In an anthropology of eating, Peter Farb and George Armelagos (1980) point out that while all animals “feed,” humans alone “eat.” Whatever our social, cultural, or geographical location, human beings engage in the practice of eating in different ways, performing a range of routines and rituals around the food we consume and the context in which meals take place. Indeed, Farb and Armelagos point out that much can be learned from a society and its culture through an examination of eating. From the industrialized world to the global South, eating encompasses almost the entire life-course: from conception to death and all the calendrical and social markers in between.
But what is eating? Dictionary definitions suggest that it represents the start of the alimentary process which begins with the insertion of food into the mouth to be chewed, then swallowed, from whence it will make its journey through the gastrointestinal tract, nutrients (and toxins) being absorbed along the way, with waste products eliminated in due course. If, however, we were to run an Internet search, the distinction between “eating” and “feeding” become more clear. Pages of links are returned for discussions concerning either eating disorders (including methods of how to speed up the alimentary process) or obesity. Seen in this light, eating is constructed as a “problem,” and one of extremes: restraint and excess, with pleasure and anxiety working in tension with each other (Coveney 2006). Indeed, eating can be said to invoke feelings of disgust and shame (Probyn 2000). Issues of food security and hunger also highlight the fact that, globally, nourishment is unequally distributed (Patel 2007). This essay will not focus on any of these extremes. Rather than focusing on Western public discourses which problematize eating, this essay will extend our understanding of what “eating” can mean to different people in different contexts. Among other things, it explores the function of eating beyond its nutritional contribution to the self, highlighting how eating is implicated in identity formation and its role in connecting us to the past and to others, via memory, ritual, and experience.
Wherever Western consumers turn, there appears to be some cautionary reminder that “we are what we eat.” Not only is food necessary for human nutrition and development, but the right type of food is held to be important to achieve particular outcomes. There are diets that help promote weight loss and fat reduction, which emphasize the elimination of refined sugars, fats, and starchy carbohydrates. For other individuals, the aim might be to gain muscle, to which end protein consumption is the key, and, depending on their discipline, athletes will maintain complex regimes balancing slow-release carbohydrates with protein for strength and muscle mass. For most people, however, everyday eating practices are largely dictated by hunger, time, cost, convenience, availability, and personal tastes and preferences, as well as those of others. At particular points in their lives, individuals may become more conscious of eating (or avoiding) particular things. In industrialized countries, women planning pregnancies may increase their intake of foods rich in folic acid, while expectant mothers may follow injunctions to avoid particular foods, such as soft cheeses and seafood. Farb and Armelagos (1980) note that Mbum Kpau women in Chad will avoid eating meat from particular animals prior to, and during, pregnancy in the belief that this will help avoid painful deliveries and reduce the risk of birth defects in babies. Children require calcium-rich diets to help the development of strong bones; individuals with anemia may consume food that is iron-rich; certain vegetables may be eaten for their antioxidant properties, while patients undergoing or recovering from cancer treatment have been known to eat calcium-rich diets to counteract the effect of drug regimes known to leach calcium from the bones. Particular foods are believed to have an impact on mood, on organ function, and on the skin. Another relatively recent development has been the claim that individuals of specific blood types have genetically evolved to require particular types of diet, and failure to adhere to these may result in a predisposition to certain health conditions (D’Adamo and Whitney 1998). Clearly, people eat for nutritional reasons, be it to satiate hunger, for health or for performance—both mental and physical. However, eating fulfills more than purely functional requirements; indeed, it operates as a practice on a range of levels from the sensory and the personal to the social and cultural with implications for subjectivities (see Mol 2008).
Separating the “problems” and risks associated with eating from its other dimensions opens up the possibility of a much wider understanding of its role for the individual and the wider social and cultural contexts in which people move between and eat in. While concerns about food safety, nutrition, and obesity represent constant “background noise” in public discourse, in Europe at least, food and eating continue to be associated with pleasure (Eurobarometer 2010), not least the sensory delights associated with buying, preparing, smelling, and ultimately experiencing the textures, tastes, flavors, aftertastes, and surprises accompanying each mouthful of food that individuals allow themselves to enjoy. With the reconstitution of cooking and eating as lifestyle choices, the sensuality of food and eating has become ever more apparent and Mary Eberstadt (2009) observes that it has become difficult to talk about food without invoking sex (see also Beck 1993; Lukanuski 1993; Jaivin 1998; Crumpacker 2007). The elision of eating and sex has been usefully explored by Elspeth Probyn (2000), and it would seem that the sight of celebrity chefs sucking their fingers, licking spoons, and engaged in a “real food orgasm” (Probyn 2000: 6) has released Western viewers’ taste buds from the closet. Importantly, Probyn argues that eating has become a privileged optic through which to consider the negotiation of identities. Although she was alluding to the relationship between sex, gender, and power, we might suggest that identity has always been inscribed through what and how we eat, albeit implicitly.
