When traveling, it is recommended that tourists try the local food to experience a place’s culture. It is a practice that I adhere to even traveling around my own neighborhood so I wanted to write an article on how the food that people eat is integral to their culture. What is the importance of food to a culture? What does food indicate about us? What does cuisine indicate about a country? In the pursuit of research for a piece exploring the link of food and culture, I came across many incredible articles that challenged my way of thinking about food, culture, national cuisine and food as a social tool. I picked three to discuss here, but there are many more if you are willing to look. I have provided reading suggestions at the end of the article. Through these readings I became fascinated by the idea that food and eating means more than nourishment!
Culture can be defined as a “set of values, knowledge, language, rituals, habits, lifestyles, attitudes, beliefs, folklore, rules and customs that identify a particular group of people as a specific point in time” (Stajcic, 2013)
When you start considering where culture can exist, it becomes apparent that culture exists on infinite levels, from personal, family, social groups, society, region, national, and onward. These levels are important when talking about the link between food and culture.
Personal and Social Food Culture
Ann Murchott in a 1982 article, examines the culture of food on an individual and social level. According to Murchott, the food choices we make have very little to do with nutritional value, though the choices are neither random or haphazard. What we choose to eat is more dependent on our social values and social identities. These social identities are so strong that they can have a greater impact than even our own personal preferences.
Food – what we eat, and how we eat it – can be a reflection of our personal identification in specific social groups. In other words, what we eat can influence which social groups we are part of. For example, if you are vegan you would identify yourself with a social group that can include other vegans. Another example would be if you are a hunter and like to eat venison, you would identify yourself in a very different social group than vegans. Just putting different types of food into your mouth can be very symbolic. Eating different foods such as sushi, escargot, alligator, or blood pudding can send messages to your own or other social groups. Messages can also be sent by avoiding specific foods such as pork, beef, gluten, or anything organic.
It can work the other way around as well, where a social group can determine what we eat. If all your friends and family are eating McDonalds, it is very likely that you are eating there as well. If it is seen as lame in your social group to eat salad, chances are that you may not eat a lot of salad.
These rules are not set in stone and you may see some of these ideas apply to you and others don’t. Personally, I became vegetarian when I was 24 all by myself. There was no one in any of my social groups from family to work, who was a vegetarian. I had to relearn how to eat, cook, shop, and interact in social gatherings. In this way, my personal food culture changed.
Social groups, depending on how large they are, can create their own trends and cultural food. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, the food distributors can change their behaviors, branding, and advertising, to capitalize on these different groups. Before we move on from Murchott’s article, I would like to include her example of ‘natural’ food. I will quickly quote it here. You may want to take a moment and think about how what you eat is determined by your social values and social groups.
“[Atkinson’s] study has seen a burgeoning of highly processed food products being re-named and promoted in terms of the rhetoric of the ‘healthy’ and ‘natural’. This underlines the point that the vision of the ‘natural’ as the suitable means of restoring the balance in an over-cultured life works at the symbolic rather than the literal level…people have shifted to more natural foods because the current culture is identified with a nightmare of dirty, noisy urban living, not in contrast to the animal world, but to rural life (pure, peaceful, and ‘natural’). The drawn conclusion that what health foods, and especially the more commercial kind, offer a pre-packaged concrete embodiment of a pastoral dream for their urban consumers”(Murchott, 1982)
Cuisine of Nations
With food culture existing on a personal and social level, it makes it possible for us to travel around our own homes and experience different cultural foods. To expand the scope, we can now consider food culture on a national level. Here is where we are going to encounter familiar ground. Even though we know that each social group, town, city, and region has their own food culture, there are unifying themes to a nation’s food culture. In Italy, the food is cooked and enjoyed slowly and meals are about love. rather than nutrition or status. In France, food is about pleasure. In China food is about status. In many Arab cultures, food is about community where people gather for meals and eat off the same plates. These are extremely brief examples of what a nation’s food culture looks like.
The question I am asked most by those who learn that I don’t eat meat is: “What do you eat?”
In America we have a close identity with a meat culture or a protein centric plate. Our meals often revolve around the meat. After becoming vegetarian and spending a couple years re-learning how to eat. The question I am asked most by those who learn that I don’t eat meat is: “What do you eat?” This question can demonstrate, more than anything else, how close our food culture is linked with meat. But it also demonstrates how lucky America has been to have such an unthreatened protein source for so long. The meat centric diet that exists in America is American made, according to Dan Barber. It is also a food culture that we are exporting elsewhere.
Influence of Governments and Organizations
Don’t think that food culture is developed all on its own by the people and social groups. Governments and organizations know about the connection between food and social identity in their populations and can attempt to impart influence over those identities, push them to suit agendas, and even to manipulate the perceived image of their nation.
Eric Rath wrote a book titled Japan’s Cuisines: Food, Place, and Identity, in which he examined the ideology of cuisine by digging into the history and development of the Japanese cuisine. Rath’s book explains how the modern cuisines of Japan were directed by the private and public institutions. The realities of modern food in Japan is not what we consider to be the nation’s cuisine. What most consider Japanese Cuisine excludes multitudes of rural societies and lower classes. The Japanese government and institutions focused on trying to get the population onto a universal diet, which is what we see represented today – but in reality it is not an accurate portrayal of Japan’s food culture. Doesn’t that make you want to run over there and find out what they are eating?
The idea of a nation’s food being developed by the government or other entities challenges my understanding of what I consider ‘cultural food.’ I always considered cuisine to be developed by the population and what the people ate. This challenge to my perceptions have made me look at national cuisines a bit differently. What if a government organization in America decided to show the world what American Cuisine was and selected filet mignon, corn on the cob, Wonder Bread and iced tea? All these food items are part of America, they are all widely eaten and can be found in many households. These chosen foods as a national cuisine though would create a distorted view of American food culture.
Rath and other writers explore the development of cuisine and look deeper into the cuisine of different nations, and in doing so can correct these misinterpretations, but we have to read these books and articles to get that information. Essentially we have to devote time and energy to be our own detectives in anything we want to know about another culture.
To bring this back to my home in New York, critically looking at our food culture on a national scale, I would not consider our government to be as influential as our corporations. The corporations have determined, to a great extent, what we consider to be American food. Corporations have been telling us through advertising, that wholesome family meals come from fast food chains, frozen boxes, and canned goods. If you are a busy American family, you are told by advertisements that these foods are for you, they make your life easier and faster with no clean up. Since what we eat is a reflection of our social values and beliefs, our food culture has agreed with this view. When I asked my husband what he thinks when he hears the words ‘American food,’ the first thing that comes to mind is McDonalds. It is, if I like it or not, an American staple. Today there is a movement to get back into the kitchen, but again with pre-packaged meals in a box that you cook from scratch. It is very interesting to watch.
Now Moving On
The question set forth at the beginning of this article was seeking out the link between food and culture. If culture is a “set of values, knowledge, language, rituals, habits, lifestyles, attitudes, beliefs, folklore, rules and customs that identify a particular group of people as a specific point in time,” (Stajcic, 2013), food and cuisine is a whole representation of culture on many levels. Since food is so integral to social values and social identities, it can be directed by private and political entities and it can become a national symbol to the rest of the world.
It is hard to cover and comprehend all the implications of food and cuisine. I hope that the ideas in this article can spark questions, new ideas, and knowledge that cultural food can be more than it first appears. Try thinking critically about food, culture, and nations so that you may ask questions and gain a deeper understanding about not only a foreign culture, but perhaps your own. As many travelers will advise, when you are in a new culture don’t just see it but experience it.
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