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1) Following R. Benedict’s definition of anthropology as “the study of human beings as creatures of society. It fastens its attention upon those physical characteristics and industrial techniques, those conventions and values, which distinguish one community from all others that belong to a different tradition”, in these notes I will try to analyse the conventions of food and eating. I find the topic most interesting, in that it asks to discuss a matter that offers a number of insights into human societies, and its symbols and meanings. Food is everywhere… food, and the way, and the reason why, too, we eat certain foods, in certain contexts.

Through an analysis of food conventions we can, at least in part, understand some issues of modernity, and the social codes of classes and peoples, and build a contextual framework, exemplifying the reason why ‘modern existence has thrown many civilisations into close contact, and at the moment the overwhelming response to this situation is nationalism and racial snobbery”.

Taking up Geertz’s argument that everything carries a meaning, we can find symbols in food conventions, and expressions of material culture in the practical activities related to it, like cooking.
A first distinction we can point out is the one between a ‘natural’ and a ‘cultural’ order- with all my reluctance to call something ‘natural’ or not…. It can be argued that eating is a ‘natural’ activity of the body, whereas food conventions are more of a cultural activity. Furthermore, it can be argued that with our food conventions we have gone quite far from the ‘simple, natural’ need and practice of eating. At the same time, though, is it not have been the same, since society was ‘born’ – to put it simply – that eating became a social function, a symbolically meaningful socially shared moment, more or less rich of rituals, depending on the context?

Some of the modern characteristics of food conventions can be seen as having some negative aspects, by a critical eye, for their superficiality, and the attention they give to the ‘form’, through which a social content is allegedly established. At the same time, some of the conventions of ‘exotic’ tribes can by the ‘West’ be seen as uncivil, barbarian, needing to be civilised. This is why when we talk about a certain kind of anthropology we need to be clear in that it is a western understanding of other societies. For example, when in 1942 Columbus ‘discovered’ those ‘never seen before’ peoples, it is reported that they were cannibals: there is no proof of that, but in a way, there had to be, because their food habits, too, had to symbolise uncivilised society the ‘Westerns’ had to colonise.

2) On the same line of thought, I now want to draw on to a similar example. L’Enfant Sauvage – In this great movie by Truffaut, we can see how a great deal of attention is dedicated to the process of civilisation of the enfant around the table. In modern society, and even more in modern bourgeois society, there is a set of rules that need to be followed when dining: it is necessary to be accepted in society, therefore necessary to learn how to use cutlery properly, glasses, know which courses come first, etc… status symbol, more than real need. Towards the end of the movie, the child is aware of most of these superficial conventions. But are we sure that his inner being has actually changed? It looks to me that many of these conventions all they do is to annihilate the ‘dionysiac’ forces inside of us, accentuating, perhaps, that distinction between culture and civilisation (i.e. acquiring manners) that became stronger in the 18th century. Gellner saw 3 major dimensions in human society, coercion being the 3rd one.

It is clear, from the movie, from history, from everyday life, that coercion is indeed a major phenomenon in society, and that ‘powerful’ societies tend to impose their idea of ‘civilised’ wherever they see different costumes, ending up in colonialism and imperialism. As we have seen, even through food all this can be demonstrated. But if we take a comparative anthropological analysis, we could look at other societies and try to explain the differences between them. We would see how food and eating conventions are rooted very deeply in the symbolic structure of that society.

3) Also, another basis for different eating habits in different societies lies in the parallel sometimes made between the animal and the human, where “the internal and external parts are respectively assimilated to and distinguished from parts of the human body – on the same level as we conceive our ‘innermost selves’ as our ‘true selves’ – and the two categories are accordingly ranked as more or less fit for human consumption’. This could be an explanation for eating differences between societies (let us think of India, where men reincarnate in animals, and therefore some animals that we might eat are holy for them). This still to demonstrate the importance of symbols, even before that of nutritional values. Let us now consider the American society, well known for its abundance in food consuming (Thanksgiving Day! When a whole population, definitely not starving, stuff themselves richly!… “Calorically speaking, modern holiday, marriage, birthday, or anniversary banquets are merely occasions for raising prior consumption levels from more than enough to far more than enough” – and gluttony is still one of the 7 capital sins….). The discussion ‘of food preferences in American society shows what semiotics looks like when it is applied to something that is at the heart of ordinary life. Analytical autonomy is achieved by abstracting from concrete behaviour to the cultural realm. When this cultural abstraction is achieved, social elements, like food items, become ‘correlations in a symbolic system’. They can be seen as elements in an unfolding text, not as figures in a social system. As Sahlins puts it, ‘food production is a functional moment of a cultural structure’.”

