Food and cultures are inextricably entangled.
Beyond the plains of necessity, food is a source of pleasure, comfort, anxiety and guilt. It underlines our position in the world and our fundamental connection with it. How we prepare food and how we eat reveals who we are and where we come from.
We are at the hands of nature, but we have made a business model out of dominating and taming it. In the post-war years, government policy focused its efforts on providing affordable food for its citizens. The result was mass-production, achieved by putting food on the production line.
The sophistication of such a process has no boundaries. Far from the days when salt was needed to preserve food, we now microwave it and if liquid nitrogen is involved, it is a sign of exquisite cuisine. However, our real “food icons” were born out of troubled times. It is not only progress that has changed the paradigms of our food culture, but the lack of it. For example, some researchers, like Massimo Montanari have shown that the adoption of pasta as we now know it was the result of a hunger crisis in Naples in the 18th century. The tomato sauce would come later in the 19th century.
Now our culinary experiences are shaped by different kinds of market forces. Food technology controls our supermarkets and has changed the way we eat. The widespread use agrochemicals have been an essential part of farming on an industrial scale. This may have made us the most efficient food producers in history, but it has come at a price. The water table is one concern, with the sheer quantities of chemicals being applied affecting ground water. The second is homogeneity. With conglomerates dominating agriculture in the West, the number of varieties of species we are exposed to has shrunk, which takes away from the eclectic experience of eating. We expect to have access to a very specific group of foods, no matter the place or season. This is a fundamental disconnect with our environment, the very environment that sustains us.
Twenty years ago, a new era began: the dawn of GM crops. The focus of people’s uneasiness with GM food comes from an indescribable sense that it is “not natural” and that we don’t know its impact on human health. Although there does not seem to be anything ostensibly wrong with eating food from seeds that have been genetically modified, it is the industry that controls them which should create concerns. A living organism has been patented. GM has little to do with feeding the hungry with drought-resilient crops, or curing vitamin deficiencies with rice. Its application has been to create lucrative business for wealthy nations.
The flotsam and jetsam washed up on our dinner plates are determined by the tides of the food industry. In the developed world our exertions do not stretch further than the weekly inconvenience of going to the supermarket. This unprecedented surplus has made the basic pleasure of food distorted by the issues of over- and under-eating and dictates what is on the menu. The perfect “healthy” diet is a new paradigm, a moral blueprint for living: food which will cure you, increase this or that, or even make you part of a group or “tribe” with determined values and social codes.
“We are what we eat” so they say. This saying is an old one. In Ancient Greece, Hippocrates had already given some advice on which soups one should eat in order to prevent various diseases. In the 21st century, this has been taken to an extreme level and eating has become almost an aesthetical statement. Vegetarians and vegans (or the Hezbollah splint faction of the vegetarians as Anthony Bourdain so provocatively calls them) both represent an attitude towards food.
Moral and technical diagrams of calories and nutrition devices all become quite relative when one takes into account where you are and who you are. If in the West there are campaigns against obesity, the huge amount of food waste or junk food, in other places eating out at McDonalds is a sign of high status. What they are consuming is of course more than a fat and dubious burger. They are buying a western way of life.
A researcher showed a group of Americans the word “cake” and recorded their responses. The most common answer was “guilt”. When the French were asked the same question, however, the most popular answer was “celebration”. Monkey, for some can be an exquisite meal, while for others it can be seen as an atrocity. The same with manners: eating with fingers or even burping is a sign of respect in some places but outrageous behaviour in others. One man’s midnight mischief is another man’s birthday party.
Feast days, religious celebrations; all of them play an important role in our cultural identity. We eat at funerals, we eat at weddings; well, we eat on almost every social occasion. However, in our “busy” lives we are losing this valuable part of eating: sharing the experience with one another. To enjoy food together with conversation, debate – with maybe even a few peas flying around and drinks being spilt – is one of the most enjoyable parts of life.