Food & Identity

what we eat tells  who we are

Let´s play a guessing game

What food do you think of when you think of:

England

Fish and chips?

Italy

Pizza or Pasta?

Spain

Paella or tapas?

Germany

Sauerkraut or Black Forest Gateaux?

USA

Hamburger or T-bone steak?

Japan

Sushi or Ramen noodles?

An illustration of cultural food identity

Today you have to be careful with these kinds of associations as some find it offensive to be labelled in that way. There have been so many shifts in the way we eat over the last few decades. Each nation has far more to offer, than what is listed above. What I am getting at though is that these every day and well-known dishes are nevertheless an illustration of cultural food identity. Even if the origins of an English cup of tea have a story behind them that goes around the world

A cup of tea comfort memories

When do we begin?

When do we begin to develope a food identity? Right from the beginning.

“Your first relationship as a human being is about food,” this is what Richard Wilk  an anthropology professor at the University of Indiana says.  Our first social food experience is apparently being given the bottle or being put to the breast. So, directly after birth. It continues with what went on in the kitchen and at the table as a child. Later the sources diversify: What do the people you know eat? What restaurants do you visit? What foods do you discover during the course of your travels?

Indian Cuisine

My mother and all her brothers and sisters had grown up on the Andaman Islands, later in southern India and were greatly influenced by this cuisine when they came to live in England in 1948. Whilst my mother embraced cooking and was a collector of many home cookery books, her go-to food for all seasons and situations was Indian.

 

Making a map

My daughter has a map of the world on the wall. She has put pins in all the places she has visited. Our food experiences also form a sort of map in our memory. We chalk up both good and bad experiences. The pins in the map are not just box-ticking: “Been there, done that” they are triggers for memories around our culinary experiences: Places, People, Scents…

 

Longing to belong

Geeta Kothari talks about this in her article: If you are what you eat, then who am I? She is the nonfiction editor at the Kenyon Review, and teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. She comes from India but grew up in America, and desperately wanted to eat American food and introduce this to her family, thinking that she would then be integrated and American.

 

Food and Integration

Do you find that a strange conception? I have to tell you: This was the way some American social workers in the early 1900s thought. Then, there was massive  influx of immigrants to the USA. One day a social worker went to visit an Italian family who had come to live in Boston. At first glance, they seemed to be well assimilated, looking at their home, how they embraced the American culture. But what he wrote down was “not yet assimilated” And why this assumption? They were still eating spaghetti! Which Illustrates a long-lasting belief in the connection between eating habits and identity.

The difference today

The difference to today is that people were supposed to discard their culinary past and assimilate by eating the food of their new home. These days our every day life is enriched by resaurants serving dishes from all around the world, and our supermarket shelves are stocked with ingredients that are considered less and less exotic, thanks to many of our telvision chefs. If we have friends or neighbours from other cultures, it is exciting to be invited to taste the food of their home countries. Or… is it really completely different today?

Not typical = not good?

A linguistic ethnographer from the University of Copenhagen, Martha Sif Karrebaek went to study the use of language in a Kindergarten in Denmark. (Linguistic ethnography is an umbrella term, but in a nutshell, it means research which combines linguistic and ethnographic approaches to understand how social and communicative processes function in different settings and backgrounds). Apart from this, she became interested in the role of food in this context. She was more than surprised when a teacher asked an immigrant student what he had in his lunchbox. The subtext was, if it wasn´t the typical Danish rye bread, it wasn’t any good.

My lunchbox

I remember that my lunchboxes rarely contained run-of-the-mill sandwiches. Because my mum was involved in the catering business several times, I often had leftovers, or samosas in my box, which did make me stand out then. Now it is common to take all sorts of food to school or work. But it obviously still rouses some people´s negative attention. My daughter loves to take substantial salads in a glass container to University or a sushi roll she has made herself. But then again university is a kind of melting pot. The convent school I went to was more traditional.

This link leads you to the story of how lunchboxes have changed since the 19th Century. The Lunch box

cultivating your culinary roots

Geeta at some point began to realize that she did not feel happy discarding her food roots, and began to cultivate them and learn about Indian food. It is only because many immigrants stay true to their cuisine that our national food culture evolves, and becomes enriched.

Maultaschen and pancakes

I can relate to this. When I came to Germany, I soaked up everything German and I learned to cook many German dishes or to be more precise Swabian specialties like “Spätzle” or “Maultaschen” (the Swabian version of ravioli). It took some time before I felt the need to make mince pies at Christmas, yorkshire puddings with roast beef, or a trifle. Since I have been married, food from home has played an ever-growing role in my kitchen. My husband is very partial to sausage rolls, my daughter likes pancakes with sugar and lemon juice.

What mothers do

One sentence of Geeta struck a particular chord with me: “I am my parents’ daughter. Like them, I expect knowledge to pass from me to my husband without one word of explanation or translation. I want him to know what I know, see what I see, without having to tell him exactly what it is. I want to believe that recipes never change.“

I always believed, one of the things mothers do is to teach their children to cook. Mine didn´t, perhaps she thought like Geeta’s parents. And I wonder if I do the same.

Let's Move

ignite a joyful spark

Kathleen Riley, who teaches linguistic anthropology at Rutgers University, USA, was involved in farm-to-school projects. The idea was making the food consumed in schools healthier. But what also came to attention were the messages given to children in connection with food. The quintessence seems to be if you tell people coming from different backgroundsthat what they are eating is no good, they understand and internalize that they are no good, that their values are not good enough. That is a method of stigmatizing people.

So, what do we take from that? If we want to give people the opportunity of eating more healthily, we need to talk about food with more appreciation, with reverence, respect it and all the work that went into what is on our plate. We need to ignite a joyful spark.

