The social functions of eating

Print edition : January 16, 2004

At an onam feast in Kochi. The social cohesion produced by the companionship of the fire or stove or common pot or table is undermined by the new individualistic pattern of food consumption. - K.K. MUSTAFAH

The combination of diversity and plenty, along with unequal distribution, has created food habits that increasingly threaten community life and human health.

OF all the cultural symbols that humanity has acquired, appropriated and developed over millennia, those around food must be the most potent. This is not only because food is necessary for human survival, since so many other necessities have not been accorded the same degree of interest through history and across societies. The human fascination with eating comes from the complex association of people with food - the apparently contradictory facts that it can be a source of pleasure or peril; that it can be a social signifier, a means of bonding or separation. Quite simply, more than anything else in the material world, food is what matters to most of the people most of the time.

This may explain why there has recently been a spate of books on the social history and anthropology of food. One of the most erudite yet approachable of such books, Food: A history by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (Macmillan 2001), makes an elegant case for considering the social history of food in terms of the great changes that have unfolded over time, sometimes in leaps and sometimes through a combination of hesitant and intermittent modifications.

Fernandez-Armesto identifies eight major "revolutions" in the relationship of humanity with food. These revolutions, according to him, all had stuttering starts, long unfoldings and enduring reverberations, and were not consecutive, but overlapped in time in complex ways.

The first revolution was the invention of cooking, which Fernandez-Armesto declares to be "an inaugural event in the history of social change". Of course, cooking itself is ultimately no more than an extension of prior forms of "treating" raw food prior to eating it, through such processes as drying or salting. Nevertheless, cooking is one of the peculiarly human activities, differentiating us from other animals - although there is little evidence to suggest that it is more than half a million years old.

The second revolution, according to Fernandez-Armesto, was the ascription of social "meaning" to eating - the notion that the process of preparation and consumption of food can be associated with ritual, magic, social and even political significance. Over time, people have developed all sorts of social attitudes to food. Some taboos tend to be widespread and long-lasting, even if not universal (such as that against cannibalism); other social attitudes are no more than ephemeral fads and fashions. In recent history, the tendency has been to give such fads the imprimatur of scientific justification, but the line between science and nonsense, or between objective physical effects and pure ritualistic/magical exhortation, is often hard to draw.

The third big change was the herding revolution: the domestication and selective breeding of edible animal species, which is argued to predate cultivation. The earliest identified form of animal husbandry was snail-farming, which still exists for an elite market. This implied a major shift from collecting food to producing it, but was nevertheless a "commonplace" innovation in that it seems to have occurred in different parts of the world and in very different human communities, not necessarily as a result of diffusion, but rather as a "natural" step in human evolution.

The fourth revolution, of course, was that of plant-based agriculture. The author argues that cultivation - managing plant life to generate food - was a mixed blessing, equivocal in its effects because it significantly increased the burden of work for those involved in cultivation while allowing much more food to be made available for the community as a whole. Arguably, agriculture laid the material basis for surplus generation and, therefore, exploitation of one group of people by another. It also led to massive colonisation of land and changes in conditions of terrain. The historical spread and eventual domination of some crops - rice and wheat, potatoes, sugarcane - also makes for a fascinating study.

We in India know only too well that food and eating practices are means and indices of pervasive social differentiation, but this is also something that has emerged historically, and is here described as the fifth revolution. Fernandez-Armesto traces a line of continuity from the probably palaeolithic origins of privileged entitlement in competition for food, down to the courtly and bourgeois cuisines of modern times. The rise of "gastronomy" was inextricably linked with social inequality, and both fastidiousness and excess have been associated with economic and social privilege.

The sixth revolution was that of long-range trade and the role of food in cultural exchanges which have had transforming effects upon societies. Food is not easily communicable between cultures, but there have been forces - war and colonisation, for example - that have been capable of penetrating cultural barriers and internationalising food. Imperialism has probably had the greatest influence in bringing about changes in cookery, and the tides of empire have flown in both directions with respect to food. The outward flow from imperial centres created metropolitan diversity and "frontier" cuisines at the edges of empire. With imperial retreat, there was the counter-movement of formerly subject peoples, who typically carried their cuisine with them. The consequent miscegenation has given rise to different types of imperially created cuisines, ranging from Turkish to Tex-Mex and Cajun to the Dutch-Indonesian rijstafel.

The "Columbian exchange" - the set of ecological transformations brought about by European voyagers infiltrating the western hemisphere - was the seventh revolution. It was especially revolutionary in that it actually altered the pattern of evolution of bio-species, which until the 16th century had followed a broadly divergent course on each continent. The linking of regions by sea routes and the introduction of species from one region into another, completely altered patterns of cultivation and animal breeding in each continent, and subsequently introduced new eating habits into all parts of the world. The subsequent emergence of what are now known as "national" cuisines was heavily influenced by this exchange, which was responsible for the cultivation of potatoes in Ireland, and chillies in India and Thailand, to name only two examples.

Finally, the most recent and still continuing revolution began through the effects of industrialisation in the 19th and 20th centuries. Mass production not only made farming in the developed world a conveyor-belt activity, but also transformed possibilities for processing and marketing on huge scales. The early examples of these were the industrially produced biscuits made famous by Huntley and Palmer, which achieved such international spread that the British Army that entered Kandahar in 1879 found an advertisement for these biscuits adorning the bazaar wall. Industrialisation was also responsible for many of the foods now customary to the world's culinary experience, such as the chocolate bar. Industrial and post-industrial technologies, most recently exemplified in the genetically modified agricultural products, have changed the possibilities of food production to such an extent that scarcity is no longer an issue at a global level. Yet, historically as in the present, abundance and waste have been counterparts of famines and deprivation. But the pervasiveness of hunger and the persistence of famines today have little to do with the technology of food production, and everything to do with patterns of distribution.

FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO points to a new tendency that might just have the potential to become the next revolutionary change in food culture, albeit not necessarily for the better. The emphasis that is currently placed in post-industrial societies, on convenience in food production and consumption rather than on its social attributes, has led to a shift in the social functions of food as well.

This is reflected in the rise of the prepared food industry and the microwave oven, which is presented as the "last enemy" of those who see food as the foundation of civilisation. This is because the communion created by the process of eating together gets broken by this device, which allows household members to escape from the necessity of eating together. As a result, the social cohesion produced by the first food revolution, that is, the companionship of the fire or stove or common pot or table, which have probably contributed a great deal to human collaborative living, is undermined, and even potentially shattered by the new individualistic pattern of food consumption.

At the same time, the combination of diversity and plenty, along with unequal distribution, have created food habits that increasingly threaten not just community life but also human health. Fernandez-Armesto does not write about this issue, but already by 2000 the World Health Organisation (WHO) had declared obesity to be of epidemic proportions and a growing threat to public health. In the United States and much of western Europe, more than half of the population is overweight and nearly one-third is obese, giving rise to a range of health problems, including life-threatening ones like heart disease.

The same trend is evident even in developing countries, especially developing Asia where the rich have altered food consumption patterns drastically to mimic those of the developed world. This is particularly worrying because Asians are more susceptible to the diseases related to obesity (such as diabetes and heart disease) than Caucasians.

Food cultures may be increasingly reflective of fast-paced and individualistic lifestyles in the West, but still this may be no reason for excess pessimism. In the rich world, there is already evidence of revulsion from the pressure to accept overly standardised cuisines and in most of the developing world food practices are far from atomistic. Finally, of course, food is simply too important to be left in the hands of the food industry.

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