Food and Culture: Interconnections

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Date: Spring 1999
From: Social Research(Vol. 66, Issue 1)
Publisher: New School for Social Research
Document Type: Article
Length: 5,164 words

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Introduction and acceptance of a non-native food will impact the culture that adopts it. The culture will either alter a previous attitude toward consumption and eating behaviors, and/or it will need to raise, grow or import the non-native foodstuff. New industries will arise from these activities, generating new social structures.

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The Spanish love naughty children. An advertising ploy that must sell products in Spain--since you see it so often on Spanish television and elsewhere--is the small drama where children trick their parents into giving them the objects in question. The conceit shows adoration of the young of course. It also exploits a wistful hope for the future: future generations (my progeny at least) are smarter, brighter, and much more modern than we are. We long for them to outstrip us, we are delighted to watch them do so. Children thus become the point of entry for a wide range of modern products.

At the moment, children are being targeted on Spanish television in a campaign to promote Kellogg's Corn Flakes[R]. The Spanish diet, however, almost never involves drinking milk straight. Corn flakes have had a hard time breaking into the Spanish market, largely because they are normally eaten with milk poured over them: this is a food invented by a culture where milk-drinking has been traditionally central to the diet. But milk has a very special, carefully circumscribed niche in Spanish culture. It is not a staple food, and neither, indeed, is butter: olive oil is the cooking medium. A staple food is, of course, fundamental to the civilization that cultivates it and what is not eaten is as important, from a cultural point of view, as what is. Lately, too, the Spanish have been bombarded--I counted nine ads in the course of one lunch-time television show--by advertisements selling Jell-O[TM]. We see, over and over, an adorable, naughty little girl sucking up her Jell-O[TM] directly from her plate. "No fat," the voiceover intones. "And you will be providing your children with FRESH FRUIT!" Spain is one of the word's great growers of fruit; the availability of the real thing is an important ingredient in Spain's cultural riches.

Let us now move to North-West Africa.

There is an area in the far north-east of Burkina Faso that is cut off from the rest of the country by sand dunes. Sometime during the 1930s, a tired bureaucrat, drawing the border between Mali and Burkina Faso (then Upper Volta), seems to have jogged his pencil by mistake, and left this area hemmed in between the dunes and the frontier. To this day it remains out of sight, hard to get to, easily forgotten. The inhabitants of this place, Ti'n Akoff, are ex-slaves. In 1984, slavery was declared illegal in Burkina Faso, and the slave-owners of the Bellah tribes, the Tuareg, were forced into exile in Mali. The Bellah were left behind at Ti'n Akoff left, in effect, to die of starvation. Nobody "followed through" when this ancient and complex slave culture was destroyed. Nobody thought about how the Bellah (or, indeed, the Tuareg) would live after the law, promulgated from without, had wiped out their way of life.

The Touareg and their slaves, the Bellah, had been desert nomads, who lived off the milk of their flocks, and farmed millet, planting it by the Beli riverbank and harvesting it each year after its brief growing season. When the dry weather set in, the tribe would move on, the masters riding camels, the slaves driving the flocks, to oasis after oasis in search of water and grass. When the antislavery law was passed, these people were already in trouble. As the desert advanced across the Sahel, the oases had begun to dry up. Moreover, Burkina Faso and Mali reinforced their boundaries. You could not go any longer in search of water, if there was a manmade boundary between yourself and it. In addition, water-filled oases became fewer and increased distances between them made it difficult to reach one before endurance ran out. So the tribe was forced to settle, to give up their nomadic lifestyle. People starved to death every year when the dry season came. The total dislocation of social structures made the situation apparently hopeless.