That identification is “never a final or settled matter” (Jenkins 2004: 5) is confirmed by the case studies presented by Gill Valentine (1999), writing in the United Kingdom, who illustrates how practices around food and eating shift at different points in the life-course and in response to the different environments and people encountered along the way. Valentine provides several examples of the circumstances in which “decisions” to become vegetarian are made and unmade, reminding us that where “moral” eating practices are concerned, such decisions are often marked by “conscientious inconsistency” (Safran Foer 2009: 9). Our practices are in flux with our identities and the opportunities available through which to live them out. In families, for instance, decisions about what to eat are made pragmatically and shaped by factors including cost, time, and convenience. Consequently, in the same way that Valentine highlights the power that a child can have in altering the eating practices of an entire household through a decision to renounce meat, so too do Angela Meah and Matt Watson (in press) illustrate the ways in which morality and ethics are sometimes superseded by cost and convenience, their British participants demonstrating a range of practices that enable ex-vegetarians and ethical omnivores to “feel nicer about eating meat.”
Citing a 1978 newspaper article, Stephen Mennell reminds us, “The truth is that with food, as with sex or religion, different people like different things. It is not a moral issue” (1985: 1). He suggests that what is really at issue is a matter of taste, something that is “culturally shaped and socially controlled” (1985: 6). Invoking Claude Lévi-Strauss’s (1969) ideas about “the raw and the cooked” and the so-called “civilizing” processes implicated in the latter, conflict abounds in relation to the position of various cuisines within the culinary hierarchy, and the linking of food to human behaviors has resulted in a range of national stereotypes, British “reserve” apparently owing to an “unimaginative diet” (Farb and Armelagos 1980: 2). Interestingly, Mennell observes that “mankind has always liked the food he was accustomed to” (1985: 4). While this may have been true in the past, one impact of globalization has been the explosion of food choice and availability. Indeed, contradicting Mennell, Lisa Heldke suggests that the gourmet food craze in the United States has been spawned by “boredom with our own foods” (2003: xxi).
While some Western consumers have sought to appropriate new eating adventures through their engagement with other cuisines, described by Heldke as “cultural food colonialism” (2003: xvi), for those who find themselves displaced from their own cultures via processes of migration, the practices surrounding eating and feeding take on particular significance. Indeed, Valentine observes that food, more than language, becomes a way of imagining cultural identity (1999: 519) and thus becomes a key marker in identification. Not surprisingly, particular anxieties can be invoked in response to perceived threats of a loss of cultural identity, and, among older people, traditions concerning food are often the last outpost to be surrendered in the process of cultural assimilation (cf. Gabaccia 1998; Ray 2004). Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus (the collective schemata of experience and perceptions that predisposes individuals’ social and cultural practices), Oscar Forero and Graham Smith (2011) illustrate the experience of older Ukrainian migrants in Bradford. Although claims are made regarding the “authenticity” associated with “traditional” foods, they report that Ukrainian cookery has borrowed ingredients and dishes from a range of neighboring culinary traditions. There is, in fact, little that makes the dishes prepared by British Ukrainians distinctively “Ukrainian.” The significance of these dishes lies not in their strict adherence to ancient recipes. Rather it is “through family and the social rituals that the oldest generation of the diaspora pursued so emphatically [that] these dishes became a powerful symbol of the lost nation” (2011: 84). Conversely, for those of a younger generation, partaking of the foodways of their new home can be interpreted as symbolic of the process of assimilation. Writing on the experiences of South Asian young people in the United Kingdom, for example, Marie Gillespie suggests that eating what is described as “English” food represents both a way of feeling or appearing to be part of the wider society and culture (1995: 198) and one way they can express independence from their parental culture. This is also noted by Valentine, who reports the significance for her South Asian Muslim participants of maintaining a link with “homeland”. This link is most meaningfully maintained through family foodways, which include the consumption of particular kinds of South Asian dishes while seated on the floor for those meals consumed within the home.
For those who experience cultural displacement, eating has increased salience in the struggle for identification, be that in maintaining an existing identity or developing a new one. Writing in the United States and within the psychological tradition, Kim Chernin highlights how, for some people, the shift from one culture to another can induce painful ruptures that have profound psychological consequences extending across generations:
My mother was born in Panama… A big woman, like me, but we didn’t think she was fat. Then we came here [United States]… right away the whole family enrolled themselves in some diet group. That was what my father wanted. I was 14 years old… A big woman, but now she thought it was fat. And all this was part of preparing me to become an American, to take part in this society. She wanted me to be a typical American girl. And that meant slender. And that meant diet. And that meant not cooking or eating the way we ate in Panama. (1986: 5–6)
This excerpt, from a therapeutic consultation with a client presenting with an eating disorder, illustrates the ways in which the exterior map of the body and the internal map of the self can converge and clash when familiar norms around which eating practices are constituted are ruptured in a new cultural context.
