Food is any substance that can be metabolized by an organism to give energy and build tissue. Foods are made up of a combination of calories, proteins, fats, minerals, and carbohydrates. Enzymes in the mouth begin to break down sugars as food is processed for digestion. Upon entering the stomach, the acids therein separate the nutrients and useable compounds in the food in the processes of digestion. These are then absorbed into the body to become the energy source for functioning at the cellular level.
The importance of obtaining and processing food in order to live has been a driving force behind human evolution and culture history. It is hypothesized that the quest for food in the shrinking forests of Africa played a role in bipedal adaptation. Furthermore, the subsistence patterns of different cultural groups influence many of the other institutions in that society. For example, the Masai of Kenya are pastoralists who are organized in extended families that move with their herds to different grazing areas throughout the season. Ownership of cattle is transferred from father to son, and while the women care for the cattle, they can never own them and rely solely on the men in their society for economic stability. Hunter-gatherers are societies that practice food-gathering techniques, while other subsistence strategies include production techniques such as horticulture, pastoralism, and agriculture. Industrial societies also produce food, but the distribution often involves complex economic patterns.
The process of food acquisition for any species is the most important relationship it has to its environment, and for humans, many of the other basic features of their way of life are related to the subsistence pattern practiced. Hunter-gatherers move with the seasonal pattern of abundance in cooperative bands to harness energy and products from the environment. They live in egalitarian societies, which are highly mobile and congregate and disperse depending on availability of resources, and they are characterized by a gender division of labor that works cooperatively on a large land base. Pastoralists are also highly mobile; however, their nomadic lifestyle is divided into territories defined by grazing rights. They are herders who live in a symbiotic relationship with their animals, protecting them to ensure reproduction in return for food and other products. Horticulture is the cultivation of crops using hand tools and is characterized by a variable sedentary lifestyle, in which the group moves to a new area every 10 to 15 years, depending on soil fertility. Agriculture requires intensive and continuous land use for cultivating and raising domesticated plants and animals. Though these are four distinct modes of production, societies often have a mixed economy in which they practice one or more of these food-getting systems.
Because of the importance of food for sustenance, it has become a source of symbolic representation for various other aspects of life. Certain foods are indicative of ethnicity and have become an emblem of a cultural group. For example, pasta, eggplant, and artichokes are considered Italian cuisine, while hamburgers, apple pie, and Coca-Cola are an “all-American” meal; however, more specifically, grits, fried chicken, barbecue, and black-eyed peas represent the southern United States. The foods people eat reflect not only their cultures but also the circumstances in which they eat them. For many cultures, the nuclear family is the primary economic unit of production; therefore, this group eats together to socialize and strengthen the family bonds. However, in many Middle Eastern cultures, such as the Bedouin, only the members of the same sex may dine together, revealing important facets of the social structure. Almost universally, sharing a table is a show of goodwill. In Pakistan, the Pathans of Swat social rules of hospitality demand that even enemies must be treated like guests until they leave the border of the host’s territory, where they can show aggression even to the point of murder. In some societies, such as the Trobriand Islanders, another function of sharing a meal is to publicly acknowledge a marriage. Eating symbolizes the union of a new couple and also becomes a metaphor for the act of sexual intercourse. Euphemisms like “to hunger for” symbolize sexual desire, and the Mehinaku of the Amazon relate the act of sex to “eating to the fullest extent.”
Food is also important in its absence when certain prohibitions and taboos are related to rank or religious restrictions. In societies with totems, eating the flesh of the clan representation is akin to cannibalism. The Arapesh of Papua New Guinea consider the pigs they raise to be like children, and so they must exchange these animals, and that process creates an ongoing relationship with other groups. Other societies, like the followers of the Jewish and Islamic religions, have an aversion to pork based on religious edicts. Ostensibly, the reason is the “filthy” habits of pigs; however, there are no bans on chicken, which have many of the same characteristics. Instead, the cause can be seen in the early ecological niche of the domesticated animals of the region. In reality, pigs are more productively efficient energy sources; however, they share the same diet as humans, so the cost to raise them is greater than the “cud-chewing” ruminants that became the staple food source of these societies.
Taboos are limitations on what foods members of a society can eat, but limitations are also placed on how much one could or should consume. Western culture places an emphasis on attaining and maintaining thinness. In America, “fad” diets have become a marketing tool, capitalizing on the consumer’s desire to look slender, even though these diets may fail to produce the promised results. Along with this trend is a rise in eating disorders caused by the pressure to conform. Anorexia and bulimia are consequences of a society in which food resources are abundant but people feel the need to starve themselves to look a certain way. By contrast, rural Jamaica is an area of limited resources, where the mark of health and wellness is a plump physique. These people are tied to a kin network, which emphasizes food sharing; therefore, gaining weight is indicative of good social relationships, and it is equated to reproductive fitness as well as personality traits like kindness and sweetness, whereas thin people are considered mean and stingy.
- Counihan, C., & Van Esterik, P. (Eds.). (1997). Food and culture. London: Routledge.
- Rosman, A., & Rubel, P. G. (2004). The tapestry of culture: An introduction to cultural anthropology. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Schlosser, E. (2001). Fast food nation: The dark side of the All-American meal. New York: Houghton Mifflin.