In 1989, Roger and Jacqueline Cousin, a married French couple in their fifties, went to live with this tribe. They taught the people a banking system for their millet harvest. Members banked any surplus millet, stowed it away, and when the dry season came they could withdraw their supply. The women were given charge of the millet bank. Next, the French couple taught them about the growth and use of vegetables as part of their diet. They introduced tomatoes, carrots, spinach, and eggplants. Irrigation methods, according to the system elaborated by the remarkable Arab agronomist Pierre Rabbi, made it possible to grow vegetables even when there was no rain. The Bellah had been accustomed to eating dried baobab leaves or milk as a sauce for their millet. Homegrown vegetables now constitute the sauce, and the flocks count for less in the food system. The Bellah now feed themselves regularly and well, and are almost entirely self-sufficient as far as food is concerned. They are considered a model of how a disaster can be turned round with almost no foreign money, and only an influx of the information they needed to help themselves. They had settled down--and therefore their diet had to change. Conversely, eating differently has made it possible for them to live differently. A mini agricultural revolution has taken place (Cousin, 1989-1998).

My point is that food is closely interwoven with culture--change the diet and you will change the culture, and vice versa. If Spain adopts Jell-O[TM] or corn flakes, then its culture must shift to accommodate them. And at Ti'n Akoff, living a sedentary life entails farming, and eating vegetables. A change of culture has meant a change in diet.

Change in itself, of course, is neither good nor bad--it is simply change. But one must ask oneself: What is the direction of change and what is being replaced? Who stands to benefit? And who loses? It is entirely possible for a change in culture, a change of diet, to be manipulated for the short-term benefit of a few, and the long-term deprivation of everybody--even, in the end, of those who thought to benefit from it.

Margarine was invented in 1869. Its growing challenge to the use of butter in North America and in the colonial powers of Western Europe accompanied massive change in the way marketing--not just food marketing--operated. Indeed, the adoption of margarine as a butter substitute should be considered one of the very first steps toward what is now called economic globalization. What happened was that people in the tropics (where oil-bearing plants grow) began to produce the fat for margarine, at a low, low price. These countries adapted themselves to the growing of food--for other people to eat.

Margarine, where it was eaten, would be cheaper than butter, not only because cattle-farmers were in a position to demand more for their milk, but also because it became routine to render seed-oils tasteless by chemical means and then flavor them to taste like butter. This created a buyer's market: any oil would do. An oil that cost more was simply not bought. Margarine could have been made to taste like anything on earth, but it had, because of Northern tradition and cultural preference, to taste like butter. At the same time, the butter substitute was technology personified. It both symbolized and fueled an early version of transnational marketing, with all the power in the hands of those with the money.

When foodways change, the culture also changes, in ways that food expresses and can also help to further. In the West, the ongoing rise of vegetarianism reflects the preeminence of individual health consciousness in our value system. It represents, and also presses for, all kinds of moral concerns as well--for ecology, for justice (vegetable-growing being far more economical than meat production, allowing more people to be fed with less pressure on resources). Vegetarianism is still nonconformity--although many studies predict that it could soon become mainstream. Dieting, and a change of taste downwards, from richness and fillingness to a preference for lighter, less fatty chicken and fish and salads, are responses to huge social changes. These changes derive in part from women entering the workforce, so that they have less time to cook. There is also the Western tendency to prefer women that are honed and young, with cutting-edge, narrow, more masculine shapes. The sedentary nature of modern work, and the ever-decreasing prestige allotted to manual labor, result in different attitudes toward food. Ours are also the tastes of an aging population--so many more people than formerly not even wanting to ingest animal protein and fat to fuel and compensate physical exercise.

When people accept new foods, they do so most readily when their culture already has a place for them. For example, in Italy spaghetti waited patiently for the arrival of a sour and copiously juicy berry, preferably red--and enthusiastically embraced the tomato when it came. Elsewhere in Europe and in North America, people were generally more circumspect, lacking as they did a culinary space for it; they treated the tomato as potential poison. Italians, with the their need for spaghetti sauce, proved much more spontaneous and courageous about accepting the terrifying new fruit.

