Everyone agrees on the fact that food is essential to life. Deprive your body of it, and the detrimental effects will be fast and serious. But beyond simply being a source of sustenance, food has evolved to play different roles in different cultures. This wasn't something I'd thought of until I visited India this past winter, as I realized food was an essential part of even Indian greetings 

To give some background, I've been to India several times in my lifetime, but I still experience a sense of culture shock each time I go. Life in India is very, very different than life here in the United States. Everything is busy, chaotic, and crowded - understandable for a country with three times the population but a third of the size of the U.S. It's always a bit overwhelming at first, but it definitely grows on you over time. Below is a picture depicting a busy road in Hyderabad, a bustling city in southern India, for context. It's PACKED.

Vinay Kalvacherla

My favorite part of going is visiting my grandparents in my parents' native villages. Rural India is quiet and calm. It has a soothing, rustic sort of feel that I've never felt in any urban or suburban environment I've been in. The sounds are serene; birds chirping, cows mooing, the occasional motorcycle passing by. As someone coming from a suburb of Dallas, I appreciate the rural Indian setting for its simplicity.

Vinay Kalvacherla
Vinay Kalvacherla

When I went there this past winter, I visited my grandparents and a couple grandaunts-and-uncles. I hadn't seen some of them in upwards of four years. Each one of them greeted me the same way, however: "have you eaten anything?" Every time, no matter who I was talking to - and sometimes, it was even before they said hello! Whether I said yes or no to their question, they would offer me food anyway. It was considered disrespectful to decline. 

This was an interaction I'd encountered exclusively in India.  When I began to think about why this greeting was the way it was, I had to think about differences between Indian and American backgrounds. Rural India has historically been very poor. Food was scarce for many back in the day (and still is), so it was as a much-coveted part of health and wellbeing. Although India has changed a lot and food is much more available now, the historical context still explained the greeting. For Indians, asking if someone has eaten yet was pretty much the equivalent of, "how are you?" It showed that they cared for my wellbeing and sustenance, and their gesture of offering me food afterward reflected their belief of food's immeasurable value. It was okay if I had already eaten before - I should leave with an even fuller stomach, because back in the day, no one knew when their next meal was going to be. 

Compare that to the United States, a wealthy country with a fast-paced, convenience-oriented lifestyle. Everything is about efficiency. Food is "fast," "ready-made," as if it's a necessary inconvenience. The value of food tends to be taken for granted when it's so accessible and trivialized; no wonder Americans lead the world in food waste. 

Having thought about and researched this has made me understand that food has a much deeper presence in culture than I had thought. On a philosophical level, it's made me want to learn more about the interactions of food and culture. On a practical level, I appreciate what I eat a lot more, and am far more self-conscious about my own food waste. Hopefully this has been useful in helping you find some meaning in the value of food, too.