What is Food?
Food is not only a basic part of biological life, but also lives at the core of culture. Since food is an essential part of life, and is uniquely expressed across different cultures, it can be used to better understand how different cultures interact and new food traditions.
Food is a powerful tool that can be used to track cultural changes and cultural expression of peoples. Regardless of origin, make, appearance, or even taste, food is a material culture that is at the heart of every culture. We study food to study people, it’s as simple as that.
Food is a product of people coming together to create new fusions of cultures. Gumbo is a great example of this phenomenon, where the inhabitance of different cultures in one place fuse together to create new things, like gumbo.
Why Study Food?
Why do anthropologists study foods? What can it tell us about cultures? Anthropologist Kenneth Guest explains why food is so important (click the video!)
Food: Cultural Expression
Food can be used to elevate cultures and enhance traditions. Since eating and cooking are communal acts, food is inherited and used to enrich cultural values of all people; and is practiced every day.
Thanksgiving is a holiday celebrated in the U.S., Canada, St. Lucia, Grenada, and Liberia. It’s a time when families come together to practice gratitude, appreciate harvest, and celebrate family. Typical foods served at dinner include turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberries, and pies.
Hanami is the Japanese holiday that occurs in the spring during which people picnic and observe the cherry blossoms in bloom. An obento is a traditional Japanese lunch that is usually prepared by a mother and placed in different boxes. Obento often contains rice balls, sweet omelets, fruits, and other lunch foods.
Iftar is a traditional meal of Ramadan, a Muslim holiday that asks its followers to fast throughout the day, be thankful for their families, and give back to their community. Ramadan is about a month-long celebration of Muslim faith and is accompanied by communal meals. Since the region is practiced all over the world, foods served at Iftar can vary, but is still practiced after each sunset during the holiday season.
Yet, food can be a double-edged sword. Since food in an essential part of life, it can be used to control people. An example of this phenomenon can be seen every day in America through the distribution and control of food stamps or SNAPS, the displacement of Native Americans from their indigenous lands, or even kids who rely on school meal plans during the COVID-19 pandemic. Food can be used to control certain populations and occurs daily.
Coca Cola in Mexico:
Coca Cola is one of the largest international companies that has dominated not only cultures, but cuisine. In Mexico, Coca Cola has become so encultured into Mexican cuisine that this country drinks more Coca Cola than any other country in the world. Because of the free market, there is little interference of larger governments to keep these companies in check. This is one of the ways that international companies are able control cultures.
Canned Foods in the U.S:
Canned foods are a cheap and accessible options for families of low-income status. Since they don’t expire as quickly as fresh foods, many food banks supply families in need with canned foods for food security. Since many of these families are minorities, who struggle in America as it is, they are forced to consume preserved food that is meant to sustain a long shelf life, not a healthy diet. This is one of the ways that American culture has pushed minority and low-income groups towards obesity and Type-2 Diabetes.
Food: Colonization & Assimilation
When food is used as power and to control cultures through colonization, assimilation occurs. This means that the cultures being colonized will adapt aspects of the colonizer’s culture, and this includes foodways.
There are two different types of assimilation: forced and voluntary.
It is typically forced assimilation that uses food to control people.
Is there an American cuisine? Many people would argue no, as there is no food in American that did not come from somewhere else (except for those foods that are traditional to Native Americans.) Because of this, Americans are always looking for new foods to consider ‘cuisine.’ Burgers and fries are not original to America (but shakes are!). But Americans have assimilated burgers and fries into their own. Why?
Food: Changing Cultures & Adapting to New Environments
Food is a paradox. It’s so mailable but withstands adversity. Food is a physical representation of cultural pride and tradition. When two cultures are brought together (intentionally or not), a new expression is born.
Immigrants in America look for substitutes for their traditional cuisine. While specialty markets have become increasingly frequent in larger cities and certain communities, many Americans aren’t as fortunate to have a local culturally appropriate market in their area.
Bánh Mì Sandwich:
Bánh mì is a Vietnamese staple. It’s a sandwich that is made on baguettes with different meats, cilantro, cucumbers, pickled carrots and daikon radishes, and mayonnaise.
This sandwich was already a creolized meal of both French and Vietnamese, but when Vietnamese immigrants came to the U.S. Many could not afford baguettes or find them at their local markets. So many of them began to use white bread in place of baguettes.
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2019 Coca-Cola’s Corporate Greed Is Leaving Mexicans Thirsty. Electronic document, https://www.coha.org/coca-colas-corporate-greed-is-leaving-mexicans-thirsty/, accessed May 14, 2021.
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Ferdman, Roberto A, and Matt Phillips
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accessed May 14, 2021.
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2020 Happy Canadian Thanksgiving! How the Country Celebrates the Holiday Differently From the U.S. Electronic image, https://www.newsweek.com/happy-canadian-thanksgiving-1538396, accessed May 14, 2021.
2020 How to Do Hanami? Electronic document, https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2011_how.html, accessed May 14, 2021.
2020 What is the Iftar (Breakfast) During Ramadan? Electronic image, https://www.learnreligions.com/the-ramadan-iftar-the-daily-breaking-of-fast-2004620, accessed May 14, 2021.
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Our Health Matters
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accessed May 14, 2021.
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