Food, glorious food!

We’re anxious to try it.

Three banquets a day,

Our favourite diet!

“Food, Glorious Food”, the musical Oliver Twist

 

Everyone loves food, right?

Even being the advanced-moderate foodie that I am, I have learned a lot writing my “Love of food” series. I realized I take some things for granted. I also found evidence to prove some of my previous speculations. It’s always nice to be proven correct. wink, wink

If you haven’t read my previous articles in the series see the links below. They cover the topics of flavor and taste. Good stuff.

Here is a little background to set the stage for this article. In the 1970s, health professionals started to move some of their focus from communicable disease and contagions to chronic disease and lifestyle. This movement provided information to the public. Thus, people learned about the health repercussions of their behavior. Great news because empowered people can be proactive and improve the quality of their life.

This created a health consciousness that continues today. Along with recent knowledge and agricultural innovation, we are more aware than ever of how our culture and lifestyle impact our health. We are also continually exposed to gorging, fasting, and dieting content in the media. We are told about the obesity epidemic followed immediately by commercials glamorizing fast food and soft drinks. This is immediately followed by a pitch from a dieting product or service. This all has had an enormous impact on how people think, feel, and act about food and the food experience.

No matter how tired we get of the constant push and pull, we can’t live without it. Nothing is more fundamental to human survival and satisfaction than food. It is part of who we are.

There are people who are trying to make sense of all the food experience for us. The professionals in the food studies field. This field looks at the relationship of food with culture and society. The field is interdisciplinary considering the perspectives of humanities, social science, and science.

Thanks to the sharing of information, we are all enabled to make decisions for ourselves. However, we are all on our own when it comes to the fortitude to enforce our decisions. How I wish they could help me resist chocolate, cheese, and bread, that would be great. On the other hand, maybe not. They are some of the best things in life.

As you may have guessed, the last part of my “Love of food” series covers the food experience. I begin with what the experience means to us and how the experience is influenced. I then go on to diets, atmosphere, and customs surrounding food. So much yummy information.

 

The meaning behind the food experience: Cultures and rituals

Food is so much more than a resource to feed our bodies, it can provide pleasure, comfort, and security. Food infiltrates every facet of life from culture and religion to superstition. It is a symbol of hospitality, social status, and religious significance.

To show how ingrained food is in our culture, here are just a few of the many food idioms which have nothing to do with food and everything to do with the complexities of modern life.

  • Easy as pie
  • a bone to pick
  • a good egg
  • bun in the oven
  • spill the beans
  • cook the books
  • cool as a cucumber
  • all their eggs in one basket
  • something fishy
  • butter someone up
  • rolling in the dough
  • upper crust of society

Food can provide great comfort and security through rituals and tradition. Rituals are universal and an integral part of family life. They make changes manageable, contribute to identify, transmit values and beliefs, and facilitate healing.

By repeating these events, it solidifies our place in the world. We know where we come from, where we belong, and we know what to do. That validation is calming in a fast-paced world where we sometimes feel we can barely keep up. It is no wonder we can have such strong feelings about them.

Rituals can produce positive limbic discharges in the brain creating an emotional experience. Because of this, the foods associated with the rituals become “comfort food.” This means they can evoke memories of those experiences and bring about a sense of nostalgia.

(See Related: How nostalgia actually helps you move forward in life)

Occasions that use food:

  1. Weddings. Candied almonds representing for better(sweet) or for worse(salty). Wedding cake selection and cutting. The bride and groom feeding each other. Symbolic cookies or other sweets. Long noodles representing a long marriage. Sipping sake to seal the marriage vows. Throwing rice, dates, or chestnuts at the bride.
  2. Funerals. The evidence of food involved in funerary practice goes back to ancient Egyptians burying their dead with food to be eaten in the afterlife. Food and vodka are served right at the cemetery following burial in Estonia. In Romania, colaci and other items are passed over the grave before being left for the gravedigger as payment. In Vietnam, rice is dropped into the deceased mouth by wake visitors. Alcohol seems to be a theme amongst many cultures.
  3. Festivals. What would Oktoberfest, Mardi Gras, and Carnival be without the food traditions?
  4. Fairs. Around the world, fairs bring out the best and worst of food. Fairs often have contests for the best recipes. Sometimes, it seems that fairs are unofficial challenges to come up with the most absurd or extreme food creations yet.
  5. Political holidays. Thanksgiving, Chinese New Year, 4th of July, Burns’ Night, and Halloween are all associated with food and eating.
  6. Family traditions. Mother’s Day breakfast in bed. Pancakes on Sunday morning. Sunday night family feasts. Most families have traditions that are all their own.
  7. Religious ceremonies. Feasting and fasting days. Acceptable and forbidden foods. Using food as an integral part of religious sacrament.

Of course, I can’t talk about religion and food without the mention of saying grace before a meal. Giving thanks or raising a toast for food about to be consumed is a ritual many wouldn’t consider skipping. The tone and length vary greatly.

