Apparently that makes me a piece of cheddar cheese…
Most of us eat multiple times throughout the day, whether consciously trying to make healthy choices or just consuming what’s on the plate in front of us. One day we might prefer sweet, the next day we may crave something salty. Another time, we may be after something entirely new that our taste buds have yet to experience.
Although you might not see food as a big part of your day-to-day life, we can probably all agree that the things we eat, and how we eat them, has a big impact on our lifestyle — and vice versa. In fact, when you begin diving into the interconnectivity of food, culture, and identity, things get pretty interesting.
What’s your favourite style of cuisine? American? Mexican? Singaporean? Italian? A hybrid of some sort? You’ve probably tried many different styles through the years, each giving you a window into the culture behind the dishes you enjoy.
Food is one of the best ways for a culture to express itself. Like a language, food is a type of cultural artifact that does so much with so little. It tells you about the geography of the location where it originated — the fruits and vegetables that are available to the area, the meats they use as staples, the ingredients that are widely available, and how chefs choose to use them. It also gives you insight into the people who make these dishes.
The everyday foods of a given society are often considered so “commonplace” that those who eat them wouldn’t dare see them as something worthy of studying. But, in reality, these foods give fantastic insight into the cultural norms and traditions, along with the influence of seasonality.
Food brings us together. That’s a well-known fact that can be traced back centuries to times when the rich gathered from across lands to forge allies with fellow kingdoms; to times when the poor gathered to bring together their scraps and make a decent meal; to present times when the basic and extravagant alike put food as the focal point for all sorts of gatherings.
Many scholars argue that our food choices symbolize the ways in which we define ourselves when it comes to social class, ethnicity, and religion. However, food and identity are far from static, which can be evidence by globalization and how it’s leading to popular overlap of various cuisines.
Even in its most basic form, food and the circumstances in which we consume it lead to us connecting and forging alliances with those around us. It may be a family dinner around the table at home, a banquet at a wedding that joins two families as one, or even a state dinner that invites multiple nations to come together to enjoy a shared meal.
Robin Fox, an expert on the subject, said it best:
“Food is almost always shared; people eat together; mealtimes are events when the whole family or settlement or village comes together. Food is an occasion for sharing… for the expression of altruism.”
Whether you give much thought to it or not, almost every culture has its rituals. Although there may be some people within the culture who don’t participate for one reason or another, these rituals are generally so widespread that they help shape the identities of both individuals within society, and society itself.
One popular ritual is baking cookies come Christmas time, which allows for beautiful and fun individual expression for each person who participates. Another ritual is the Japanese Tea Ceremony, which lies on the other end of the spectrum as an almost constraining ritual that must be followed with utmost care.
In either case, these rituals are able to create a space that is sacred or meaningful. When foods are added into these rituals, they tend to become a significant part of it, changing the ritual from something ordinary into something truly extraordinary. The food gradually evolves to be the central focus within a ritual and the primary reason for the ritual to occur.
These rituals are usually interactive. They require a lot of people to participate and put in effort so that the ritual can be performed properly. On a larger scale, like with Japanese Tea Ceremonies, this begins to shape the identity of each person with the community because everyone has a given role.
With the Japanese Tea Ceremony, there are guests and then there is the host. Each plays a very different but very important role in making sure the tea is prepared properly and overseeing the small amount of food that’s to be included in the event. By accomplishing the duties assigned to them within their role, the individual participants can gain a better understanding of themselves.
This same idea of gaining a sense of identity or self-realization within a community can be found elsewhere too, like in Vermont where apples are associated with the changing of the seasons, being picked in the Fall just as the leaves begin to change and every fruit is ripe for picking. In Vermont, apples are a seasonal ingredient and also something very symbolic for summer’s end and the forthcoming winter. Family traditions and community events alike are built around it.
Maybe your grandma makes the most delicious pumpkin pie every Thanksgiving that has been passed down from one generation to the next within your family for as far back as anyone can remember. Or, maybe you have a simpler association with food in your household, picking up the “same old, same old” every Friday night for a quick dinner.
Whatever role food plays in your day-to-day life and at those special times of year, it is impossible to deny just how important its role is as both a biological necessity and a very powerful symbolic ingredient in your life’s traditions and memories.