Culinary History Collection


Current Editor: Cynthia D. Bertelsen

Issue 1 Spring 2001

In 1980 Jean Robbins was a student of Dr. Harper's. Dr. Robbins contributed the course introduction and outline below to the Culinary History Collection at Virginia Tech.

A Possible Framework for Studying food in Culture

by Laura Jane Harper
January 2, 1980
"Truth does not depart from human nature.
If what is regarded as truth departs from human nature,
it may not be regarded as truth." Confucius (1)
For this study, culture is defined as a pattern or style of behavior of a group of people. 2

Quite obviously, consumption of food is a vital part of the chemical process of life. Less evident is the fact that food is more than just vital to physical life. The only two activities in which humans engage that are of approximate importance to life of the species are eating and sexual relations. "Appetite for food and sex is nature" — the Chinese philosopher Kao Tzu (quoted by Chang).2 These two activities are, however, quite different in nature. Sexual relations are closer to our animal nature than our eating habits.2 The American anthropologist, Carleton Coon has suggested that the introduction of food preparation by cooking may have been the decisive factor leading man "from a primarily animal existence to one that was more fully human."3 At least learning to prepare food and eat it in other than the raw state were very likely the first day-to-day activities in which humans engaged that were characteristically different from the daily activities of lower animals.

Food patterns have infinite variability, but little study has been made of food as a cultural process rather than just a chemical process of life. In fact we have no framework for studying either food or clothing as cultural processes. There are justifiable outlines for studying economy, government, kinship, and religion in relation to culture, however. Why have we not developed a systematic plan for the study of food, which is one of our most highly developed rituals and patterns of behavior? Food is a great social facilitator; it is needed every day; it is highly divisible and quantifiable; at most times it is prepared and consumed socially; most eating is carried out in a social context. It provides a social bond. When shared, it communicates the forms of social interaction within the culture.

We should, therefore be able to develop a comprehensive framework for the study of culture through identification and interpretation of food patterns as a cultural process.

For species survival, at a given period of life humans could eat exactly the same foods in much the same way. Some nutritionists say we need only eat a varietal minimum of ten foods a day to survive physically and maintain the necessary internal milieu for healthy growth, development, and stability. However quantitative or simply explained understanding the chemical process of food intake and use by the body may be, the importance of food in understanding a human culture (and vice versa) is far more complicated. To understand the complex food-culture relationships one must begin by not only recognizing the infinite variability with which food is considered and used but must also respect the reasons for the variations.

People of the same culture show the same assemblage of large food variables; people of different cultures use alternate groups of food variables (or food choices, if one wishes to use that term.)

What are the larger variables 4 to be considered in relation to culture?

  1. Natural resources available, and from these natural resources the use of different basic foodstuffs which can usually be divided into:

    A. Starch staples

    E. Meats and animal products

    B. Legumes

    F. Spices and other condiments

    C. Vegetables

    G. Sources of sugar

    D. Fruits

    H. Water


  2. Preparation of foods (food dishes) and beverages in different ways from raw ingredients to bite-sized pieces of mouth-sized portions ready to be eaten (or swallowed) including such things as the way foods are cut up or otherwise prepared; utensils used; cooking of foods in different ways, including methods; flexibility and adaptability in maintaining the national or cultural style of foodstuffs and beverages


  3. Preservation of foods in different ways


  4. Presentation: serving and being served foods and beverages in different ways, including style, utensils used, etc.


  5. Use and different amounts, varieties, and styles, etc. of foodstuffs and beverages at meal time


  6. Likes and dislikes for various foods and beverages


  7. Customs and rituals about preparing, serving, consuming foods and beverages including different ways of eating and drinking


  8. Ideas and beliefs about properties of different foodstuffs that effect what is discarded, what is prepared and eaten


  9. Patterns of continuity and change of food variables within a culture; why these choices are made; changes in food patterns, presentation and eating habits from one period of history to another; the food variables that persist, those that die out, those that are modified, and new food variables added; identification of such things as specific "national" or "regional" dishes and beverages


  10. Importance of food itself in the culture. 4

A good beginning for the study of food in culture is enumeration of foods commonly used, description of how these foodstuffs are manipulated, and how use of foods, beverages, and recipes change through history. If cookbooks are available indigenous to the region or nation, study of the introduction, disappearance, and alternation in recipes found in these works for the period of time being studied is helpful.

Chang 4 has stated that "an anthropological approach to the study of food would be to (a) isolate and identify the food variables, (b) arrange these variables systematically, and (c) explain why some of these variables go together or do not go together."

