Food and culture

Cultural Insights — By on June 5, 2007 at 7:55 am

There is a very interesting story in the most recent issue of Time Magazine, called “How the World Eats.” The writer, Bryan Walsh, discusses the connection between food and culture.

Food and diet are the cornerstones of any culture, one of the most reliable symbols of national identity. Think of the long Spanish lunch followed by the afternoon siesta, a rhythm of food and rest perfectly suited to the blistering heat of the Iberian peninsula in summer. Think of the Chinese meal of rice, vegetables and (only recently) meat, usually served in big collective dishes, the better for extended clans to dine together.

National diets come to incorporate all aspects of who we are: our religious taboos, class structure, geography, economy, even government. When we eat together, “we are ordering the world around us and defining the community most important to us,” says Martin Jones, a bioarchaeologist at Cambridge University and author of the new book Feast: Why Humans Share Food.

Our contemporary society, not surprisingly, has begun to force changes in the eating habits of many cultures. As the story notes:

Take Italy. It’s no secret that the Mediterranean diet – with its emphasis on olive oil, seafood and fresh produce – is healthy, but it was also a joy to prepare and eat. Italians, says Counihan, traditionally began the day with a small meal called colazione, consisting of light baked goods and coffee. The big meal came at around 1 p.m. and included a first course of pasta, rice or soup; a second of meat and vegetables; a third, fruit course and, of course, wine. In between the midday meal and a late, smaller dinner came a small snack, the merenda.

Today, when time zones have less and less meaning, there is little tolerance for offices’ closing for lunch, and worsening traffic in cities means workers can’t make it home and back fast enough anyway. So the formerly small supper after sundown becomes the big meal of the day, the only one at which the family has a chance to get together. “The evening meal carries the full burden that used to be spread over two meals,” says Counihan.

South Americans are struggling with similar changes. John Brett, a nutritional anthropologist at the University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center, says that many Latin Americans too prefer a large family meal at midday, heavy on starchy grains like quinoa or plants like yucca. But migration from the country to the cities has made that impossible.

“They don’t have the luxury of two hours of lunch,” says Brett. “The economy moves on.” Not only do these changes add stress for families, but nutritional quality declines as well. “They tend to eat whatever is cheap and quick, ” says Chaiken.

If you read the Time story online, don’t miss the fascinating photo essay that accompanies it, with pictures of families around the world posing with a week’s worth of food for their households.

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