A foodstuff will be seized upon because it can fill a role: it may satisfy not only bodily appetites and gourmet desires, but social needs as well. The United States quite recently entered upon a love-affair with the taste of hot chili. This was, culinarily speaking, a momentous change--the U.S. had always been famous for a love of the bland. It was accused of harboring essentially infantile tastes: nothing too different, nothing too strong. The reasons were said to be owing to its democratic impulses--that is to say, with its great mixture of cultures and mass marketing, you wanted a product that everybody could like, where you did not need cultural conditioning before the food could be considered edible. And the stress of modern life, of constant change, it was thought, was enough--you didn't want to be jazzed up at meals. You wanted to relax over dinner, with predictable, easy tastes. It is not for nothing that the American breakfast was, and still is, universally admired: the meal where nobody wants surprises, where everybody tends to regress toward childhood. But what happened? Who could ever have predicted that Americans would suddenly become eaters of chili peppers?

Then you realize that chili peppers provide flavor easily, quickly, and indisputably. And plain hot is always that--always hot. It can get away with being always the same. I am not saying, of course, that ancient chili-based cuisines are narrow or crude. They are far from it. Fast food laced with chili is something very different. Once the barriers are lowered, once people get used to hot sauces, picante food becomes addictive. If chili is used straight, and simply, it requires no culinary skill. Cooks and servers can produce the flavor quickly, predictably, and without profound learning. They can then be remunerated accordingly. So chili use fits--it is addictive, simple, obvious, cheap--different from everything else, but always the same.

Another legendary success was the adoption, by the modern world, of chocolate. Admittedly, the substance had to be manipulated and shaped into sweetened edible bars before it could fit its slot. Chocolate was originally a bitter, nutritious, hot drink. Its role in this guise has diminished, but chocolate bars and chocolates in boxes, once perfected, have become indispensable constituents of the social fabric. They have been designated as almost unerringly acceptable "treats," expensive but normally affordable, always available, dependably pleasing, sweet but naughty because they break the difficult slimness rule. For example, chocolate bars have enabled the British to continue to eat as they do: they can be eaten on the run, they fill in the gaps, they make it possible to eat dull food and then treat yourself, on a regular basis. Boxes of chocolates are gifts with a romantic aura, since chocolates are dark, wicked, delicious, with exciting fillings, and packed in a creative box. And not only that--you eat them up, and the gift is gone. It doesn't hang around, creating obligations, reminding you ... A box of chocolates doesn't last, which is a highly desirable attribute in most romances.

If we consider modern, and postmodern, North American culture, how does food symbolize it, express it, help us to understand it? Consumerism itself is, of course, a word that comes from the idea of eating. Modern economists love the food metaphor for buying stuff. You eat three times a day, and your appetite renews in time for every meal. The obliging unendingness of the desire for food is then thought of as applying to all the things we buy--as though cars, CDs, and handbags disappear down our gullets so that we perpetually need more of them.

We have selected variety and flexibility as values that are all but absolute. And we find them in the way food is produced, transported, and marketed: we eat everything all year round from everywhere, and it is all laid out in the supermarket for us to browse through. There are modes and fashions of food, standing for and encouraging the feeling of freedom of choice. (We are seldom made aware of the extent to which each of us does not choose: of how dependent we are on the pre-choice of the store's buyers, on marketing and shelf-life, and on statistical research that shows what foods most people would probably buy.)

It is individualism, we are told, that lies behind the drop in commensality. People are said to find it irksome, a curtailment of their freedom, to have to appear at some person's house on a certain date to eat with them, and even to have to be at their own home at a certain time. The irksomeness is of course a function of the pressure of time. Time is the medium through which we are all controlled in this culture, much as honor and shame govern behavior in other cultures, and once governed our own. Whenever we eat, or make a date to meet someone over a meal, we quite normally feel time-related pressures, because meals have always been--nothing has changed here--an essential medium for social sharing and relationship. And time in this culture is always a principle of measurement in the distribution of social commitments.

Then again food, like so much in modern culture, is often a matter of efficiency and an expression of technological know-how. People see food as fuel, to be ingested with dispatch so as to make time for something else. Scientific and business expertise have served the rich nations well. Food is never in short supply anymore, among us. We can count on having something to eat on hand, anytime. That problem having been solved, however, scientists are turning to our own particular nausea: disgust with our own fat, the result of too much gorging and too little physical exercise. We want to have our cake and eat it--or, rather, eat it without having to be fed by it. So we get analog foods--foods that give us the pleasurable sensations of eating, but which then ingeniously trick our bodies into thinking, "This is not food!" and passing it on and out, unrecognized. And so we can fulfil two of the culture's imperious but contradictory demands: maintain both self-indulgence and health. "Eat, eat, eat, but stay thin, thin, thin."

