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Food, the Senses and Taste

As the multisensory enters the mainstream, going from ASMR videos on Youtube to major advertising campaigns, awareness of the role our senses play in how we interact with the world has never been so high. Eating is of course a multisensory experience, as we engage with the visual, olfactory, haptic, taste and even auditory aspects of what we consume and produce. Explore some of our content that opens up discussion about the senses, and what that means for how we eat.

Wat Si Muang (Simuong) buddhist temple. Buddhist monks having vegetarian lunch in monastery. Vientiane, Laos..

The Aesthetics of Food

Does food have an aesthetic, and can it even be an aesthetic object? Explore with Jakob Wenzer in Food Words how, in the history of the hierarchy of the senses, visual and auditory are at the top while taste and smell have traditionally been relegated to the bottom. Food has been endlessly scrutinized in relation to its symbolic, visual powers in art history. But can the academic study of food extend to an appreciation of the other senses?

taly, Po Delta, Saluzzo, Vicinity Cuneo, Battery Pig Farms. An image of a pig along with her piglets.

Remembering Through the Senses

You may be familiar with Marcel Proust’s story of eating a madeleine and its evocative taste triggering an essential memory of times past. Work along with David Sutton in Remembrance of Repasts to learn how food has long featured in anthropological work as a means to create commensality, and how this links to taste and memory.

Pamela Anderson unveils her new PETA ad, which features her nearly naked body covered in paint markings at Covent Garden on October 24, 2010 in London, England.

Taste and the Tasteful

Would you eat jellied eel? How about fermented cabbage? Maybe those foods elicit feelings of disgust, as one person’s luxury is another person’s turn-off. But how does taste become enshrined within culture? This key question is one that is posed in the introduction to Making Taste Public: Ethnographies of Food and the Senses and scrutinised in the case studies that follow. The chapters consider taste as a social construct, and challenge the idea of taste as an elitist subject for discussion.

 Holstein dairy cows are seen in their barn after being milked at Armstrong Manor Dairy Farm on September 4, 2018 in Caledon, Canada.

The Invention of Taste

We often pride ourselves for having ‘good’ taste whether that be in food, art, fashion or other social aspects of life but what does that really mean? In The Invention of Taste, Luca Vercelloni explores the history of taste from Renaissance Italy through to modern day, tracking its transformation from a simple biological sense to an expression of sensibility.

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) supporters dressed like zombies pretend to gorge themselves on a victim during a Halloween themed protest against consumption of animal meat in Hollywood, California, on October 26, 2017. The protest was to remind passersby that animals are made of flesh and blood like humans.

Case Study

Join Alex Rhys-Taylor as he takes a sensory tour of East London in Food and Multiculture, and explores the material culture of the city. Rhys-Taylor shows how a multi-media ethnographic approach to his research opens up the multi-sensory, and argues that it is through smells and flavours that a new space comes to feel like home, and helps different immigrant population to shape their cultural identities.

Food Movements in Veganuary

With a new year comes the desire to start afresh: be healthier, more mindful, do your bit for a greener planet, and what better way to turn over a new leaf than by changing your diet? Vegetarianism and veganism have never been more popular as the economical, ethical, and environmental implications of eating meat and dairy become increasingly pressing.

Wat Si Muang (Simuong) buddhist temple. Buddhist monks having vegetarian lunch in monastery. Vientiane, Laos..

The spirituality of vegetarianism

Discussions around diet are rarely neutral affairs - with a certain amount of stigma attached to what people eat and with motivations for eating a certain way linked to cultural norms and religious morality. Learn about the Biblical roots for vegetarianism and whether Jesus was a vegetarian. Also, explore with Christophe Robert how refraining from eating meat can be considered life-affirming and nourishing due to the imperative to not kill during his time in Vietnam where Buddhist thinking is prevalent.

taly, Po Delta, Saluzzo, Vicinity Cuneo, Battery Pig Farms. An image of a pig along with her piglets.

The morality of meat

The philosopher Descartes argued animals could not feel pain, and that therefore killing them to eat was not problematic. More recent philosophy has moved away from this perspective. Read with Nigel Pleasants about the parallels of animal treatment and perceptions of slavery, and how nowadays the choice to give up meat is a much easier one.

Pamela Anderson unveils her new PETA ad, which features her nearly naked body covered in paint markings at Covent Garden on October 24, 2010 in London, England.

