Food and Culture: A Reader

1997 Carole Counihan & Penny Van Esterik (Eds.)
New York and London: Routledge

Layla Al-Zubaidi

In putting together this reader, the editors aimed at writing a book "with legs", a book that contributes to the debates around food, and that will offer an collection of what has been written so far interdisciplinary, cross-culturally, and historically about it. At the border of biology and culture, everyone needs to eat and associates food with certain values. In their introduction, the editors remind of the universal importance of food: the process of eating is reproduced everyday several times, food is the foundation of every economy and a central pawn in political strategies of states and households. The editors believe that food is life, and thus life can be studied through food. In this reader, the cultural aspect of food is stressed: food preferences, dislikes, and eating disorders cannot be fully assessed with physical explanations while neglecting the cultural and symbolic dimension. Food marks social differences, food sharing creates solidarity, and food-scarcity damages human communities. Bodily conditions and images, such as being fat or thin, are deeply embedded in gender roles and cultural categories, and symbolize how people define themselves differently through food and appetite. Because of this focus on the cultural dimension of food consumption, anthropology dominates the book despite its interdisciplinary approach. The authors stress the significance of food, because since everybody eats, its meanings concern more people than that of other issues. It has to offer a great variety of meanings since it is interwoven in the practices of everyday life all around the world, and through its diversity in material and preparation. Rather than uniformity, there is a broad range of manners, tastes, and cuisines connected to it.

The emphasis on gender throughout the book shows that food across and history and cultures has often been a key source of power for women. Women are often associated for the preparation of food, which turns it into a tool of subordination, but also a source of direct influence over those who eat the food.

The book is broken into four sections: The first one "Food, meaning, and voice" covers some classical papers from authors such as Margaret Mead, Claude Levi-Strauss, Mary Douglas, and Marvin Harris. It thus presents theories as diverse as cultural structuralism, symbolism, cultural materialism, and semiotics. The papers of Mary Douglas, Jean Soler, and Marvin Harris for example represent three different approaches to Jewish dietary choices.

The second section "Commensality and fasting" focuses on the meanings of practices such as giving, receiving, and refusing food. As Caroline Walker Bynum shows for women, Christian piety, saintliness, and the refusal of food were strongly intertwined in late-medieval Europe. Eating "disorder", which today would be medicalized or psychologized, was theologized in medieval Europe. Walker Bynum differentiates between cultural function, and cultural meaning. The main function was that women were able to control their social environment through food refusal and the manipulation of their bodies. Since food manners were closely related to the status of families, deviant behavior could embarrass the family in the public. Women thus were able to manipulate their husbands and families in an environment were their voices were strongly restricted. Self-starvation usually escalated at puberty, the moment when families usually began negotiations for husbands for their daughters. Food refusal also provided for women an excuse for neglecting food preparation and family responsibilities. Additionally, women through refusing food, or giving it away to the poor, could also reject their familyís values and express their dislike of wealth. Yet, the author stresses, functions should not be equated with meaning. Food did not mean to medieval women the control it provided. Its meaning was rather connected to associations of women with the physical, and man with the spiritual and rational. Starving and suffering for women was the identification with Christ who suffered for the salvation of humanity and saved the world through physical, human agony.

Similarly focusing on the gender implications of food consumption, Brumberg in his paper outlines how appetite has to be read as voice. The context is now 19th century Victorian society. He shows how the cultural predispositions of that era led to the emergence of anorexia nervosa, the refusal of food without apparent physical reasons, even before the fashion revolutions of the 1920ís and 1960í and Twiggy. Because appetite in this era was associated with sexuality, women were concerned to keep it under control. Women were particularly afraid of foods that could stimulate sensual reactions rather than morality, such as spicy food, coffee and alcohol, and especially meat. Women who openly displayed their appetite were regarded as acting out of place and assuming a male prerogative. Because food carried such complex meanings, manners at table marked social distinctions, and were the arena for potential embarrassment. The ideal of Victorian femininity was the woman who responded not to the low demands of the body, but only to the higher senses that exclusively served moral and aesthetic purposes. The embodiment of this spiritual orientation was the thin body. The denial of food meant advancing in the moral hierarchy, and the body became the barometer of a womanís moral state. To look and be "saintlike" was the ideal of that era, with the thin body symbolizing the purity of the soul, while the fat body carried the stigma of moral and physical decadence. Correspondingly, the fragile, thin woman became the symbol of the higher "leisure" class, a symbol of status because she was unfit for production and reproduction. Body image rather than body function became the paramount concern and appetite was less a biological drive than a social instrument. Preoccupied with female perfection and moral superiority through the denial of food, anorexia nervosa was born in this environment of bourgeois society. The definition of womenís bodies as aesthetical objects and the focus on thinness that is perceived as so oppressive by many is thus rooted in the cultural disassociation of female bodies from reproduction.

The paper of Devault is different in the sense that it concentrates on the implications of gender for the sharing of food preparation and that of other activities and routines within households. She explores how the "pleasure" that many women derive from feeding their families, is deeply inscribed into dominance and subordination in daily life, based on a sense of "natural" gender roles. Even when men participate in household activities, still the woman is seen as the one "who has everything under control", and the one who gives directions. The study is based on participant observation in different households.