Through the lips and over the gums,

look out stomach here it comes.

-unknown

or

The smel of new breade is comfortable to the heade and to the herte.

-Middle English prayer (circa 1400)

or

Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts which we are about to receive

From Thy bounty, through Christ our Lord.

Amen.

-Traditional Catholic prayer

 

The choices that create the food experience: From the earth to our mouths

A lot of human effort is put into the production, commodification, preparation, and consumption of food. Unlike other animals, we don’t just feed, we eat.

Humans are quite intentional in what, where, how, and why we engage with the food experience. We gather, hunt, cultivate, plant, raise livestock, cook, use utensils, present(plate), and institute rules regarding etiquette. Yes, it can get complicated.

Who is assigned to these various tasks in the food cycle has a lot to do with cultural influence. Regardless of how each of these roles is viewed, they are all essential to feeding the world’s people.

Many factors weigh in on what people eat across the world. Geography, social, cultural, and personal influences all impact our diet. So our food choices reveal a lot about us. Several influences are:

  • racial
  • ethnic
  • class
  • gender
  • national
  • education
  • physical/mental health
  • environment
  • availability
  • beliefs on the treatment/handling of food sources

Considering all these influences, it is no wonder it is so difficult to make changes to our eating habits. Many of these factors don’t change. I imagine that treatment of an eating disorder is challenging and considers all these issues when helping those who suffer.

The diagram below shows common ingredients of different geographic diets. It displays how different foods are often used together in regional recipes. I especially like the last image of the overlap of different geographies for similar ingredients.

flavor principles of different cultures

Courtesy of Scientific Reports 1, Article number: 196 (2011) doi:10.1038/srep00196

Of course, we have all heard the stories of other cultures eating something that you can’t imagine putting in your mouth. It is all dependent on the environment. Just like the saying “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” what one culture considers inedible is deemed a delicacy by another.

 

The atmosphere of the food experience

Not only does the geographic environment influence the food experience, so does our immediate surroundings. All the senses including sight and sound will alter the perception of flavor. For instance, think about eating the same food in a gourmet restaurant versus on an airplane. Totally different food experience.

(See Related: Love of food series, part 1: What is flavor and how do we perceive it?)

While we control our eating environment at home, it’s different when we eat elsewhere. Whether you have no food in the house, no energy to cook, no time to make it home between scheduled activities, or just want someone to take care of it all for you, eating out is a common experience.

Where you decide to go is based on menu, service, location, cost, and value. Of course, atmosphere is important too. Where you spend your money speaks volumes. If you love Mom-and-Pop or local chefs, you need to support them with your patronage. The restaurant business is tough.

How you eat can come across as gracious to downright rude. Consumption, body placement, and tipping customs change dramatically on where you are in the world. So, before you do any international travel, be sure to brush up on local customs to be sure you aren’t insulting your hosts.

(See Related: A funny story at the museum)

Here is an infographic showing helpful tips.

The Global Food Experience

Courtesy of restaurantchoice.co.uk

 

Food for thought?

Did you learn anything new? We have all had great and not so great experiences with food. Hopefully, we all learned from the bad experiences and aren’t too traumatized! Let me tell you a story about an experience of mine.

One year I hosted the family Thanksgiving. I had only cooked a whole turkey once before and it had failed. (Previously, it had taken really long to cook because it wasn’t properly thawed and the whole meal was stalled to wait for the turkey.) Anyway, I was cooking a 20+lb. turkey and was terrified. I had a house full of relatives from both sides of our family. No pressure with my mom and mother-in-law there, hah! The recipe called for a very high heat initially. The house got very smokey. We had to open windows to air the place out. It seemed like a burned disaster, but I left the heat on. It turned out to be a huge hit. Everyone LOVED it. Despite the success, I am still a little nervous to cook a giant turkey again.

Have you had a memorable food experience where something besides the food made the experience memorable? What was it that made it memorable for you? Perhaps the company that you kept?

Please let me know about it in the comments!

 

Resources

8 Weird Food Customs From Around The World from Thrillist

Butash, Adrian. Bless This Food: Ancient & Contemporary Graces from around the World. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2007. Print.

Cooking Without Recipes: Understanding Flavor from The Kitchn

Differences in Food Culture – Traditions & Trends. from University of Southern Denmark

Dining Etiquette Around the World from the Restaurant Choice

FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD Musical : Oliver Twist from Lyrics Playground

Flavor network and the principles of food pairing from Nature

Food and Eating: An Anthropological Perspective from The Social Issues Research Centre

Food Culture and Tradition of the World from Food-links

Food and identity: Food studies, cultural, and personal identity from Journal of International Business and Cultural Studies

Funeral Food: 10 Customs Around the World (Slideshow) from The Daily Meal

Making Eating a Pleasurable Experience from Minnesota State University, Mankato

Rituals and Family Strength from Direction Journal

The Frontiers of Food Studies from Food, Culture & Society