So, talking symbols… meat. America is well known for its great stakes! What if food conventions saw cabbage, say, instead of a rare steak?! In a typical American meal, ‘the centrality of the meat, which is also a notion of its ‘strength’, evokes the masculine pole of a sexual code of food which must go back to the Indo-European identification of cattle or increasable wealth with virility.

The indispensability of meat as ‘strength’, and of steak as the epitome of virile meats, remains a basic condition of the American diet. But there is another important characteristic in that kind of diet: the one of social and economic value. “The social value of steak or roast as compared with tripe or tongue, is what underlies the difference in economic value. From the nutritional point of view, such a notion of ‘better’ and ‘inferior’ cuts would be difficult to defend. […] But more, the symbolic scheme of edibility joins with that organising the relations of production to precipitate, through income distribution and demand, an entire totemic order, uniting in a parallel series of differences the status of persons and what they eat”.

We have seen food conventions as symbol of richness, identified in a cultural and social structure. But what about poverty, and therefore lack of food? I want to draw on to the meaning of eating in Italy for a moment. For the way society is structured over there, meals are the structuring moments of the day, where the whole family must reunite around the table.

I remember my grandparents telling me how during WW2 the lack of (and search for) food was the ‘moving wheel of society’. Day by day, trying to get some bread or potatoes to survive, literally. How different eating conventions must have been at the time! And to better understand why, probably, for them it is so important to be all together around the table at least twice a day, I believe we need to bear in mind those past experiences of theirs, a social process in which ‘the past is only intelligible to us in the light of the present and we can fully understand the present in the light of the past”.

4) Food conventions and the concept of holiness.
We are all familiar with the fact that in many cultures and religions food prescriptions need to be followed very carefully by the members of that society. We know of how Islam is strict, for example, about the consumption of pork meat, or of how the Jews can only eat a certain kind of ‘processed’ meat. Food and eating conventions become “allegories of virtues and vices. […] The negative religious laws are likewise assigned educational aims and purposes. Foremost among these is the prohibition of eating certain animals classed as ‘unclean’. The law has nothing totemic about it. It is expressly associated in Scripture with the idea of holiness. Its real object is to train the Israelite in self-control as the indispensable first step for the attainment of holiness.” Following these rules is a must, for from them the well-being of the whole group, tribe, society might depend: “fertility of women, livestock and fields is promised as a result of the blessing and this is to be obtained by keeping covenant with God and observing all His precepts and ceremonies (Deut. XXVIII, 1-14)”. In some societies, therefore, “the dietary rules merely develop the metaphor of holiness.”

5) Another very interesting characterisation of food and eating conventions in western popular culture is the one portrayed by ‘lifestyle’ magazines. The importance of food and the way it is presented and eaten is central in the affirming of a social status. I had a look at some of the issues of Elle and Cosmo, being there in both a food section in each issue. The recipes always look interesting (…) and the prepared dishes are even better looking than the models we find in the previous pages… Strawberries are being eaten in a very sexual way, food conventions take place in…bed, or otherwise in fancy bars or restaurant. “Cookery in Elle is, in the same way, an ‘idea’- cookery. […] This ornamental cookery is indeed supported by wholly mythical economics. […] It is, in the fullest meaning of the word, a cuisine of advertisement, totally magical, especially when one remembers that this magazine is widely read in small-income group.” Quite clear then, the concept earlier discussed of food and eating conventions as symbolist representations of social status. This might be saying a lot about popular culture, full of meaningful symbols and statuses many times, still, not really reachable by the most, in a kind of post-modern ‘hyper-reality’…


Benedict, R (1935) Patterns of Culture. London, Routledge & Kegan;
Barthes, R. (1972) Mythologies. London, Vintage;
Alexander/ Seidman (1990) Culture and Society. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press;
Douglas, M. (1921) Purity and Danger. London, Routledge;
Carr, E.H (1961) What is History? London, Penguin Books
Harris, M. Why We Eat Too Much. Why We Feast. Why We Get Fat. p/c

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