Postmodernism, another face of recent culture (I cannot call it "modern" in this context), of course achieves dramatic expression in the food we eat. The unrestricted desire that is central to postmodernism makes food symbolism irresistible. We eat postmodernily when we insist on having whatever is not normal or ordinary; creating nouvelle cuisine; grazing on a hundred ethnic cuisines; decorating our plates with vertical food structures; being playful and witty with our food: eating escalopes, but of salmon not veal; or slicing things thinly, covering them with thin sauce, then eating thinness--several expensive plates of thinness, it may be, to make up a meal. This is food as literature. At the same time, literature itself, including drama and the movies, increasingly describe, even discourse at length upon, food. Whole novels are written with food as their main content, their driving force, their passion. One begins to wonder which came first--all this symbolic food, or the condition of being called "postmodern"?

For novelty-craving postmodernism, despite its high moral tone, is in fact a wonderful marketing milieu. In France, there is a whole new range of products, marketed under the name "Reflets de France," Reflections (a favorite postmodern word) of France. Traditional French food is sold to French people with solemn ardor--everything from lentils to wine gums--as though it were "other," and strange. You can eat French food in France as part of a smorgasbord of cuisines. Is not the past, like everybody else's cuisine, merely a style, to be chosen from a range of possibilities, as from a sort of huge buffet or a supermarket shelf?. Here, in your own country, from your own terroir, your own food is a mere "reflection" of itself. No postmodernist could ask for greater alienation, a greater subtlety, a greater complexity of relationship between self and other---or rather, self as other.

In the increasingly relentless hunt for health, one thing you can do is survey the world for a healthy culture, and then elect to eat that culture's food. Of course, you are dependent upon scientists to tell you whose food system is healthiest, and it does rather turn out to be precisely that cuisine where the marketing mechanisms have the edge. No doubt olive oil producers have a great deal to gain from the powerful properties of monounsaturatedness, just as margarine had a field day when cholesterol in butter was scientifically denounced. Modern North Americans have recently learned to be terrified by fat, any fat at all. Olive oil may be expensive, but, we are told, although it's an oil it is one that's good for us. Research showing lower heart attack levels in cultures that drink red wine--good red wine, mind you, not the cheap stuff--must also have been received with pleasure by the wine industry.

Some time ago well-informed Americans took up the Mediterranean Diet, replete with health-giving virtues--of extra virgin olive oil; of fresh, often raw or nearly raw vegetables; of fizzy mineral water; of more fish, less meat. The famous Mediterranean Diet, however, delicious as it so often is, is in many important ways an American, not a Mediterranean, phenomenon. Take for instance those raw, or almost-raw, vegetables. Actually, it's been my experience that on home ground Italians (and North Americans have been conditioned, in the interest again of certain financial interests, to think of Italians as the paragons of what it is to be "Mediterranean") tend to cook their vegetables to a pulp.

The Diet Pyramid shows hardly any red meat being eaten: the Mediterranean Diet is being sold as readily fitting into another great modern and northern trend, which is vegetarianism. Where the actual Mediterranean is concerned, however, visit any Barcelona market and you will discover that people in the largest Mediterranean city are perfectly happy to consume substantial quantities of red meat. Mediterranean people eat plenty of eggs. But well-informed middle-class people in modern northern food environments, the consumers of the "reflection" of a Mediterranean Diet, having turned against eggs, are made to feel that fewer eggs are eaten by Mediterranean people. The brilliantly marketed Mediterranean Diet is often skillfully bent, in other words, to fit mainly North American and British needs and fears--the perception of those needs and fears having first been orchestrated and enhanced by ingenious advertising linked to supply systems.