Thus far, we have focused on the personal aspects of eating: on the different ways in which what we eat constitutes who we are both organically and in terms of different dimensions of identification. But no discussion of eating would be complete without acknowledgement of it as a profoundly social practice. Eating does more than nourish bodies and sate appetites. As Probyn observes, it “brings together a cacophony of feelings, hopes, pleasures and worries, as it orchestrates experiences that are at once intensely individual and social” (2000: 3). Whether one is eating at home (see Valentine 1999; SIRC 2006), eating at a fast food outlet, or “dining” in a restaurant (Finkelstein 1993), the most significant satisfactions derived from eating are largely associated with the sharing of food or the occasion (Warde and Martens 2000: 206). Indeed, Mary Lukanuski points out that food is prepared with the expectation that it is shared. Not only is the prospect of dining alone a situation at which many people balk, but, she writes, “Eating alone is a stigmatized behavior since it defies the expectations we have of eating” (1993: 119). Nonetheless, while shared mealtimes may be an ideal that is valorized as integral to the process of “doing family,” reporting on the United Kingdom, Nickie Charles (1995) suggests that family meals can prove to be a “battleground” for all concerned, while in France, where shared eating is imagined to be an important part of social life, the harmonious family meal has been described as a “frail skiff” (Muxel 1996: 66), in which discipline may be imposed via expectations of table manners by older generations, enabling generational and gender differences to be reproduced (see Kaufmann 2010 for more on family meals).
These scholars all report from the context of the industrialized world, but the social significance of eating is no less salient in the countries of the global South. Anthropological studies of eating in “simpler societies,” such as those reported by Farb and Armelagos, suggest that “eating is associated with initiation and burial rites, the role of the sexes, economic transactions, hospitality and dealings with the supernatural—virtually the entire spectrum of human activity” (1980: 1). Indeed, food and eating are particularly important in marking the transition between life-course positions. For example, the transition from single to married status by Hindu men and women is marked by the bride and groom feeding each other five bites of a sweet food. Among the Trobrianders of New Guinea, eating does not take place to satisfy hunger but out of social necessity. The giving of food is seen as a virtuous act, and the man who distributes large amounts of food is, therefore, a “good man.” Likewise, in a range of rituals, food is offered to the spirits to encourage their participation. Farb and Amelagos also observe that the simple act of sitting down together to eat can convey important statements about a society, giving the example of the birth of the civil rights movement in the United States which began as a dispute about the rights of African Americans to sit at lunch counters with white people. This was an important right since, in North American society, people customarily only sit down to eat as equals. Indeed, recent history is littered with examples of individuals who have made political statements via a refusal to eat (see for example, suffragettes in the United Kingdom, Ghandi in India, political prisoners in Northern Ireland, and, more recently, detainees at Guantanamo).
In many cultural traditions, eating does more than nourish; it also helps people remember (Safran Foer 2009: 12). As illustrated above, in some circumstances and contexts, the role of eating and the practice of sharing food is pivotal to maintaining important links to a cultural heritage that might otherwise be subsumed (see Field 1997; Sutton 2001).Thomas Adler (1981) and Deborah Lupton (1994) report the place of shared eating within memories of food and how these frequently reflect particular family dynamics, routines, rituals, and social relations, providing a lens through which to remember loved ones, including those who are now deceased. Indeed, reflecting upon his grandmother’s challah, Steven Steinberg (1998) highlights how this bread was “like no other,” representing a connection both to his grandmother and his ancestors—a link that was lost with his grandmother’s death, since the recipe died with her. While memories of eating are often recalled with fondness, this is not always the case. Jenny Hockey and colleagues (2007), for instance, illustrate how particular foods can become associated with experiences of domestic violence, leading to long-standing aversions.
“Eating” encompasses a wide range of meanings across a range of social and geographical contexts. That it is not simply a question of satisfying hunger and fuelling the body is evident. If we look beyond the way eating is problematized within Western discourses of diet and restraint, it is clear that eating plays a role in both nourishing the body and the self. Eating is implicated in processes of identification, in connecting us to the past, and in facilitating and maintaining familial, social, and cultural connections. As Jack Goody (1982) put it, eating is a way of placing oneself in relation to others.