We are familiar with the idea of associating food only to its nutritional value, observing everyday gastronomy in combinations of ingredients, methods and tastes. But it’s easy to see that the food is not limited to this, it is common for people’s affective memories to pass through the kitchen, making food an expression of culture, identity and memory, since it is capable of producing and reproducing affection.
According to the social scientist, Luciana Patrícia de Morais, food is an element of material culture, as it represents circumstances and conditions in which social life is reproduced, being, through it, that the world acquires concreteness and represents values, symbols and mores.
Identity and culture
Food is an important symbol representing cultures and is part of the identity of social groups, being very associated with different lifestyles.
It is common, for example, to associate feijoada with Brazil, but further analysis shows that each region still has its specialty: Rio Grande do Sul is popular for barbecue; Minas Gerais stands out for its famous cheese bread; Bahia has acarajé; Amazonas offers the pirarucu de casaca, and so on. They are called “typical” foods that constitute the different identities within the country.
And it is not just about the ingredients that make up the food, but also how it is prepared and how people eat it. According to the doctor in Social Anthropology, Maria Eunice Maciel, in her article, the transformation and reinterpretation of nature is at the base of all food systems: is it cooked, fried or raw? Is the whole element used or is any substance extracted? Is it whole, chopped, ground, grated, powdered? It also depends on the arrangement of tools needed during the process. Over time, differences between societies, structured according to their culture and geographical and socioeconomic conditions, became evident.
Prior to the globalization process, it is known that, in different geographical regions, different agricultural cultures have developed. In this way, each area of the globe had its cereal of preference and more suited to the respective soil: corn predominated in the Americas; sorghum in Africa; wheat in the Mediterranean region; rice in Asia. Thus, the most abundant cereal in each region, soon, became the basis of food in their respective localities, taking root in the culture of their peoples.
It is through cooking that cultures show themselves, since the meal naturalizes the symbolic references of a group, accustoming it to certain behaviors and, therefore, ends up going unnoticed.
Through daily repetition, food and gastronomy began to represent a basic structure of identity, enduring in the customs and traditions of different peoples even with other cereals available. Many Japanese descendants residing in countries other than Japan, for example, still include Japanese rice in their meals – the one without seasoning and the most soft. There is what is called naturalization: contact with this food was so frequent, passing from generation to generation, that its consumption was established in the daily lives of these people.
However, it is not only from this rice that food is built. With the great availability and variety of products due to globalization, and the exchange of cultures, countless other food identities were formed, showing that they do not appear as something spontaneous and predefined, but are built over time, and differ depending on where and with whom people grow and mature.
An individual can, for example, have a meal identifying with a certain group and their food tradition – pasta for lunch – and, in the next meal, establish ties with other groups – sushi for dinner – and neither is, therefore, together , make up the identity of this subject.
The representation of this mixture – or not – of different cultures is very well represented in a project made by Gregg Segal, called. In it, Segal photographs children from different countries with what would be ingested by them over the course of a week. Even though it appeared as an alert to the nutritional issues of some countries, the project ended up showing, also, the food diversity among peoples and complex and distinct social groups.
But, even with this mixture of cultures from different parts of the globe, there are still many mismatches that can be the cause of conflicts and even prejudices, given that, once associated with the social imaginary, food is also subject to being present in the consolidation of the hierarchy of power between different classes and societies.
Power and prejudice
It would be natural for an element associated with social issues to soon be affected by the existing power structures in the world. Often, class differentiation occurs through the amount you pay for a plate of food or even if a person can or cannot eat at the same table as your boss, for example.
Joyce Fernandes (or Preta-Rara, her stage name), rapper and art educator, created the page Eu Empregada Doméstica on Facebook, in mid-2016, to cover the discussion about racism and machismo that many women suffer who act as domestic servants.
There, many times, the idea that food emphasizes the superior relations between boss and employee is reinforced. Many of the reports say that he only ate what was left; he could only eat outside the house; or that the boss felt that he was carrying out an act of solidarity by letting him eat at the same table as him, and still having to listen to comments about “hiring a woman to cause losses because they get pregnant”.
In 2019, Preta-Rara launched the book, showing how valuable the work done by these women is, making an analogy with slaves in colonial Brazil.
In 2017, a study entitled “Gourmetization in an unequal society” was published by Valter Palmieri Júnior, then a doctoral student at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), showing that the economic and social growth that took place between 2004 and 2008 was responsible for the rise of the middle class. This fact bothered the upper classes, which consolidated the movement of gourmetization in several areas of cuisine, as it makes food become an element of differentiation: people propose to pay a higher price just to distance themselves, even than just a facade, of the lower classes.
But this is not the only way that the separation between groups occurs. There are also ways to subdue cultures through relationships with the food of different peoples.
In May 2016, Ranier Maningding published a text on his Facebook page, (or simply LLAG), in which he said that “to understand racism, you need to understand about food”. In it, the author mentions several situations in which he suffered some type of discrimination due to his food tradition, such as having someone looking at your food and saying “yuck, what are you eating?”; having difficulty finding some “ethnic” food because there are no local markets; or having to hear from white people that their food is probably super dirty and unhealthy. In a simplification, it is racism guided by ethnocentrism, which classifies meals from other cultures as inferior or disgusting.
The relevance of this repudiation comes to the fore, too, in late 2019 and early 2020, with the advent of the coronavirus. Rumors emerged that this supposedly unhealthy oriental food was the reason for the spread of Covid-19. On social media, memes and racist comments said it was “all the fault of that bat soup”, when, in reality, eating bats in China is considered as exotic as in the West.
Seeking to expose some facts about Chinese traditions and food customs, youtuber Cymye posted a video explaining all this confusion: the video that circulated on the networks at the time would have been recorded a few years ago in Palau, Oceania, but due to the stereotype that if it has to do with the Chinese food, the information was taken as truth and reason to distill hatred against these people.
Questions taken on top of that led to the discussion about the eating habits of whites in the United States, for example. They are proud of their food, they are not usually ashamed of it, and it is very rare that they have been segregated because of its appearance or smell, as they have never suffered from racist stereotypes for their cuisine.
Many individuals from diverse Western groups open their disgust for the food tradition of other cultures: they reject eating meat from dogs or guinea pigs, but do not reflect on their habits of consuming beef or pork. It is a type of judgment that arises based on how it compares to the cultural norms in force in your own country: ethnocentrism.
I would rather not eat all day than having to pick up my favorite Iranian food in front of my non-Iranian classmates.
Monicka Morady, in a statement in the Ranier Maningding publication
In reality, it is very common for people to be ethnocentric out of sheer ingenuity. It is necessary to be very open to abandon values that have guided a lifetime to understand other cultures. Americans, for example, often say that the English drive on the “wrong” side of the road, not on the “other” side, as well as someone whose diet is based on beef and seeing other people treating it as sacred and strange .
In fact, with globalization, there was a process of cultural decentralization and many habits were merged and renewed, creating varied and heterogeneous cultural identities, mixing elements that would not be put together were it not for these phenomena – sushi with cream cheese that says so . However, there is still a lot to reflect on about food. The “other” remains very distant from the “me”, which creates strangeness, and this strangeness can generate fascination or repudiation.
From the moment that food is used as a tool of identity and social imagery, it is subject to all the problems that these issues bring with it, but also to all the manifestations and demands that minorities struggle for.
Food is politics, food is racist, food is class, food is conflict, food is solidarity. Food is everything.