In opting for a Mediterranean Diet, people are often trying to eat the culture from which that diet sprang. Mediterranean people can seem, to the wistful eyes of many northerners, to live not only healthy but happy lives. And of course, because we live in the modern world, where we are consumers before we are citizens, our longing to be like these people is immediately packaged and sold to us. The Mediterranean Diet has done a great deal to improve the taste of everybody's food--in the end, it may improve the diet in the Mediterranean itself. However, eating another culture's diet does not give you the rest of that culture. You can borrow if you like, but the consequences of the act of borrowing are your own to deal with, if you can.

The food eaten, then, fits the culture; it carries out functions that go beyond the need for nutrition. People have to be fed, but a new food may feed them differently, and may feed them more poorly, in order to make time or space for other things--things the culture, or those who have exceptional power, have set as the most important goals.

Sidney Mintz has shown us how sugar, from the 17th to the 19th centuries, not only fueled the slave trade on the production end, but also provided cheap quick energy for the working classes in Britain, as that society underwent industrialization (Mintz, 1985). The British worker's diet was remade, which meant that time could be reallocated, the nature of work could change, and the meaning of leisure then had to be altered too. The power of food in culture moved in conjunction with time--that is, with the way a particular society structured the time lived by each of its members.

Sugar was not a good nutritional answer to the maintenance of a labor force, as Mintz points out, but it made economic sense--for those who stood to make the money, of course. It was deemed to be (that sacred modern word) efficient. And still the British consume sugar by the load: in candy, chocolate bars, biscuits (cookies), and tea. Dried cod played a similar role to that of sugar in the same chain of commerce. Extra-cheap Newfoundland cod fed the slaves that grew and cut the sugar that energized the workers that worked the machines that bought the Empire the British built. And still, like an imprint left behind when history has marched on, the peoples of the Caribbean keep salt cod as part of their distinctive cuisine.

In the cases of sugar and salt cod, and with the passing of time, it has become possible for us to see the central role of these two foods in the cultures of at least four areas--Britain, Newfoundland, the Caribbean, and West Africa. We could add North America, which consumed not only some of the sugar but also some of the rum that was a spin-off from the sugar trade. The point is that behind this apparently fatal chain of commerce was conscious design. Sugar and cod and rum were manipulated, for the making of money. Enormous numbers of people were compelled along the path of change. They were not helped; in no sense was their happiness the point. They were forced.

Anthropologists today still prefer to study peasant cultures. Anthropologists are often attractive folk, full of empathy for their subjects; they really do try to understand people. They even seem to love their subjects. Is this why they ignore modern manipulation, which so often places peasant societies in danger of dying out? Sociologists, on the other hand, say they prefer to study us rather than exotic tribes. They count us. They look at our tastes, our trends and contexts, and attempt to account for them. But they also seem to avert their gaze from the powerful. They don't count them. They tend not to investigate the hows and whys of the massive manipulations that even we (the counted) know are taking place. In French there is a word for scientists who look only at what they are directed, and funded, by the powerful, to look at. Scientists whose research is funneled and fitted eventually to assist financial interests are called savants "de service: Until many more anthropologists and sociologists find the courage to look impartially upward as well as downward, and explain to us the sociology and the anthropology of people at the hubs of power, as well as the structures of survival on the margins and beyond, they cannot consider themselves to be more than useful scouts for the people with the bulldozers.

A change in diet, then, not only reflects, but can actually cause a change in culture. In Spain today, for example, teenaged boys feel they can stop and admire babies on the street. A restaurant table may be surrounded by aunts, uncles, children, parents, and grandparents. Old people commonly live at home and lead full and useful, highly social and respected lives. It's the grannies, very often, who cook for the family. They are the people in the Barcelona food markets, watching with beady eyes as the fish is weighed and expertly cut, lining up when the special melons arrive, swapping recipes, asking how the mushrooms in the mountains are coming on.

