Meal as Indicative of Cultural Norms

Thursday, March 12, 2009

So, I'm working on a paper for class right now, my current proposal (which was limited to 500 words goddamnit, as a normal proposal is usually 8 pages) is pretty much finished. Still, it's a work in progress with plenty more rounds of revision to go (and I wrote this post at 1 am) so be kind in your judgement.

Paul Fieldhouse notes that “patterns of meal-taking vary widely and are a part of cultural learning;” while he says this in regard to the practice of learning the signs and practices of a participants own culture it should be noted that observation by outsiders can understand culture by the meal (63). Indeed, plenty of anthropological research has been preformed connecting food to practices of social communication and as a function of psychological, emotional, and nutritional needs. There is a lack of research on how the event of eating itself is a sphere of protected and idealized interests and ideas of a community. While food ideology and culture takes into account the methods of eating, agriculture, preparation, class, and so on that determine biological and social stimuli this paper will focus solely on the act of consumption, the meal, and its use as a keyword within cultural studies. The meal structure itself is demonstrative of the cultural practices and ideas that a society has, both conscious and unconscious. E.N. Anderson states that food is “a way of showing the world many things about the eater,” and thus, “[takes] on a role second only to language as a form of communication” (124). The round social table setting, one of equality, versus a head of table arrangement. Manners utilized in order to create social classes. How the meal in its many forms communicates the values held by different socio-economic and racial groups. This paper will dissect the keyword “meal” in cultural studies and how it’s role as a communicator of social ideas, dogmas, and realities and related through the eating event and its importance as an approach to understanding various communities.

My breakdown of the meal will consist of analyzing five aspects: food (the actual food in place and it’s importance in cultural ideology), manners (the symbolic rules of order and civilization), placement (the arrangement of the participants and space the meal will take place in), group (the participants of the meal), and dialogue (what discussion takes place between the participants). I will then analyze these five aspects of the meal and how they relate to cultural studies, discussing how they are influenced by cultural standards to create various types of meals. The primary focus will be how the various concepts of what meal is (the communal meal, solitary meal, the absence of the meal for example) works as a communicator of heritage and cultural identity. Furthermore, I plan to ascertain how some types of meals have replaced others and in reaction have created a loss of cultural identity and the passing on of traditions in action and thought. Indeed, in some cases a descent into a negative cultural sphere encouraging the rejection of the meal as a societal norm. My research will consist of reading into cultural philosophy, theory of food ideology, and the anthropology and sociology of food, with particular focuses on the theories of Paul Fieldhouse, E.N. Anderson, and Carlo Petrini.

To say it differently, how does the meal convey ideas of culture, heritage and identity? Indeed, in America we seem to glorify the meal-on-the-go mentality. Eating in the car or in the office on your own as you pound out a report is praised! You are an example of the pull-up-your-bootstraps, economically driven, succeed at all costs, capitalist mentality: working hard to make it to the top! Or does the absence of a meal define our culture? Sure, Food Network has created a new wave of foodie culture, but Vogue is still kicking it's ass as a whole. Not eating; the absence of the meal? Is that a signifier of the dominating culture? Beauty versus Nutrition. Of course, this is assuming the absence of a meal isn't due to poverty in which the meal may be demonstrative of a shoddy welfare system, or a societal idea that the poor should be ignored, that they have only themselves to blame and if they would just get with the bootstrap program mentioned before then they could eat little (but still more) alone in an office and be rich, successful, and powerful. An then there is the family meal, the business meal, and so on.

I say each of these are made up the dissected parts: manners, placement/location, food, dialogue, and participants. This could be subdivided further I'm sure but let's stay basic as possible for the purpose of brevity and my personal sanity.

Anyways, I'm going to be using the blog as a space to jot down some additional thoughts for the next 20 months or so. I am also putting it out there for people to weigh in: Do you have other ideas? Resources I should look into? Books, articles, websites?

Ah, academia. My only hope is I can parlay all of this into a book and become the next Paul Fieldhouse or Michael Pollan.

*And no, this is not my graduate thesis, this is for an 8 page paper I'm working on but plan to try and get published somewhere.


  1. I love this idea...I can't wait to see how you work up 'The Church Potluck'---that could be a thesis unto itself.

  2. Might consider the fact that the nation as a whole is grossly overweight...absence of a meal? Not very often. Or is it WHAT we eat (consider Supersize Me). Good luck, whichever way it goes.

  3. @anonymous but i think that the overweight demographic has a much different meal culture than the underweight. it is what we eat but i think how we serve, time, set and value a meal has tremendous influence. communal eating likel breeds healthier eating than solitary.

  4. You wrote this at 1:ooam? I can't understand it at 9:00pm! so basically it boils down to pretty much you are what you eat or how you eat.

  5. Have you read:
    The rituals of Diner (book disappeared so don't remember the writer), and Much depends on Dinner by Margaret Visser, 1986, books by Sidney Mintz might be interesting, and try for an English translation of Brillat Savarin, and Claude Levi-Strauss, if you haven't got those. The French know a lot about these things. If some more pops up in my mind I'll post again. Interesting stuff you're producing!

  6. This is a fascinating concept.

    I wonder how are table arrangement fits in, we have a little rectangular table that is a hand-me-down and seating tends to rotate around the table depending on where the kids feel like sitting or where their favorite (of our many mismatched) chair is. I'm not sure there is a pattern for cultural mores there.

    Are you going to include the push for family dinners on the radio ads? I think it's interesting that studies show that eating a meal together can affect a child's choice to use drugs or start other destructive behaviors.

    This will be fun to watch!

  7. This looks to be a promising analysis of food and culture.
    I look forward to the results of your research...
    An excellent book on the subject if you are interested in the connection between food and celebration: "In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity" by Josef Pieper.
    Good luck!

  8. Further reading suggestion: the Economist - on line version - has an article on how cooking food has influenced the evolution of mankind. Fascinating, as surely your paper will be too!

  9. Just wanted to say I just found your blog ! Love it... I have fun exploring it!

  10. you might also want to look at "Food and Culture" by Pamela Goyan Kittler and Kathryn P. Sucher. It's a great textbook style book where they talk about different foods and cultures of various countries... and how they adapted to the united states. what customs were kept, what was left out, etc. it really does a nice job describing how religion, family, region, health beliefs, etc. all ties into food. good luck!


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