The third section "Food, body, and culture" examines how people in diverse cultures think about fat. Hortense Powdermaker, reviewing anthropological literature, shows that obesity is mainly a "western" problem, explaining fatness and indulgence in eating with compensations of frustrations or neurotic disorders. To the contrary, fat in many cultures symbolizes beauty, power, well being, and fertility.

Hilde Bruch shows how body image is connected to self-awareness. She found out that self-awareness differentiates across genders, classes, and ages. She gives an example men who are dissatisfied with their girth when they are young, but in Germany old and upper class men consider their obesity to be a sign of status and power.

Elisa J. Sobo examines how in Jamaica fatness is associated with kindness, altruism, and a sociable and giving nature, while skinny people are perceived as being mean and stingy, and how these categories are inscribed into language, for example when pleasant things are called "sweet".

The forth section "The political economy of food: commodification and scarcity" links food not only to unequal gender relations, but also to overall social hierarchies and power structures. Most people would define the access to food as the most basic human right. Yet, the authors point out that with capitalism, colonialism, and food commodification, access to food and control over it has become an international key measure of power and the lack of power. Food scarcity, hunger and malnutrition are often a marker of economic and cultural marginality. The international hierarchy of the "Fist World" vs. the "Third World" is clearly expressed through differential access to food resources. Besides providing a cultural context, a central goal of the book is to highlight the economic realities that underlie food habits. It aims at supporting responsible policies by integrating indigenous knowledge into nutritional understandings. The authors of the papers suggest that nutritionists need to pay attention to sociocultural factors surrounding food in order to respond successfully to hunger issues. Gender in this is context an important factor, since women are more likely to be malnourished than men are.

In her paper on Japanese mothers and obentos, lunch boxes that children carry with them to school, Anne Allison shows how one single food item is invested with a meaning of cultural order, gender roles, and ideological symbols. The schoolteacher judges both the mother and the child whether the lunch box is prepared properly, whether the child has eaten all of it, and whether both are able to conform to the rules that the obento embodies. It thus becomes a metaphor of social order and disorder, and a tool of discipline for the state, which intervenes into interfamilial relations and structures gender roles.

In his paper, Stephen Mennell differentiates between hunger and appetite, hunger being a body drives which occurs in cycles, and appetite being rather a psychological state of mind. He studies the history how appetite became civilized in European culture through external constraints such as the church, the state, and doctors, and which role famines played throughout history.

Janet M. Fitchen talks about malnutrition in the United States, a country, which most people expect that it feeds its citizens well. She elaborates the cultural values and meanings that are attached to the opposition rich-poor on the image of a poor person buying a steak with a food stamp. She shows that domestic hunger often goes unnoticed, because those people who are poor enough to qualify for government food stamps, may be seen in grocery stores, purchasing not only basic food stuffs, but also popular items, such as potato chips, desserts, and beef steaks. With such purchases, low-income people may seek to affirm that they can live like other Americans, and thus attempt to hide their hunger from the public. At the same time, these foods contribute to their malnutrition, and the public concludes that if poor people can eat steak, they must be neither poor nor very hungry. She argues that the poor, despite their limited economic resources, try to follow dominant American cultural practices, in order to express their membership in society, and food is seen as a tool to "eat oneself into the middle class". On he other hand, there are strong cultural beliefs that the poor "should eat differently because they are different." She shows how the poor try to overcome deprivation by buying popular and heavily advertized junk food, which however damages them more than the affluent who are able to afford both junk food and nutritious food and thus balance its negative effects. Similarly, the poor families she has studied regard food and drink as important to social interaction, as others do. Thus, visits are always accompanied by gestures of offering food, and additionally many families depend on informal reciprocal networks of food sharing. Fitchen explains attitudes toward poor in the context of the American ideology that the individual shapes its destiny, and that poverty hence is the condition of individuals, not of society. Thus, a common myth, which also impacts government policy, is that hunger is the fault of the poor, who are regarded being lazy and feeding themselves wrongly. Being poor and eating a steak is considered culturally "inappropriate" behavior, because it violates the statement of how things ought to be, it transgresses the definition of being poor, and is interpreted as the proof that the poor are living in luxury. Fitchenís study reveals how a poor buying a steak with a food stamp mocks our sense of social order that demands separation of rich and poor.

Since this book comprises 28 papers, covering a range of regions and periods, it is a remarkable collection of different approaches to food. If one might find some of them less appealing, they can be skipped by the reader since there are still enough left. Even one who is not particularly interested in food could find the book useful, since it deals in general with cultural meaning, symbolism, political economy, gender, and consumption. I liked especially the papers that dealt with the roots of thinness, since it is such a prevailing paradigm today in many parts of the world, and so heavily promoted by the media as an almost ahistorical and essential ideal. The book shows how bodily dysfunctions can be approached with cultural terms and further examines how access to food is a marker of power and how food can be used as a tool for manipulation and social control. It also provides a broad range of methodology: from fieldwork to historical approaches.

The only critique I have to make is that the editors should have incorporated more recent studies, since most papers are reprints from the 1960ís, 70ís and 80ís.