Eating meat: a feminist dilemma?

Read why Carol J. Adams sees real issues with continuing to eat meat while attempting to challenge the patriarchy, arguing that our food choices either re-affirm or knock away at established hierarchies. Develop an understanding of the key tenets of both a feminist and vegan ethic of care, and how women and animals are aligned in marketing, advertising and language. Going meat-free may be even more political than you realise!

 Holstein dairy cows are seen in their barn after being milked at Armstrong Manor Dairy Farm on September 4, 2018 in Caledon, Canada.

Can you be environmentally friendly if you eat meat?

Plenty of research has shown that going vegan would lessen the impact of greenhouse gases on the environment. Kerry Walter notes that in the US, 400 million beef cattle are killed per year. These animals are well fed, and produce corresponding quantities of waste, which pollute the water and atmosphere around them. If we want to preserve our environment, is it necessary to stop buying in to the cattle and dairy markets?

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) supporters dressed like zombies pretend to gorge themselves on a victim during a Halloween themed protest against consumption of animal meat in Hollywood, California, on October 26, 2017. The protest was to remind passersby that animals are made of flesh and blood like humans.

Case study: the cannibal-savage horror film

Explore the “cannibal-savage” film genre with Erin E. Wiegand. This entire genre of horror films has been categorised around the killing and consumption of animals, and its parallels with killing and consuming humans. Shockingly, some films in this tradition feature real scenes of animals being killed. This genre addresses anxieties about our humanity, and the violence required to consume flesh from animals.

Food and National Identities

The idea that food and identity are connected is by no means a revolutionary one. Scientists and researchers have long studied the role of gastronomy in cultural identity to find that the story of a nation’s diet is the story of a nation itself. Discover more about the ways in which food can construct, invent and sustain identity on a national level.

Food Protest.

Identity, Food and Protest

Accounts of food riots frequently mention that the protests are centred on one food item, usually a staple or key ingredient integral to the culture’s cuisine. In Reading Food Riots: Scarcity, Abundance and National Identity, Amy Bentley sets out to discover how food riots play into national identity and if we can gain increased understanding by paying attention to the one item that is held up as a symbol?

Seafood memories

Collective Food Memories

There is always one national dish which is eaten more by tourists than the people who live there. In Roatán, this is seafood. Despite eating less seafood than ever before the people there still use seafood memories to create their national identity. Heather J. Sawyer explores the notion of seafood narratives as a valuable way to gain insights about food culture in Tourism, Seafood Memories, and Identity.

Italian-American food

Forming New Identities with Food

Tomato Sauce, Spaghetti, Bolognese, these are all very typical ‘Italian’ foods. However, ‘Italian’ food was actually invented by Italian-American immigrants to such a great degree that it has had a boomerang effect on the cultural identity of Italy itself. Find out more in Semiotics of Sauce by Maryann Tebben.

Food heritage

The Construction of Food as Heritage

Food and Cultural Heritage: Preserving, Reinventing, and Exposing Food Cultures looks at the ways food is used to create identity claims as cultural heritage. On a national and international level, Elisa Ascione analyses the ways in which UNESCO has institutionally designated the food and cuisines of several countries as “intangible cultural heritage”.

Hainanese chicken and rice

Case Study: Hainanese Chicken Rice

Hainanese Chicken Rice is considered one of Singapore's national dishes and is a ubiquitous sight throughout the country however a debate has raged on for decades as to who actually invented the recipe. Malaysia and Singapore, once part of Malaya before they split, both lay claim to the dish and pay little mind to their shared heritage and culture instead using the dish as a power symbol of their singular identities. Join Cynthia Chou as she unpacks the much contested debate in How Chicken Rice Informs about Identity.

Images above are courtesy of Getty Images.

Food Safety

A century ago, confronted by the scale and danger of an industrializing food system, public health investigators and legislators remade responsibility for keeping food safe. Despite these measures, however, the anxieties over food safety have become an increasing concern for the everyday consumer. Discover more about contemporary food-related anxieties, the processes in place for ensuring food safety and the ways in which food security can go wrong.