But in Spain fast food and ready-prepared food stand about loudly and impatiently, waiting to take over. Each of these clearly-defined products, complete with packaging, comes hallowed with the prestige of the modern world. The necessity of accommodating them is hammered into people's heads through expensive and constantly repeated ads on television. Granny's cooking, in other words, is made to look distinctly un-chic. It's slow food, unwrapped, unadvertised, and merely Spanish. You need the TV products, a thousand messages assure you, in order to convince yourself that you are moving with the times, just as you must wear T-shirts with English words on them (no matter what the words actually say), and a baseball cap on backwards. The result of "wearing" modernity makes the young mark themselves off from the old; "eating" modernity means that Granny simply ceases to look wise. So far, homes for the aged are unpopular in Spanish society. But they're in the pipeline all right, pausing merely until the hamburger, the pizza, and the corn flakes (among other factors) have cleared the ground.

Jell-O[TM], in Spain, still faces a rival in fresh fruit. Corn flakes have yet to smash the milk barrier. In other words, means and methods of production in Spain have yet to be conquered, either by a fundamental cultural upheaval, or by a deliberately created necessity of importing, for instance, milk from abroad. Other countries in our century have seen their cultures, including their food systems, crushed by wars and political changes, and sheer dire want. When order is restored, new foods can flood in, unimpeded. We should remember that a food that played a major tragic role in a people's history, the Irish potato, found its way in by a breach in the culture arising from land confiscation by the British, and because of war. Potatoes are better than bread grains in a war. They grow underground for one thing, and are less likely to be flattened or burned by armies. They can be boiled and served at once and need no threshing, grinding, milling, and kneading. Everyone could survive--couldn't they?--living on potatoes. And the great potato famine also ravaged a population that lived without alternative food resources.

Of course, the introduction into many societies of foods previously unknown has, time and again, as we have seen in the case of the Bellah in Burkina Faso, offered people greater chances of survival. They have also provided enormous cultural enrichment. Starting in the sixteenth century, the new vegetables from America changed food cultures, and with them social arrangements, around the globe. It has become almost impossible to imagine Spain without red peppers, Hungary without paprika, Italy or Rumania or Zambia without cornmeal. What is the difference then, between destruction and creativity when it comes to food politics? It rides, very broadly, upon motive. It is about how foods are introduced, and that has everything to do with why. And the introduction of a food can have consequences that are very difficult to predict.

A change of diet will change the culture. Introduce hamburgers into China, and you will, among other things, compel the Chinese to import meat (they would not have enough land to raise the huge cattle herds necessary for all of them to eat ground beef), and some other part of the world will have to give itself up to supporting what might seem an innocent new food choice. It's been done before; our century has specialized in such devastating adaptations. The Chinese will also start eating alone more, and probably eat less variety. These are very crude hunches about what might happen. Much more is certain to take place, the interactions between food and culture being such an extremely complex matter. All that can be said for certain is that Chinese culture will certainly not receive hamburgers into its food system and remain unscathed. We cannot predict how it will change. The Chinese will not become Americans by eating their food, even though eating a hamburger is for anyone eating a symbol of the modern.

Food change can be an enrichment. It can mean increased security, pleasurable discovery, a broadening of horizons. It can also act as a battering ram, destroying cultural patterns with unforeseeable consequences. It can be a painless but deadly insertion of a knife into the heart of a society. Those who have the power to move food around the world have power over life and death. And even what appears to be life can, in fact, be an insidious masquerade. Where food is concerned, we can never relax, never let down our guard. Each of us knows instinctively that whenever we take a bite we are also taking a risk. This natural wariness about what we eat we must now, given the scope of modernity's power, bring to bear upon all of our thinking about food. We have to watch not only where food comes from, how it is produced and sold, what it costs in every sense, and where it goes; we should also interrogate it ceaselessly for what it can tell us about ourselves and how we behave.


Cousin, Jacqueline, Reports from Ti'n Akoff, 1989-1998. The reports are unpublished, but copies are available from "Solidarite Ti'n Akoff," Villeneuve, 04180 France.

Mintz, Sidney W., Sweetness and Power. The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Viking Penguin, 1985).

Margaret Visser, a popular food historian worldwide, is the author of such books as The Way We Are (1997), The Rituals of Dinner (1991), and Much Depends on Dinner (1989), winner of the 1990 Glenfiddich Award in Britain for the Food Book of the Year. Her six-part series on everyday life in six European cities was broadcast by BBC Radio Four in early 1998.

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