Within a culture, although the large food variables are the same or very similar, all food habits are not necessarily homogeneous. In fact as a rule they are not, even though the same overall food pattern is evident. The smaller food variables 4 may relate to:

  1. Different social classes
  2. Different occupations
  3. Different periods of life cycle
  4. Male or female
  5. Different festival occasions
  6. Different religious sects or cults

Different people have different tastes; some of these tastes are by preference, some are prescribed. One needs to look at the smaller food variables in this context.

Madeline Leininger 5 has stated that every society uses food in many ways, such as:

  1. For nutrition
  2. To initiate and maintain interpersonal relationships
  3. To determine the nature and extent of interpersonal distance between people
  4. For expression of socio-religious ideas
  5. For social prestige, and for individual or group achievements
  6. To help cope with man’s psychological needs and stresses
  7. To reward, punish, or otherwise influence the behavior of others
  8. To influence the political and economic status of the group
  9. To detect, treat, and prevent social physical, and cultural behavior deviations and illness manifestations

One could also use Leininger’s outline to study food in culture. Knowledge of how a culture uses foods in relation to the nine areas she has named would provide a somewhat different framework for understanding a culture and the part food and its use play in it.

A third method to use in order to begin to understand food and culture is a comparative study of how different cultures use a particular food product over time. For example, I am interested in study of the use of salt (NaCl) and sweets (especially granulated sugar) by various cultures since the U.S. intake of these two items is so high — in many cases significantly higher than in the cultures from which our food patterns are primarily handed down. Why?

One might use this same idea for studying such food patterns in various cultures as festival foods, foods served during pregnancy or to very young children, foods used on the holy days of different cultures (Christian, Jewish, Moslem, etc.), food patterns and presentations during mourning, etc.

This third method would be particularly rewarding for an individual to use before going to a new culture if he/she chose to study the meaning of a particular food in the native culture and that of the new one. Is so doing, one might seek the meaning or contrasts of certain food patterns (ex. for festival celebrations, etc.) in the two cultures.

Modern scholarly literature is seldom devoted to an understanding of food habits in relation to people and their culture. Why? In contrast, many scientist/authors devote time to writing about food production all over the world. Does this mean that consumption of food and the way we express ourselves through food patterns are unworthy of international scholarship? Anderson and Anderson 6 explain it this way: "Production of food makes money; therefore it is serious business." It is time that those of us who have an interest in food as it relates to people, as well as knowledge of food in the more limited sense of food-production economics, demonstrate that a better understanding of food and culture is economically beneficial and, in addition, a respectable scholarly pursuit.

Prior to the nineteenth century, the use of food was often included as a part of literature, even if references were indirect. Novels especially were good sources of food habits and culture. Sine that time, except for its scientific component, food is seldom included in literature.

The task of looking at food and culture in a scholarly manner will not be an easy one. This subject has not been dealt with systematically and literature, for the most part, handles the topic only indirectly, if at all. Searching out information about food habits and recording the finding will be a pioneering effort that will broaden the base of knowledge as well as the scholarship of the researcher.

  1. Lin, Yutang: My Country and my People. New York, Halcyon House, 1935, Ousted on frontispiece.
  2. Chang, K.C.: Food in Chinese Culture. New Haven, Conn., Yale University Press, 1977, pg. 3
  3. Coon, C.S.: The History of Man: From the First Human to Primitive Culture and Beyond. New York, Knopf, 1954, pg. 63.
  4. The food variables enumerated here (large and small) are adapted from Chang, K.C.: Food in Chinese Culture. New Haven, Conn., Yale University Press, 1977, pg. 6-21.
  5. Leininger, M.: Some cross cultural universal and non-universal functions, beliefs, and practices of food. In Dupont, J., Ed.: Dimensions of Nutrition. Denver, Colorado Associated Universities Press, 1970, pg. 159-170.
  6. [Citation is missing from original document.]

L. J. Harper, January 12, 1980

Objectives of Course —

  1. Mine
    1. To propose a modest (but what I hope is a comprehensive) model for studying food and culture. My hope is that this model will remove
      false information
      in regard to the subject and provide a quantifiable, scholarly framework for looking at the subject
    2. To solicit the assistance of students in testing effectiveness of the model
    3. Using student suggestions and recommendations to adjust the model accordingly;
    4. With student assistance to begin to develop a bibliography on food and culture that deals with the subject in a scholarly manner;
    5. To provide an opportunity for students to broaden and deepen their (1) appreciation of the importance of scholarship in the subject and (2) approach to the study of food in culture.
  2. Student objectives: B, C, D, E above
  3. Student obligations
    1. Class participation
    2. Critique of model(s) including recommendations for improvement
    3. Choice of a topic to pursue, a written paper and a 1- 15 class presentation

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