A water processing plant


It’s common knowledge that water is vital for life, and it is recommended that humans drink at least 8 glasses a day, but water has not always been seen in such a positive light. For classical authors like Pliny the Elder and Marcus Pollio Vitruvius, desirable or undesirable properties were associated with the source of the water one obtained; rainwater was usually held to be the best water, while water from melted snow or ice was generally viewed as harmful. The nineteenth-century saw great changes in views of drinkable water and equally great changes in predominant notions of who was competent to judge water quality. This chapter explores the history of the kinds of water that were viewed as suitable to drink.

Safely handling food in supermarkets

Contemporary Anxieties

There is a paradox at the heart of contemporary anxieties about food which centres on the question of why Western consumers report such high levels of food anxiety in public opinion surveys when food is, arguably, safer today than at virtually any time in human history. Why, then, are there such high levels of public anxiety about food, given its relative abundance, alleged safety and general affordability, compared to many other times and places? Explore the root of contemporary food anxieties, such as food security, domestic food safety, and the increasing gap between food producers and consumers.

Genetic modification and food safety

Safety of Novel Foods

It should come as no surprise that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the lead federal agency charged with ensuring the safety of the food supply in the United States, considers foodborne microbial pathogens and the toxins they produce to be the most important of the various food safety risks. Unfortunately, evidence indicates that the public often tends to focus too much on pesticide residues and food additives, wrongly believing that the risk from these materials is as great as that from pathogenic microorganisms. In this chapter, Michael W. Pariza explores the principles of food safety with regard to traditional foods as well as novel foods developed through genetic modification.

Cheese pasteurization.

Case Study: Black Boxes of Cheese

In the United States, cheese safety is promoted through pasteurization. In the United States, cheese safety is promoted through pasteurization. In this chapter, Heather Paxson looks at artisan cheesemaking as a rebellion against the industrialization of the cheesemaking process. Since 2000, the number of artisan cheesemakers in the United States has grown exponentially. More than half of the country’s approximately 750 cheese-making artisans today work with unpasteurized (raw) milk. It is important to understand how constitutionally unstable foods such as handmade cheeses are material embodiments of ecosocial worlds that are far from uniform and are riddled with politics.

The National Heritage of Spices

Inspired by the recent online Oxford Food Symposium on herbs and spices, we are delving into the fascinating and world of spices. From podcasts to eBook chapters, we have brought together key material which explores the heritage of popular ingredients, and their social and cultural power to help forge a sense of national identity. From the different spice cultures in India, to the history of the cultivation of opium poppies in West Central Anatolia, traverse the globe and learn more about the history of spices.

A poppy field in Turkey

Ox Tales Podcast: The Opium Poppies of Anatolia

In this Ox Tales podcast from the Oxford Food Symposium, Aylin Öney Tan talks to Anna Sigrithur about the village of Isamailkoy in the Afyon Provence of West Central Anatolia, which is working to continue the cultivation of a traditional crop, the opium poppy. International pressures to crack down on opiates have led to strict regulations in Turkey, making opium poppy production particularly difficult. Click here to listen and find out how the villagers of Isamailkoy are facing these issues and preserving their traditional poppy.

Spice bottles on a shelf

Variations of Spice Culture in India

Like the differing architecture and linguistic features, the North and South of India have separate staple foods, with many variations between their traditions. Cooks from the North may have many dry spices in store, such as cardamom, ginger, turmeric and black pepper, while cooks in the South use few dried spices, and instead rely on fresh ingredients that are purchased day to day. The regional variation is more complex than a simple North – South divide, however; click here to learn more about the culture of food in India, and the many variations between the regions.

Gathering spices in India

National Origins of Spices

It is difficult to identify the place of origin for some spices; throughout history they have been introduced to many habitations worldwide, making it tricky to determine whether a spice is indigenous to the area or not. Historic written sources that mention plants, such as the works of Aristotle, Virgil and Pliny, can be problematic as factual records, emphasised by the contrasting names of spices in Greek or Latin texts. This chapter explores the difficulties of reconstructing the ancient history of spices, and attempts to outline the origin of spices used historically and today.

Spice Alley.

Case Study: Finding “flavors of the Asian metropolis” in Sydney, Australia

In this chapter from Culinary Nationalism in Asia, Jean Duruz builds on issues of migration, place-making and identity, and explores the cultural and gastronomic scene of cities. Focusing particularly on Spice Alley in Australia, a complex of restaurants and other retail spaces, Duruz describes the creation of ‘Asian’ eateries in the Sydney dining scene and how this fits within ideas of Australia’s national imagination. Click here to join Duruz on a trip down Spice Alley as she hunts for Iasksa, a distinctive Nyonya dish.

