Maribel Alvarez has a food fascination.
“I’m interested in the wide range of dimensions that food plays in our lives,” Alvarez said.
Alvarez, who is the director of Tucson Meet Yourself and a cultural anthropologist at the University of Arizona, will discuss the cultural identity behind food Wednesday in the third installment of the “Food” lecture series, presented by the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
“I’ll be kind of weaving together the identity and heritage with sort of what I’m calling the food problem of our day which is really this incredible food divide,” Alvarez said.
Alvarez is drawn to food as a topic because it encompasses human struggle and human happiness.
“So many people have complicated relationships with food, whether it’s because of questions of health and obesity or questions about the kinds of foods that are available to them or the taste they develop that they can’t comprehend,” Alvarez said.
At the same time, food is a source of joy.
“I mean, when we fall in love the first thing we think about is going on a date for dinner,” Alvarez said. “We tend to gravitate immediately to food as a place where we resolve a lot of our contradictions and where we find longing.”
Food also says a lot about who we are, Alvarez said.
“We know that food, of all the possible things in our lives — the houses in which we live, the cars we drive, the clothes we wear — food represents the one thing that most powerfully captures the symbols and the ideas and the values that we have.”
Those identities have been formed over meals throughout history.
“The main democratic avenue for America for most of its history, to really equalize social relationships, has been around the dinner table and about crossing food boundaries,” Alvarez said.
Those values are reflected by our choices.
“We don’t eat what we are not,” Alvarez said. “We have very strict and very clear things. I eat the things that identify me and cement me with a community.”
Alvarez also plans to discuss new trends, from the foodie movement to cooking shows on TV, and relate it to the “food divide.”
“We know that a tremendous crisis of food accessibility and affordability is happening,” Alvarez said. “The prices of luxury foods keep going up, people have to make decisions on how to fill their basic breadbasket for a family.”
Alvarez will also relate her personal story as a Cuban immigrant and director of the city’s largest cultural event — Tucson Meet Yourself. She said many cultural identities come together to create the American palate.
“A lot of people put down the United States for not really having a national cuisine, but a cuisine that comes from everywhere,” Alvarez said. “My spin on that is that has been a good thing.”
Alvarez hopes her food fascination is contagious.
“My talk is hopefully a moment to really check your assumptions on what you thought you knew about food and its place in your life,” Alvarez said.