Food and Culture: a Cross Cultural Look at Eating Habits

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Food and Culture: A Cross Cultural Look at Eating Habits
No matter where we are from, eating is one of the most personal experiences of life. Everyone finds enjoyment and comfort in eating foods associated with their early days and heritage, but personal sensations and perceptions on eating are merely a fraction of the global picture. Learning about other cultures, their values, and what they seek will enhance relationships between individuals throughout communities and the nation. Eating habits provide a very conducive way for promoting mutual understanding between everyone. According to dictionary.com, food is any nourishing substance ingested in the body to provide energy and sustain life and growth. “Food habits refer to the way people use food, including from how it is selected, obtained, and distributed to who prepares it, serves it, and eats it” (Kittler, 2008, p. 2). Early food habits derived strictly from what was available in the immediate environment (McWilliams, 2003, p. 5). “The country where a person is born and resides shapes the food patterns of the individual and families” (McWilliams, 2003, p. 15). Food helps to establish specific cultures, and has diverse influences on the ways of life of people around the world. Spain, China, and the United States are three societies with vastly different backgrounds and eating customs that contribute to their unique culture and national identity. Food possesses meaning within different cultures beyond simply that of providing nutrients.

People often question, why food? If food is thought about solely as the avenue of obtaining the necessary nutrients to live, people will miss the influence and pleasure food has on the rich multitude of cultural landscapes. Food is full of meaning and has become a major form of social exchange. Everyone has heard the acclaimed saying “you are what you eat,” and many traditional civilizations believe that what they ingest will impact their personal character. But, the saying alone does not move the social world into eating. However, corresponding with the law of Contagion, which states that “once in contact, always in contact,” when two objects touch, their properties are transferred into the touched object (Rozin, 1996, p. 83). We can view this as those who have prepared, gathered, and served food, are expected to have passed their own characteristics into that food (Rozin, 1996, p. 84). Thus, now back to “you are what you eat,” these elements have become part of the consumer. Every nibble of food involves social integration. Food is a system of communication that constitutes knowledge and information. “Substances, techniques of preparation, habits are all part of a system of differences in signification” (Counihan, 2008, p. 30). All facts pertaining to food are organized similarly to that of other modes of communication. Food symbolizes and signifies the importance of economic, social, political, religious, and ethnic values among different societies (Montanari, 2006, p. 133). Food habits convey the culture of whom it has touched. Food is the warehouse of “traditions and collective identity” (Montanari, 2006, p. 133). It allows people to partake in their national past. “Food and cultural identities are the product of history” (Montanari, 2006, p. 135). The historical background of preparation and cooking is rooted deep within traditional ritualization, and permits people to experience the memory of their ancestors in their contemporary life. Food gives people commonality, serving as a means for a way of life.

Food, security, and love are our three basic needs. They are intertwined, so we cannot think of any one without the others. These three needs compose our life, and our life can be understood through these needs. Food is a central figure throughout society. It is the “foundation of every economy” (Counihan, 1997, p. 1). Food assists in interpreting social differences, gender differences, and...
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