Is there a connection between food and culture? Well, yes. Culture affects what and how people eat, and food shapes how people identify themselves. Keep reading if you want to learn more about how food and culture are related!
How food shapes cultural identity
Food is an important aspect of cultural identity, along with clothing, art and literature. Some cultures are so tied up with a certain type of food that we can barely separate them, for example, the mention of France immediately makes us think of baguettes and croissants.
Some national cuisines even become mainstream, such as Japanese sushi or Italian pasta, which can easily be found almost everywhere in the world. At the same time, many people associate Germany with pretzels and sausages, but this image rather represents the region of Bavaria, while other regions have other food traditions. These culinary associations are always a bit generalised, and the relationship between food and culture is more complex than that.
It is a mistake to think that national cuisines were always there, giving us a static image of the culture. Food traditions depended on migration, tourism and other social processes. From a closer perspective, food can tell us about social and historical changes.
Sometimes our beliefs about national cuisines are not always true. For example, some may think that pizza is an authentic Italian dish, but many pizza toppings that we know about today were not invented in Italy. They were first cooked by Italian immigrants in the US and carried back to Italy, where it became representative food.
This phenomenon was called in sociology the “pizza effect”. Later on, this term was used to describe sociological cases not related to food, such as The Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City. It was invented only recently and inspired by a similar fictional event in a James Bond movie.
Irish food tradition
Irish food traditions changed over time. It was influenced by its neighbours, trading partners, invaders and the Christian church. Foreigners often associate Ireland with potatoes, but apart from potatoes, the Irish had a varied diet including oats, rye, watercress, apples, hazelnuts, wild garlic, honey, eels, fish, edible seaweed and so on.
Globally, Irish culture is more popular for its drinks than food. Who doesn’t know about Irish cream or Irish whiskey? Perhaps it’s the reason why Irish pubs can be found in many countries worldwide. They do not necessarily serve Irish alcohol but rather share the Irish authentic atmosphere (or what people in other countries believe it to be).
Irish people are open to gastronomic experiments and extraordinary food combinations, such as curry and chips or ice cream and wafers. However, the Irish can be conservative in their everyday food choices despite the variety of foreign foods available. For example, the Bord Bia study called “What Ireland ate last night” showed that “meat and two veg” is still the most popular evening meal for adults. Children, though, preferred to eat pasta with sauce for dinner.
The roots of our eating habits
Food traditions across the world were historically influenced by aspects like lifestyle, climate, preservation techniques and food products available in the region. For a hot climate like Morocco or India, it is natural to use a lot of spices while cooking because food can be preserved longer that way.
Nomadic cultures, for example, didn’t cultivate the land and constantly moved between pastures. As a result, their food tradition is based on meat. Even now, people in Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan don’t take vegetarian food (not to say vegan) seriously.
Culture is not only reflected in the presence of food as such. The process of cooking it also matters a lot. According to anthropologist Levi-Strauss’s concept of a culinary triangle, food (mostly meat) can be boiled, smoked, or grilled (roasted), and each process means something in a cultural sense.
Levi-Strauss believed that in many cultures, mostly women cooked boiled food and served it within the family circle. Men were more often responsible for roasted food and offered it to guests. When the meat is boiled, its juices and nutrients are preserved in the water, so boiling was believed to be the most nourishing cooking method. The process of smoking was culturally placed somewhere in between, sharing the aspects of boiling and roasting.
The social value of food
Apart from cooking processes, we should not forget about the process of eating. When we eat, we’re not just consuming food. After work, we gather at the table with our family and share a meal and a discussion with them. When we meet with friends, we go to a restaurant. Our holidays can’t be imagined without food. Cooking for guests has always been considered as an expression of hospitality. Because food has so much social context, it can tell us about culture.
Food as part of rituals
Rituals are not always about spiritual practices or worshipping. Defined as a sequence of gestures, words, actions and objects, a ritual can also describe a handshake, a marriage or a festival.
Food often becomes an important part of these rituals. In the US, eating turkey on Thanksgiving is a ritual. The food cooked at Christmas and other religious holidays is also part of a ritual. In Muslim cultures, people only eat halal food which adheres to Koran. Fasting is another religious approach to food, as it makes a person detoxify his or her body and get rid of earthly connections.
However, religion is not the only aspect that influences people’s food choices. For example, many Irish people eat fish on Fridays, and it can also be considered as a ritual!
Food is not only what helps us survive; our culture is described by how we cook and eat and what we choose for dinner. Food can reflect social changes, historical events, religious and secular rituals. Did you know culture has such a big influence on food and vice versa? What food means to you?
Lévi-Strauss, Claude (2008) . “The Culinary Triangle.” In Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik (ed.). Food and Culture: A Reader. Peter Brooks (trans.) (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge. pp. 36–43 (28–35 in the first edition). https://web.stanford.edu/class/linguist62n/levitriangle001.pdf
Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire. (2018). “Recognizing food as part of Ireland’s intangible cultural heritage.” Folk Life, 56:2, 93-115, DOI: 10.1080/04308778.2018.1502402. https://arrow.tudublin.ie/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1221&context=tfschafart