Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Culture of Food & Eating

Everyone Eats: Understanding Food and Culture by Eugene Anderson is one of the many fascinating books we read in my anthropology class called “Food & Feasting: Archaeology of the Table” (I highly recommend it! Not for an easy A though . . . ). Yes its true, everyone who has the ability to eat, eats. But, one often forgets why we eat what we eat and the vast cultural differences that exist in food preferences. For most of us, food means pleasure. We eat to enjoy, savoring both the tastes and nostalgia associated with that food. More often than not, foods that we were raised with are our favorites. This goes right back to the womb! Not only do babies learn to love sweet and milky foods; they also learn to love foods like garlic, onions and chiles, whose powerful flavors print through in the milk. According to Anderson, some mothers self-consciously eat their ethnic foods when nursing their babies, so that these tastes are ingrained into their children’s food preferences. As a child gets older, these “innate” preferences are further influenced by “what everyone else eats”- this means different things in different cultures. In America, it might be white bread, hamburgers and ketchup, while in rural parts of Zambia, a list of “favorite foods” might include caterpillars, millet mush and hippo meat!

Another astounding factor I read about is the universal tendency to avoid foods identified with poverty. For instance, sweet potatoes- that are viewed as delicacies in many parts of the world- are detested in China and parts of the American South, because they were “poverty foods” in these places. Another interesting example the processed meat known as Spam; this food item was frequented tables during World War II in countries like United Kingdom, and consequently became stigmatized. The same meat, however, is used creatively and regularly in Hawaiian cuisine.

Perhaps more obvious is the fact that the availability of a food influences its “status” in a society. An excellent example of this includes caviar in Russia- it was introduced into the diet because it was widely available. However, as time progressed, overfishing made this item rare, and now it is predominantly a luxury food.

Personal taste is probably the overruling factor; there is a scale of “openness to the exotic” that often comes into play when deciding where to eat out on a Friday night- Tex-mex or Ethiopian? One is always in search of the perfect combination of familiar and new, but there are some food traditions that are not effaceable. Those who ate homemade bread every day cannot stand the taste of factory-made bread and will even actively avoid it, while those who grew up in typical Southern American society insist on putting oil, butter, AND cheese in their eggs. And of course, there are the South Asians who will drown the very same eggs in Tabasco. Some call these stereotypes, but really--pardon the pun--it's all in good taste.

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