Monday, October 17, 2011

Food: Constructed by Culture

           Though food’s basic function is to fuel the human body with nutrients, its uses, forms, preparation, and prevalence varies from culture to culture. Fundamentally, people choose what they do or do not eat depending on cultural, religious, historic, economic factors, not just by flavors, textures, or the nutritional value. Consider how Hindus refuse to eat beef, some Jews follow a kosher diet, and only the most affluent people eat caviar. Moreover, food that appears “disgusting” or unusual to foreigners serves as a cultural marker, or an indication of who belongs to a specific culture and who does not.
Jason DeLeon’s lecture, which discussed the anthropological approaches to food and water, stressed that the foods we prefer, what they are paired with, and how we experience them are all influenced by our unique cultures.  His presentation reminded me of my travels to countries in Europe and Asia, and how I was exposed to novel and exotic foods as well as peculiar practices for eating that differs entirely from those in the United States. I learned that breakfast is not the most important meal of the day after my trip to Italy, for breakfast is generally a light meal consisting of coffee and bread and jam. Lunch, rather, is usually the largest meal and is served in a series of courses: first an antipasto, then a primo piatto, a secondo piatto, a contorno  (a side dish), and finally a dolce and café. The antipasto is a hot or cold appetizer served in small portions. What follows is a rice, pasta, or sometimes a soup dish. The secondo piatto, or entrée, is usually fish or meat-based, and is succeeded by a salad course.  Whereas Italians concern themselves with the order in which foods are eaten and separate their food groups into different stages and portion sizes, I’m familiar with piling an indefinite number of foods onto one plate. Further, daily meals tend to last a while, for they are seen as time to spend with families and friends. I consider myself lucky if my meal lasts more than 30 minutes. My excursion to Spain was not much different: around 2pm until 5pm, people spent two-to-three hours eating lunch and taking a siesta (a nap).  It was difficult adjusting to the late dinner times and the options provided for each meal of the day.  But these eating and cooking styles were nowhere close to as shocking as those I witnessed in China.

The Chinese food that I habitually order every Christmas Day is not the same Chinese food at a restaurant in China. Sure, you’ll see fried rice, dumplings, pork, and noodles on the menu. You’ll also stumble across ox tongue, dogs, chicken kidney, and squid mouth. In fact, there’s a well-known saying that “Chinese eat anything with four legs, except tables. And everything that flies, except airplanes.” At the restaurants I went to, food was not served on individual plates, but rather placed at the center of the table for everyone to share. This explains why Chinese dining tables are more likely to be round or square, for it enables everyone to access the dishes. My tour guide explained to me that Chinese cuisine is based on “opposites”—that hot balances cold and spicy balances mild. He mentioned that the oldest people are the first allowed to access the food, and how leaving leftover rice in the bowl would be considered bad manners. Regardless of what food I ordered, I was only provided with chopsticks to pick up my food, which proved to be a challenging task. Some more things that surprised me were that neither beverages nor desserts were accompanied with my meals, and hot wash clothes supplanted the traditional napkin.
             Considering the many rules exist for eating across all cultures, I realized there is no right or wrong way to eat. Eating is not just done out of necessity, but through a series of learned behaviors regarding acceptable meal patterns, foods, and eating behaviors. The foods we eat and love can be attributed to family customs and rituals, our exposure to them, and our personal values. By and large, our eating habits are closely related to multiple factors and they provide others with a better understanding of our culture.  I didn’t just magically use silverware instead of chopsticks, or eat hamburgers and hotdogs instead of rice and fish. Those were things I acquired from my culture. 

Pig's feet, taken in China.


  1. I really agree with what you are saying about culture, and food ways being so integrated into who we are, and where we come from. I think that people are so quick to judge based on what people are willing and not willing to eat. It has a lot of social consequences, unfortunately, and I think that these are some of the things that we can see from many of the different lectures. Food has really shaped the way we define cultures, it has created hierarchies and divides between different cultures. Social stereotypes are not just based off what your skin color is, or where you live, but it can also be what you do or do not eat. I think what is important to remember in these context is that we need to understand that people choose what they eat for many different reasons, and we will never truly understand all of them at the same time.

    I think water plays a big part in this whole thing as the exception to the rule. Every human on this planet needs water, regardless of like or dislike, it is a universal necessity for human kind. Its pretty interesting to think about when we are looking at the social implications of food and drink. Jason DeLeon made some good points and hints at the fact that water is a way to link everyone together, and in situations of survival it is imperative to remember that at a basic level we are all entitled to means of water, and means of survival.

  2. Although water essentially links all living people, food as a whole unites all living creatures for we all require substantive food to survive in the world. Had humans not created a system of supermarkets, butcher shops, and marketplaces where many of us could buy our own food than we would be burdened with the task many unfortunate humans and animals must endure of searching all day for enough food to satisfy basic nutritional needs. I agree that food, as a cultural construct is particularly interesting to examine because the necessity to prepare and consume food is the common denominator between all groups of people and cultures. Food allows for the unique interpretation of a culture through comparison of the historical, religious, and socio-economic factors of various groups. Food can even help to examine ceremonial and ritual aspects of cultures because groups have very different religious and ethnic traditions that shape their engagement with every-day food. Often times we may not understand a group or cultures tradition or history of consuming certain types of foods however accepting and attempting to understand or explore these differences that exist in every culture including our own allows for a greater level of general understanding and acceptance of a particular group of people.