Market Stand Spices

Spices and Cultural Identity in England

In this chapter from Food and Identity in England, 1540–1640, Paul S. Lloyd describes the cultural implications of spices, which, as a staple synonymous with foreign continents, provided a ‘link with the sophisticated Mediterranean world’. This lifestyle of abundance was a hallmark of cultural identity for the elite classes in contemporary English society. Lloyd explores the use of spices during the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries and provides extensive details on the prices of the various spices.

The Culture of Cooking

The simple act of cooking reveals much about a culture, from its food choices, local produce, food preparation and eating habits. This Featured Content places a spotlight on cooking culture and brings together key material to guide and support your discovery of this key topic. From podcasts and eBooks, to pedagogical research tools and reference works such as Food Cultures of the World Encyclopedia, discover how the act of cooking can shape cultural identity.

Dough (Pixabay)

Traditional Aboriginal Australian Cooking

Food Cultures of the World Encyclopedia, edited by Ken Albala, reveals how much we can learn about a different culture from its food choices, food preparation rituals, and eating habits. This four-volume reference work covers Africa and the Middle East, the Americas, Asia and Oceania, and Europe. In this chapter Leena Trivedi-Grenier looks at traditional Aboriginal Australian cooking and the organisations that are preserving this culinary heritage, with a ‘food culture snapshot’ illustrating traditional recipes such as damper bread and quandong crumble.

Chia seeds

Ox Tales Podcast – The Resurgence of Indigenous Cooking

Over the past few decades, there has been a resurgence in indigenous food ways all around North America led by a network of people who are bringing back traditional food, cooking knowledge, and ancestral seeds into their communities and onto their tables. In this Ox Tales podcast from the Oxford Food Symposium, Anna Sigrithur talks to Sean Sherman, owner of The Sioux Chef and author of The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen, and Elizabeth Hoover, American Studies Professor at Brown University, to discuss this cultural cooking revival.

Root Cellar (Pixabay)

Food and Cultural Studies Research Tools

Bloomsbury Food Library provides a host of carefully curated learning and research tools to support instructors creating courses, and students new to a subject. This lesson plan by Joanne Hollows introduces students to key approaches to understanding food as a cultural form, combining theories and insights from disciplines such as sociology, geography, and anthropology. With links to additional reading, discussion topics, and homework assignments, this lesson plan is a useful navigational tool to make the most of the extensive content available on the Bloomsbury Food Library.

A Canteen in a Deep Shelter of London Underground (© Crown Copyright images reproduced courtesy of The National Archives).

Cooking in the Bomb Shelters of WWII Britain

Bloomsbury Food Library provides access to an extensive host of image collections from leading museums and galleries from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to the National Archives, which offer students and instructors innovative ways to discover and research food in context. This 1944 photograph from The National Archives for example, provides a unique insight into the culture of cooking and eating in wartime Britain. Three women prepare and hand out food to a large crowd of children at a stand in the London Underground, which doubled as a public deep shelter during World War II.

Vegetables (Pixabay)

Cooking and Identity in Costa Rica

The significance of food culture is recognized as an identity marker by many Costa Ricans. In this chapter from Cooking Technology, Mona Nikolić Lai explores cooking techniques as markers of identity and authenticity in Costa Rica’s Afro-Caribbean foodways. With the significance of authenticity as a measure for the legitimacy of a cultural experience, cooking techniques are gaining in importance, both as proof of authenticity of the Caribbean food on offer, and as a means of constructing and displaying local Caribbean identity.

Boiler (Pixabay)

The Language of Cooking

The activity of cooking has come to occupy an increasingly ambiguous place in our use of language. Over the last 100 years or so, culinary practices have become increasingly mediated by the incorporation of cultural objects, such as pans, and open-fire cooking has gradually been replaced with ovens, hobs, and microwaves. However, the verb “to cook” is limiting in itself if we adopt the popular understanding of the word espoused by Lehrer, since it includes only food that has been transformed by heat. By that rationale, does cooking include the heating up of beans in a microwave, but not elaborately prepared sushi? Click here to find out.