An Introduction to Food & Identity: From the Everyday to Ritual and Beyond
Food, like language, exists as a vehicle for expressing culture. It has the power of being both a biological necessity as well as a deeply symbolic cultural artifact, one that connects us to one another on several levels. Thus, we find it agreeable to say that food is a mechanism for expressing identity that also has a social purpose. Our food choices, as scholar Robin Fox argues, serve to symbolize how we define ourselves in terms of religion, ethnicity, social class and so on. That is not to say that food and identity are static, which is evidenced by the current phenomenon of globalization that has increased human interaction and the overlapping of cuisines. Additionally, food, and consequently the circumstances under which we consume it, allows us to connect and ‘forge alliances’ with others (Fox, 2014, pg. 2). As Fox suggests, ‘Food is almost always shared; people eat together; mealtimes are events when the whole family or settlement or village comes together. Food is an occasion for sharing… for the expression of altruism’ (2014, pg. 1). This powerful act of food sharing, which may involve simple everyday foods to extravagant ritual foods, is thus inherently layered with meaning for cultures throughout the globe.
How foods eaten everyday are classified as such vary across cultures, and typically offer some insight to cultural norms, tradition, easily accessible ingredients, and the influence of seasonality. For example, in Vermont apples become much more ‘everyday’ in the fall because of their greater availability during the harvest season when they are ‘ripe for the picking’. Individual cultures sometimes see their everyday foods as being so commonplace as to be unworthy of study or as not particularly insightful in order to gain an understanding of that culture. Yet these foods often give not only insight into the cultures they belong to, but also to the foods and palates of outsiders of that culture.
Everyday foods often vary across cultures and play a major role in defining culture as well as identity. Individual cultures often see their everyday foods as so commonplace that they are unworthy of study, but these foods often give not only insight into the cultures they belong to but also to the foods and palates of outsiders of that culture. Cultures can both shape and be shaped by the foods they eat and the foods they consider to be staples; additionally, an everyday food can influence how outside cultures view that culture. Who hears “Japanese food” and doesn’t instantly think of sushi, or American food and hamburgers, Italian food and pasta, Mexican food and tortillas? While everyday foods can illustrate cultural identity, they can also create a space for individual identity as well. In her article, “If You Are What You Eat, Then What Am I?” Geeta Kothari discusses her childhood growing up in an Indian family in the United States and how the foods they ate differed from those of her American classmates. She outlines how being different in terms of food culture and affected her family but also her life as she grew up. She also touches upon how other Americans expected her and her family to act and to eat, and how closely not only her family but also others tied identity to food. Kothari’s example highlights the divide between actual everyday foods and assumed everyday foods in one specific culture, but this divide can be extended to everyday foods in any culture and the expectations surrounding those foods, particularly the expectations of outsiders to that culture. Everyday foods are one means of finding an identity in a culture or struggling to fit into it, and what that means often varies from culture to culture.
Rituals have the ability to create a space – within an everyday space – that is sacred, or meaningful. When foods are incorporated into a ritual, they have the potential to be the significant point that changes the air of a space from ordinary to extraordinary. This idea can range from a cozy ritual of making Christmas cookies with your family to the precise and almost constraining practice of a Japanese Tea Ceremony. In either case, the food is the central focus and the main reason for the ritual to take place.
Rituals that involve food are often interactive; they require effort from multiple individuals in order to perform the ritual properly. Because of this, each individual involved plays a particular role – thus helping to define their identity within the community. For example, in Japanese Tea Ceremonies, there is explicitly the host and the guests, who play different roles surrounding the tea and the small amount of food included in the ceremony. In addition, mastery of performing the ceremony and correctly making the tea “[constitutes] a process of self-realization” that is important to the practice of Zen Buddhism (Kondo, 1985, pg. 292) . By accomplishing this mastery, the participant of the Tea Ceremony can feel a greater understanding of him or herself. This same idea of self-realization, or a sense of identity within a community, can be found almost anywhere where food is a marker of an outstanding experience, from Japan to Burlington, VT.
When everyday or ritualistic foods are taken out of their original context, they are manipulated, taking on new interpretations. Not only does the movement of these foods manipulate their use and meaning, but it also impacts their ability to act as vehicles for identity. These manipulations and alterations can be seen within the culture of origin as well as the recipient culture. Globalization, in combination with other forces, has created a global food system that has advanced distribution capabilities and the rate at which foods change contexts; but understanding how these forces come into play can be challenging. Kayatzyna J. Cwiertka has produced a series of works focused on understanding these forces. Cwiertka proposes that “the ways new foods become distributed as luxuries, curiosities, necessities, or status enhancers are describe through the lens of modernization” (Cwiertka, 2008, pg. 409). The modernization of ritualistic and everyday foods is one lens that will help understand how the meanings of food change as they are distributed.
These processes can also be viewed in terms of nationalism. Expressions of culinary nationalism claim ownership of culture, convey authenticity, and even promote national identity. Contemporary work on Japanese food has highlighted one example of this expression. Rumi Sakamoto and Matthew Allen show how concepts related to nationalism and authenticity come together. They propose that the Japanese state uses sushi to mobilize their image of authenticity in order to increase sales of Japanese products overseas (Sakamoto and Allen, 2011, pg.1). This is just one interpretation of the manifestations of cuisines outside their sphere of origin. Countless other foods like spaghetti, croissants, dim sum, sashimi, and pho are now commonplace across the globe. These foods have unique histories related to their production, consumption, and ultimately how they are used as vehicles to express identity.
These themes of food sharing, the classifications of everyday vs. ritual foods, and the manifestation of cuisines outside of their sphere of origin will stand as our guiding principles as we students of anthropology delve into studying a diverse set of cultures. We seek to find how food retains its ability to act as a mechanism of identity and establishing cultural, ethnic, spiritual, and social belonging. We are taking our readers on a culinary journey of the globe, making stops in Mexico, Barcelona, Italy, and Vietnam– bon apetit!
Cwiertka, Katarzyna. “Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity” Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol. 34, No. 2 (Summer, 2008), pp. 406-410
Fox, Robin. “Food and Eating: An Anthropological Perspective.” Social Issues Research Centre. Ed. SIRC. SIRC, n.d. Web. 1 Oct. 2014. <http://www.sirc.org/publik/foxfood.pdf>.
Kondo, Dorinne. “The Way of Tea: A Symbolic Analysis.” Man 20.2 (1985): 287-306. JSTOR. Web. 2 Oct. 2014. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2802386>.
Kothari, Geeta. “If You Are What You Eat, Then What Am I?” The Kenyon Review 21.1 (1999): 6-14. JSTOR. Web. 2 Oct. 2014. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/4337801>.
Sakamoto, R. & Allen, M. 2011, ‘There’s something fishy about that sushi: How Japan interprets the global sushi boom’”. Japan Forum: the international journal of Japanese studies, vol. 23, no. 1, pp. 99-121.