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In this lesson, we’ll talk about connections among food, culture, and society.

Food is important for our nutrition, but it also has important cultural and symbolic meanings that make it more than what’s on our plates.

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Food, Culture, and Society

Do you have childhood memories of eating a favorite food? Maybe you remember how you eagerly anticipated ending each holiday meal with your grandmother’s sensational strawberry shortcake? Or how your Dad made Saturday mornings extra special by serving up his famous chocolate chip pancakes? If you stop and think about it, you probably associate some of your favorite foods with family memories.Food is clearly important for nutrition, but it’s also meaningful to humans in other ways. Think about it: we’re the only mammals that cook our food.

This makes our consumption of nutrients much different.Culturally speaking, food is very important. Food can be nostalgic and provide important connections to our family or our nation. Food can be a bridge that helps immigrants find their place in a new society.

Food can have a number of different meanings that might not be immediate to us when, for example, we take our first bite of our favorite dinner.In this lesson, we’ll talk about some of the ways in which food, culture, and society are connected.

Food and World Cultures

Think of the expression, to break bread with someone. This is referring to the way that food brings people together and is important in our relationships.Anthropologist Margaret Mead famously wrote about how food is for gifting.

What Mead meant by this is that food provides us with something more symbolic than simply nutrition (though that’s certainly important). Food is meant to be exchanged and shared with family and friends. Let’s look at how food and culture relate.

Cultural Heritage

Food provides an important link to our cultural heritage. Imagine an Italian grandmother who immigrated to the United States and is teaching her grandchildren, who have never been to Italy, how to make an authentic Italian meal. This is an important experience in maintaining connections to one’s cultural heritage.Food also has been used in less positive ways.

For example, during periods of colonialism in Africa and other parts of the world, colonizers used food as a way to erase local cultures and incorporate local peoples into European systems of domination.So, when you order from an Indian restaurant, you might not be eating something that is authentically Indian. Instead, it might be a dish that was introduced by British colonizers (chicken tikka masala is one example).

Habits

Cultures also differ in the types of habits they associate with food. For example, in some cultures, it is common to eat with your hands. In other places, however, this is considered rude. Or, at the very least, you’ll get some odd looks from your dinner companions.

Sometimes, finishing all of the food on your plate is considered polite, whereas in other contexts, it signals to your host that he or she did not feed you enough.

Religion and Ritual

Food is also tied to religion and ritual. In some religions, such as Hinduism, followers generally avoid eating meat, particularly cows, since they are considered sacred animals by many Hindu sects. Food can help us feel like we’re part of a bigger group or that we have a special link to a particular community, like a religious group.

Everything, from a tribe in Papua New Guinea roasting pigs for a ceremony to an American child celebrating his birthday with a frosted cake, points to the importance of food for our rituals.The anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss once observed that we save our fanciest food items for special occasions. He suggested that this is in part because we like to use food to impress other people. So, you probably won’t break out the caviar by yourself for a weekday lunch, but you might for a Saturday evening dinner party!

Globalization

Certain foods also have global reach. Think of McDonald’s; this chain is now located in nearly every country of the world! Globalization, or the social, economic, and cultural phenomenon that bridges vastly different places, also involves food.

Different dishes find their way around the world thanks to technology and the rapid transfer of information, goods, and services.

Food and Society

Food also tells us important things about the society in which we live. One important relationship is that between food and social class. Think about the types of restaurants where you can afford to eat, compared to those frequented by a friend who earns more money. Or, go all the way back to your grade school days and remember the differences in quality and quantity of the meals eaten by those at your lunch table.

In some places, the availability of foods is taken for granted. A large portion of the world’s population lives without enough to eat. Studies show that people of lower socioeconomic status eat more poorly than those who have more economic resources.

Lesson Summary

In this lesson, we’ve gone over some of the important connections among food, culture, and society. Food is an important part of cultural heritage and national identity. It can connect us to people and places, bringing friends and families together, and food habits, such as whether you should eat all of the food on your plate vary across the globe.Food also can tells us a lot about social class and someone’s social standing within a larger community.

For example, how much food do you have access to? And, can you afford to eat at restaurants? These are links between food and society.

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