Food and cultural identity in anthropology: exploring their ways of shared relationship
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Food and cultural identity in anthropology: exploring their ways of shared relationship
According to (1995), food is an area where it is hard to accept other people's way of doing things. What people choose to eat is a matter of individual or personal choice (1994). Diet is of fundamental social importance. The traditional view of food as among the main ingredients of human survival, which is something to ingest to sustain life and nutrition, is not as simple as it is when it comes to anthropological conventions. Anthropologists believe that food is never “just food”. For them, food reflects identity that constitutes a particular society and its underlying features. In general, food serves as an individual and cultural identity by playing as vital element in individual local, regional, national culture, its symbolic value and identity.
Food as a symbol
This is perhaps the most evident way in which food connects with individual and cultural identity. Food as a basic need, as every person needs to eat, what people eat becomes a most powerful symbol of what they are (2003). Food is a cultural symbol ( 2004; 1995). It reflects what constitute a certain distinctiveness of a person or community. Accordingly, food is one of the most primary cultural traits that every person learn first in early age and among the hardest thing that is subjected to change in older age (2005; 1998). There have been numerous examples in which food appears as a distinct and important symbol and based on various determinants such as economy, history, social connection, religion, demography, consumption, migration, and many others. For instance, the line divides Europe when it comes to food (1995 ). The Northern communities and their citizens drink beer, cook their food in animal fat, and there are ample dairy products. The opposite, that is, Southern communities and their inhabitants drink wine, cook food in olive oil, and milk and butter are not central features of the diet. This quality can establish a certain identity of whom or what kind of people are they when it comes to the classification of food, its preparations, and overall nature.
Economy serves as an important feature of food culture among communities. Practically, the richer the economy, the more diverse the assortment of food in relation to types, costs, etc. and vice versa. Situating food and eating identity in the economic and cultural environments of which they are a part is important (1994). Developed countries are able to sustain the food supply and consumption their population. Thus, there is no shortage or at any rate, they are able to give what is due to their people. For poor countries where famine is experienced, the food culture is greatly different. For example, Americans are always on-the-go as they work maximum of eight (8) hours a day. They have no time to cook their food and they have the money to purchase from stores (or pay someone to cook for them). The presence of numerous fast-food chains compensates this limitation. Americans eat ready-to-go, instant, and convenient food in their hectic days. For example, the brand McDonalds becomes a symbol of America not only on food culture but also on the economic underpinnings of this international business giant. Poor economies rely on the natural resources when it comes to their food. Africans form Sub-Saharan region symbolizes how food is highly needed but scarce. They eat almost anything that they could have or perceived to be edible just to serve the needs of nutrition. People from these regions fail to do such, death due to malnutrition, illness, or state of famine is expected. The symbol of food in the provided examples is the opposites. It could be said that food in modern economies are better than in poorer to poorest societies. Economic constraints are also a vital consideration.
In popular history, food is an essential feature. (1989) has established that lifestyles have seen many changes over the post-war years, and these are reflected in numerous ways in food and its consumption habits. The invasion of various nationalities affected the history of food. It could be said that colonization contributed a lot on the food development of a specific region. For instance, most of Oriental traditions of food like that of the Philippines is an amalgamation of Oriental features such as Spanish and American. Food is a marker of identity of many different levels (1994). To directly quote:
Countries are commonly characterized by one or two dishes which are regarded as emblems of the nation in the same way as the national flag. What is highly regarded in one country may be seen as inedible and vilified in another. Within countries there are regional specialities which may also distinguish one group of people from another. (turnips) are seen as intrinsically Scottish while jellied eels could only characterize cockney (1994).
From here, the identity of food in terms of historical background of a country is clearly manifested. Whatever type of food that serves as national symbol, this provides an individual and cultural identity of the people who consume or eat such. Food comes to represent a certain area and through their consumption, people establish an identity in which categorized as pride in its history.
In terms of religion, Islam may serve an excellent example on their food culture. It is generalized that all Muslims follow the teachings of the Koran particularly on its specified number of food rules (1994). Accordingly, the Koran permits Muslims to consume any animal with a cloven hoof, which does not include pigs, carnivorous animals and birds (except chicken). They are also mandated to abstain from alcohol intake. The most compelling way in which food serve as a symbol on this case in relation to religion is during Ramadan. Ramadan is characterized with fasting months wherein all Muslims regardless of demographical profiles are expected to fast from sunrise to sunset without any food or drink to take in (1994). This practice is also common to other religions (e.g. Hinduism, Christian sects) yet the Muslim’s identity on this case is more distinct than the others. The situations or examples presented above lead to the immediate acknowledgement and realization that when a person fast or does not eat haram (forbidden foods) is a Muslim. This is a normal reaction that certainly qualifies the role of food as a symbol or special feature of their religious bearing.
In terms of food consumption, food serves as a symbol when it dictates what type of food is to be consumed by certain group of people. According to (2005), there are many factors that play a specific role in food consumption decisions as well as on the decisions towards trying a new or unfamiliar food items. Among the identified factors is classified as product-specific, situational and individual factors. Food from our families, our childhood, our homeland, our first foreign holiday, is permanently fixed for us as special. Our beliefs about food are usually unexamined and buried deep within ourselves (1995). The creation of a common identity through meal-sharing and consumption is seen as important to family unity. The ways in which foods are eaten in various nationalities signified unconscious attributes and qualities. Such are reflected to common cultures that proliferate all throughout generations.
Food also carried its symbolic messages out from colonial invaders in the past and with tourists today. Migration is a very influential factor. Food has been argued to be among the last of the items to be changed or adopted after migration (1998;1992; 1983). Take the case of Hong Kong as an international cosmopolitan city, food are of extensive variety. Hong Kong, where one can find a different restaurant at every corner of the street, dining out in restaurants has become important for social and business occasions, or even daily routine for a lot of people. Today tourists carry food symbolism with them across nations. For specific cases, hotels in Cyprus offer a breakfast buffet of cheese and ham for the Scandinavians, Germans and Dutch, Spanish resorts serve tea with cow's milk in it for British people; and British hotels offer 'hash browns' at breakfast for the Americans (1995). Food and individual and cultural identity is symbolized by the mere physical description of food. Even if one does not know the taste of such food, he/she can certainly tell where this food came from using associations or common knowledge based on smell, preparation or nature of ingredients.
All societies have different perceptions and norms associated with their food (1998). In conclusion, it is established that food is connected to individual and cultural identity by means of symbol. By looking on the previous examples, it is deemed that food defines individual and cultural identity based on factors such as economy, history, religion, food consumption, migration, and others. What matter now is how foods are presented based on established traditions of given population and cultural considerations.