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Food and foodways as powerful indicators of cultural practice and social change

April 26, 2012

The material I am collecting on food and its sociocultural and political significance may seem tangential, but it is entirely relevant to studies of children’s and Young Adult fiction – which always seems to include some representation of these practices. My immediate interest in it is with regards to Alison Wong’s As the Earth Turns Silver which makes heavy use of food to delineate its characters in terms of culture and heritage…anyway…

In an article on the changing food practices in Hong Kong after the handover (and their reflection of the developing local/global social identity of people in Hong Kong in this era), Sidney Cheung writes that “Food and eating practices currently, as in the past, function as important markers of cultural identity providing insights into social change, power relations, class structure, gender roles and national ideology, especially in our globalising societies (Mintz and Du Bois, 2002).” (259)

Sidney Cheung’s analysis “focuses on questions regarding the social and cultural implications of the popularity of low cuisine, the construction of “Hongkongeseness”, and the phenomenon of searching for local identity and a sense of cultural belonging in a commoditised world.”[1]

Cheung writes: “Early anthropological research on food and eating largely addressed questions of taboo, totems, sacrifice and communion, and employed the approach of cultural symbolism (Douglas, 1966; Lévi-Strauss, 1969). From around the 1980s, however, social and cultural anthropologists expanded the parameters of their studies to analyse food choices and eating practices as indicators of social relations – specifically, food used as gifts in exchanges at special occasion banquets and feasts (Bourdieu, 1984; Sahlins, 1976) – as a symbol of caste, class and social hierarchy (Goody, 1982; Mintz, 1985) and as a metaphor for constructing the self with regard to ethnicity and cultural identity (Gabaccia, 1998; Mintz, 1996; Ohnuki-Tierney, 1993). On the one hand, it appears evident that food and foodways are powerful indicators of cultural practice and social change (Camp, 1989); yet, it is often difficult to trace the channels through which these entities perform meaning as they are so much a part of the mundane material “stuff” of everyday life. In addition, the same food may have different meanings to different people, depending upon the social interaction in which it is enmeshed. This dynamic characteristic of food and foodways is clearly indicated in the growing scholarship on the changing eating habits of people in Asia generally (see Lefferts, this issue), and specifically of people in Hong Kong, especially since the handover of this region to China in 1997.”[2]

Methodologically, Cheung draws on Wu and Tan’s (2001, p. 1) concept of foodways, which encompasses “a way of life that involves food, food habits and food consumption”, as the multi-dimensional framework within which to understand sociocultural and political change in relation to diet and the meanings of eating.”[3]

He explains: “Within the last 20 years, a number of studies on Asian material culture have used food to understand changes in the local dynamics of production, consumption and social identity. In this light, many scholars have interpreted the localisation of foreign food from a socio-political perspective (Cwiertka and Walraven, 2000; Watson, 1997; Wu and Cheung, 2002; Wu and Tan, 2001). These studies, in fact, confirm what Goody (1982) reminds us of – that the emergence of haute/high cuisine has developed within a context of growing industrialisation, imperialism and transnationalism through changing social tastes occurring at the everyday level; and demonstrate Appadurai’s (1988) research on how foodways have been altered, and how national cuisine has, in fact, been invented within the colonial context. However, while there is no doubt that we can recognise a general kind of high cuisine formation in societies undergoing significant economic growth or sociopolitical transformation, recently we also observe that there are some local foods, prepared using traditional culinary skills and carrying regional characteristics, that are gaining popularity, but within a variety of venues. Dog eating in South Korea, the Slow Food movement in Italy and the homestyle food of migrant families in Australia are examples of eating practices that play a role in resisting global forces by (re)constructing a [-p.261] sense of local-to-national identity on the level of the everyday (Duruz, 1999; Leitch, 2003).”[4] 

[1] 262 Sidney Cheung (2005) ‘Consuming ‘Low’ Cuisine after Hong Kong’s handover: village banquets and private kitchens’ Asian Studies Review 29, Sept: 259-273

[2] 259 Sidney Cheung (2005) ‘Consuming ‘Low’ Cuisine after Hong Kong’s handover: village banquets and private kitchens’ Asian Studies Review 29, Sept: 259-273

[3] 260 Sidney Cheung (2005) ‘Consuming ‘Low’ Cuisine after Hong Kong’s handover: village banquets and private kitchens’ Asian Studies Review 29, Sept: 259-273

[4] 260-261 Sidney Cheung (2005) ‘Consuming ‘Low’ Cuisine after Hong Kong’s handover: village banquets and private kitchens’ Asian Studies Review 29, Sept: 259-273

References that look interesting in this article:

Appadurai, Arjun (1988) How to make a national cuisine: Cookbooks in contemporary India, Comparative Study of Society and History 30(1), pp. 3–24.

Appadurai, Arjun (1996) Modernity at large: Cultural dimensions of globalization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).

Bourdieu, Pierre (1984) Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste, translated by R. Nice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

Camp, Charles (1989) American foodways: What, when, why and how we eat in America (Little Rock: August House).

Cwiertka, Katarzyna and Boudewijn Walraven, eds (2000) Asian food: The global and the local (Surrey: Curzon Press).

Douglas, Mary (1966) Purity and danger: An analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo (London and New York: ARK).

Duruz, Jean (1999) Food as nostalgia: Eating the fifties and sixties, Australian Historical Studies 113, pp. 231–50.

Duruz, Jean (2001) Home cooking, nostalgia, and the purchase of tradition, Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review 12(2), pp. 21–32.

Gabaccia, Donna R. (1998) We are what we eat: Ethnic food and the making of Americans (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press).

Goody, Jack (1982) Cooking, cuisine and class: A study in comparative sociology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Handler, Richard (1986) Authenticity, Anthropology Today 2(1): pp. 2–4.

Leitch, Alison (2003) Slow food and the politics of pork fat: Italian food and European identity, Ethnos 68(4), pp. 427–62.

Le´vi-Strauss, Claude (1969) The raw and the cooked, translated by J. and D. Weightman (New York: Harper and Row).

Mintz, Sidney W. (1985) Sweetness and power: The place of sugar in modern history (New York: Viking).

Mintz, Sidney W. (1996) Tasting food, tasting freedom: Excursions into eating, culture, and the past (Boston: Beacon Press).

Mintz, Sidney W. and Christine M. Du Bois (2002) The anthropology of food and eating, Annual Review of Anthropology 30, pp. 99–119.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko (1993) Rice as self: Japanese identities through time (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Scapp, Ron and Brian Seitz, eds (1998) Eating culture (Albany: State University of New York Press).

Sutton, David E. (2001) Remembrance of repasts: An anthropology of food and memory (Oxford, New York: Berg).

Watson, James L., ed (1997) Golden arches east: McDonald’s in East Asia (Stanford: Stanford University Press).

Wu, Y. H. David and Sidney C. H. Cheung, eds (2002) The globalization of Chinese food (Surrey: Routledge-Curzon Press, and Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press).

Wu, Y. H. David and Tan Chee Beng (2001) Introduction, in D.Wu and C. B. Tan (eds) Changing Chinese foodways in Asia, pp. 1–15 (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press).


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