Staff Picks

Fed, White, and Blue and Finding Identity Through Life's Transactions

April 29, 2015


Simon Majumdar went on a mission to discover what it means to be American by exploring what he knows best, food.

The “Business of Life” can mean a lot of things. On the painful end of the spectrum we have transactions no sane human being cherishes—The DMV, pediatricians with needles, tough conversations about how to pay bills after a layoff. Flip it around and life’s business might produce a wife-purchased birthday gift that allows a young father to fly a kite for the first time with his growing-too-fast toddler. The business of life necessitates a passport line at the post office while the seemingly mundane coffee line ends up in an examining onlookers poem. And we have businesses that produce technology that, wouldn’t you know it, makes it damn near impossible to ignore business while trying to live life.

We can think about the business of life as those necessary but forgettable encounters that provide us what we need. We can believe that these interactions culminate in a life lived, or that they somehow inform who we might be by revealing in our choices our belief system. But something I’m just not sure most of us are intentional about is how the business of life informs just what and who we believe ourselves to be—our identity. It might say something about me that most days when I don’t bring a lunch to work I walk one half block to the soup place with the always grumpy but sometimes charmingly grumpy server. Actually, it certainly says something about me. But I don’t intend it to. I don’t seek to understand anything about myself by choosing this lunch destination.

However, when I was an uninspired 25 year old who found himself moved to New Orleans, damn! That place bleeds a pride that pleasantly insists newcomers find and develop as well. It asks transplants to taste its France-meets-Haiti food with inquisition, to hear jazz with ears baked at 95 degrees in air 95 percent humid, and to always, always slow the hell down. My life-long midwestern identity was being thrown for a loop and I had no choice—dive in or go home. I, without really thinking about it, climbed right up to the Triple Lindy platform and dove, contorted, flipped, and twirled myself into some Cajun-Wisconsin amalgam I never knew existed. My business of life, for a little over a year until a mighty wind blew me back to Wisconsin in 2005, became intentional. Every transaction was meant to foster a deeper understanding of the culture in which I lived, and therefore a better understanding of the person living within that culture—me. Which brings me to Simon Majumdar.

You have probably seen Simon as a judge on Iron Chef and Cutthroat Kitchen, or perhaps you saw him on Beat Bobby Flay or one of the many other food-related TV shows Simon has been on. He’s part of a Michelin starred food blog and regularly writes for the Food Network website. Simon also writes books, and his third and newest book is titled Fed, White, and Blue: Finding America with My Fork. It is this book, the experiences that went into the book, and the book tour that followed that lead me down the wormhole that wrote the first three paragraphs of this post.

Simon Majumdar, a British ex-pat now living in the good ol’ U.S. of A., decided that if he was going to become a U.S. citizen, he would learn what it meant to be American through the lens of what he knows best—food. For one year Simon explored America through food-related experiences, and Fed, White, and Blue documents that quest. Simon probably now knows more about American culinary culture—both remote, small-town traditions, and metropolitan fare—than the vast majority of Americans.

The level of intention with which Simon Majumdar experienced his life—each business transaction, every meal, every trip to a Wisconsin cheese factory (it’s in the book)—is impressive. Each gas station stop on the way to the next city, every next food experience, was coordinated and intentional, all designed to find out what it means to be an American.

As you can imagine, Simon has been exceptionally busy, but I caught up with him while he was on his book tour, a book tour very much like the travels and experiences that went into the book itself, and was able to sneak in a few questions.

Your book and this tour are about your journey to American citizenship through extraordinary food experiences, and perhaps more importantly, small communities made up by people with very specific food traditions. So I guess my first question is: Is it working? Do you feel closer to being American, or understanding America, through these intimate community events?

I think the journey definitely worked for me. Before this adventure America was "the place where I live", but I think visiting all of these communities, both large and small, making this new network of now dear friends, and finally topping it off with the act of becoming a citizen has meant that it has now become "home." I now feel fully part of the process and like I belong rather than a transplant.

I’m sure Americans don’t hold a patent on road trips, but road trips are undoubtedly a fabric of the American experience. You can see it in our film, our art, and especially our music. And there’s nothing more American than hopping in a car with a loved one and hitting the road. As you are experiencing this all with your love, Sybil, I’m curious how important is sharing this experience together, whether it relates to the book, the tour’s original purpose, or neither?

Both Sybil and I love to travel, be it independently or together. We were both keen travelers before we met and I am certain that it was our love of travel that brought us together. The road trip element of the book (and now of the book tour) was a very important element, as it is one of the ways that you really have an opportunity to connect with people. My added profile definitely helps as it means we can have access where other people may not be allowed to. I think we will carry on doing journeys like this as long as we are able to, even though the journey for the book has now finished.

We’re publishing this on our Business of Life channel. In addition to this tour, you might also find yourself flying to New York for 24 hours for TV show filming. You also travel to other continents regularly. I can’t exactly figure out what question I’m trying to ask, but I guess I’m wondering how all these varied experiences—small town tours one day, globetrotting the next; rural America one day, Hollywood or NYC the next—inform what you consider to be your business of life...not to mention the whole 'writing a book' thing.

I think the variety of travel experiences I have serve to remind me that, whatever our differences, people are pretty similar the world over and that despite our differences in political views, religion and economics, the worries and pleasures of people around the world really do boil down to the same basics.

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