eating and to be honest, too many experts endorsing the "best" way to eat. Most often this style of eating doesn't address lifestyle habits like cooking and meal prep but just addresses food without a holistic perspective.

While obesity and health issues are wide-spread around the world, there's something to say about the obvious difference between how American's view food compared to other parts of the world. Clearly, a good relationship with food starts with making time (and appreciating) home-cooked meals and making the time to stop your day to nourish your body, connect yourself with the community/friends/family and celebrate the food that you have the privilege of eating. And don't forget to yum.