This became a mission of Michelle Obama, when she was first lady. She started the movement “Let´s move” to combat obesity in children. It had and still is having a great impact. In the UK Jamie Oliver started a scheme to improve school dinners and rekindled it in 2018 Jamie’s School Dinners.

Respect what nourishes you

What spring to mind are the rising statistics of eating disorders, and the obesity epidemic going on in most industrialized nations. But that isn´t what he means. He means that today people identify themselves with what they consume. Many are obsessed with telling you what is wrong with the food you are about to eat: Too fat, too much sugar, too many carbs, too highly processed, and so on. And all of that is often true. There is also the discrimination you may experience being a Vegan or Vegetarian. When you just belong to another group. But that is not what we need to be telling ourselves. We need to learn what kind of food does us individually good. Everyone is different, everyone has a different gut and a different digestion system and everyone associates different things with food. Above all, we need to eat good simple food and respect what we are nourishing ourselves with.

 

Say something nice

Talking nicely about food can be a challenging objective these days.

Paul Rozin, Ph.D. Professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and a pioneer in the study of why we eat the things we eat, says: “We are a society obsessed with the harmful effects of eating. We’ve managed to turn our feelings about making and eating food, one of our most basic, important, and meaningful pleasures, into ambivalence.”

 

Not such an effect

Is it true that embracing each other’s cultures in exchanging and modifying recipes brings us closer instead of dividing us? Yes, each culture developes culinary diversity in this way. Our shops hold a stock of food from varied ethnicities. However, that doesn´t seem to contribute to diminishing racism of which there is still so much evidence.

 

The destiny of nations...

The destiny of nations depends on the manner in which they feed themselves.

Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

April 1755-Februar 1826

 

The basis of our oldest memories

There are many studies about eating disorders, not so many about why people eat what they eat. Paul Rozin, who is one of the few researchers in this field, says that eating is the most basic interaction we have with the outside world, and the most intimate. That food itself is almost the physical embodiment of emotional and social forces: the object of our strongest desire; the basis of our oldest memories and earliest relationships.

food for the soul

Perhaps this is a little romanticized, but I was very moved by the way the Japanese revere their food, how they prepare it and how they eat it. This made an impact on me and these sentiments have followed my back into my own kitchen. (I am very much aware that there are disputable issues about the source of some foods in Japan). As Amy S. Choi, a first-generation Korean in America says: “Food feeds the soul.”

It´s on us

So, it is up to us, what we want to feed our soul with and what therefore makes us who we are.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

How does culture effect food?

The culture we live in, can for many reasons such as religious, geographical or traditional, influence the foods in our diet, how and when we prepare and eat them, and how we revere food alltogether.

What is food identity?

Food identity is formed, nurtured and modified from the cradle to the grave. It is intertwined with our cultural identity, which has an influence on what we eat and how we prepare our food. Our individual culinary experiences and personal exploration of different kitchens  contribute further to our food identity.

Why is tradtional food important

Our traditional food is composed of what is available where we are. Our adaption to where we live and how we are nourished, evolves over time. Indiginous people are used to eating the same foods over a long period of time. Changes in diet can have serious adverse effects on them. Ways of eating develope around these facts, so bringing a typical cuisine to another place, can cause problems. It therefore makes sense to adapt dishes to the availabilty of foods, herbs and spices in the place it is consumed. New traditions are created in this way.

What is multiculturalism and how does it effect food?

Idealy Multiculturalism describes a community wherein different cultures live aside one another, accept eachother and interchange parts of their culture. This can be the result of people from several countries migrating to one place. Or an Empire taking rule of many countries.  A typcial example of sharing culture is by sharing food. Australia, the USA and the UK are examples of multicultural societies. Migrants can adopt new food processes as part of their integration, but also maintain their traditional food practices which bonds them with the society they have left behind. Food culture evolves and developes in this way.

How does our food culture influence our health?

Because food cultures are deeply rooted in centuries of evolution we enter a kind of symbiosis with the land we live on and as long as we respect and revere what nourishes us, that is a healthy relationship. However, in recent years we have forgotten this and tend to view food as something that comes in tins and packages and can be controlled by us. To the greatest part without reverence. We don´t think about the food we eat, we just consume it. That is not healthy. If you look at the blue zones in the world, areas where, people live long, happy and simple lives, on thing they have in common is their reverence for food.

How can we rekindle a food culture for ourselves?

Take a look around you, what food is available where you are? What time of year is it, what is growing now. Which foods have a tradition for you? (Food memories). Respect the labour that goes into growing food, respect the creatures, contribute to them having a good life. Take time to cook and eat and be conscious of what you are doing.

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Sources:

Kothari, G. (o. J.). If You Are What You Eat, Then What Am I? Kenyon Review. Abgerufen 8. Juli 2020, von https://kenyonreview.org/journal/winter-1999/selections/geeta-kothari-656342/

Deliwala, S. (2019, April 10). Meet Professor Paul Rozin, the Guru of Food Psychology. 34th Street.

Choi, A. (2014, Dezember 18). What Americans can learn from other food cultures. Ideas.Ted.com. https://ideas.ted.com/what-americans-can-learn-from-other-food-cultures/

Brown, J. (2018, Dezember 21). The hidden significance of what we eat. Knowable Magazine. https://www.knowablemagazine.org/article/society/2018/what-we-talk-about-when-we-talk-about-food

 

Reddy, G. R. & van Dam, R. m. (2020, Juni 1). Food, culture, and identity in multicultural societies: Insights from Singapore. ScienceDirect. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666319311602
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Photo by Brian Patrick Tagalog on Unsplash