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What do we talk about when we talk about … Food and eating?

Food and eating were always fascinating topics of research in Anthropology but they became more significant at the beginning of the 19th century. Food and eating are the essence of our lives. We all need to eat in order to survive but the way we eat, the quantity and quality of food, the way people think of food, who eats, where and when people eat are all related to cultural differences.

Food and eating teach us a lot about the culture and the society wherein customs have developed. In this article I aim to present a short introduction where I exhibit different approaches to food in different cultures:

Food defines what is pure and what is impure. Let’s think about the notion of Kosher or Halal as religious regulations. When culture defines certain animals as right to be consumed by humans and others as not, culture basically defines the identity of a person who is willing to follow these rules. It also identifies the person as belonging to one specific group and determines who does not belong to this group. Furthermore, religious restrictions could create social boundaries. For example, when people keep strict religion restrictions, such as eating only Kosher food, they will limit their social contacts with people who share the same way of life because they will not be able to eat other people’s cooking outside of their home.

As mentioned above, food is associated with creating social boundaries. Eating together is an intimate act. Inviting someone home for a meal is considered as an entry to a more intimate arena. For example: sharing one plate for several people or eating without cutlery such as Couscous in Morocco, some Indian food or Humus in Israel is considered bringing people together, whereas in other cultures it is regarded as bad manners.

Analysing the structure of houses in different societies will provide another angle on intimacy of food and meals. There are societies where the kitchen and the dining room are situated in the front of the house. Literally when we open the entrance door we can see the dining table. This structure is very common in Israel and in some Arab societies, it invites the person to join the family in their meal and in practice if a person enters at dinner time he will join the meal, whereas in Belgium, for example, most houses are built with the kitchen and the dining room at the back. This structure keeps the intimacy of food and eating to close circles.

The attitude towards food has changed over time. A quick tour in a museum will immediately exhibit the differences in the way people looked at food in the past: for example, fat women were a model and an ideal type for health and richness, whereas today, in western culture fat women are considered to be unhealthy.

We can also see changes within one culture, as travelling became more accessible and people started to discover new cultures and new cuisines and to bring them back to their country of origin.

To wrap-up, we can see that food and eating, despite being a common need, differ from one culture to another and have changed over time within the same society. Food constructs our identity and our identification with an ethno-religion group. Furthermore, as the group we identify with determines what we can eat, with whom and when, it also builds unspoken boundaries that help create a deep sense of belonging.

Dr. Efrat Tzadik

personal development and empowerment coach

"Find your home away from home"

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