© Kat Morgenstern, March 2011
Food is the most basic and essential of all our human needs. Without it we perish. From the moment we are born we instinctively look for mother's breast. What we receive is not just nutrition, but a sense of security, warmth and love. Food security - or lack of it, is also one of the first mechanisms of control and manipulation a child experiences - 'if you don't do such and such you will not get your treat', or, 'if you perform well I will give you some candy'. No wonder food is one of the most fundamental 'big issues' in human psychology, earning leagues of nutritionists, dieticians and shrinks their bread and butter.
Food, as an 'issue' has become almost equally loaded and contentious as politics and religion. On closer examination they in fact have much in common and are closely linked. Food is a primary indicator of group identity. The food we ate as children reflects our ethnicity, class and religion. What we eat as adults is an indication of how much we identify still with these primary shapers of identity. Even those who have risen in social status and have learnt to appreciate the tastes of sophisticated cuisines often secretly crave the soul food that reminds them of home and provides that warm fuzzy feeling of 'mother's kitchen'.
But while sharing a meal carries the most intimate connotations of social bonding, it also defines the lines of social status and class.
In archaic times the search for food was a communal activity, both in hunting and gathering and preparing of nuts, berries and other wild foods. It was an activity of clan bonding that confirmed social ties through the telling of stories and the passing on of ancestral knowledge. Among the men, the hunt functioned as a mechanism to establish social status. The best hunter earned the most respect, and thus power and prestige, not least with the women. Instinctively, women choose their mates not so much by looks, but rather by the male's ability to obtain food, as food is vital sustenance not just for her, but more importantly for her offspring, especially in the early days when she can not gather food for herself.
In modern societies this 'breadwinning' ability is still associated with status, though not quite so directly linked with the ability to run down a deer. Men of high social status seek to impress their prospective mates with outings to expensive restaurants to demonstrate their financial power to 'pick up the tab', thus scoring 'cookie points' and an 'alpha male' tag.
In farming societies the connections are more closely linked to the yield of actual hard labour. The 'husband's' job is husbandry, which translates into tilling the earth, casting the seed and reaping the fruits of mother earth. All of these activities have strong sexual connotations. In ancient religious mythologies the ploughing of the soil is symbolically likened to sexual intercourse as the plough pierces and opens the womb of the earth. The fertility and abundance of the earth thus treated is therefore directly related to the husband's virility. An abundant harvest brings riches that can feed a greater number of children, thus increasing the size and influence of the clan.
Historically, certain 'food privileges' constituted a declared right among the upper classes. The prime cut of the hunt went to the head of the clan. During the Middle Ages the aristocracy asserted hunting rights that not only forbade commoners to hunt for bigger game (even on their own land), but also claimed the exclusive right to drive the hunt across the peasants fields, even while destroying their harvests. Food thus became a sign of social distinction. The richest and most powerful individuals frequently demonstrated their power by laying on feasts, which obviously did not merely serve to provide sustenance to the guests, but to display their access to abundant food resources. Exotic spices and foreign foods ranked high on the scale of social sophistication - just as they do now, though nowadays they have become much more universally available, especially in urban settings. Expert knowledge of foreign and exotic delicacies demonstrates cosmopolitan sophistication. Lower social classes on the other hand tend to be far more traditional and conservative about their food choices. Novel foods always become popular among the upper classes first, before they begin their process of percolation down the social scale. Potatoes, now a peasant food, were once the rave at the courts of Europe. The expansion of the empire was largely driven not only by a desire to extend power and influence, but to obtain exclusive access to certain goods and flavours. The spice wars tell their own brutal history of the links between food and prestige.
But even long before the first British ships sailed to the East, the Romans had been actively engaged in trade with the Arabs, who in turn brought precious spices back from the East. Roman banquets served as much as a demonstration of power and wealth as their later equivalents did at the courts of Europe. As feasting evolved as a social performance, so did the attendant ritual paraphernalia and code of behaviour. Forks, knives, glasses, plates in different shapes and sizes could bewilder the uninitiated, whose ignorance was immediately exposed by the faux-pas' of using the wrong implement for a particular dish.
Table etiquette is still a major marker of class and sophistication. Though these days we tend to dine in far more relaxed styles and allowing a much more varied choice of dishes to impress the guests, table manners quietly still say a lot about social status and refinement. There are many ways to demonstrate class, though some may be so deeply ingrained as to be wholly unconsciously performed. Yet, no matter how well trained someone might be in matters of dining manners, they are likely to blunder abroad, when confronted with the intricacies of foreign food rituals.
In recent years our collective tastes have become more globalized and we don't think twice about mixing and matching ingredients and recipes whichever way it takes our fancy. Every year brings a new fad of flavour touted by food and fashion magazines. One year it is Thai, the next it is Sushi or Mongolian grill. To keep up with the Jones' means being hip to the latest fashion cuisine, not to mention their accompanying drinks.
But while some seek distinction as culinary experts or 'gourmets', with an unabashed appetite for expensive rarities to excite the palate, others set themselves apart by choosing to abstain from any such excesses. Rationalization is usually based on religious, moral or political grounds, which intend to place the abstainer on the moral high ground. Hindus don't eat beef, Brahmins abstain from foods considered too stimulating or lowly, Muslims don't eat pork while Jewish cuisine is a complex ritual governed by innumerable food taboos. This too demonstrates ethnic identity as a form of social distinction.
Food and diet trends are constantly changing - not least to keep the leagues of writers, TV-chefs, and food critics busy (and well-fed) by working hard to influence our tastes. In urban settings there is a greater choice than ever before, with foods from all around the world easily available at the local supermarket or ethnic store. This 'globalizing' of food availability has spun another food fashion - the locavores, who distinguish themselves by limiting their diets to foods that are derived from regional sources at varying distances from the locavore's base. This demonstrates socio-ecological awareness, a value that is highly ranked on the social scale. But psychologically it also reconnects people with the land where they live. Regional specialties once deemed boring and common, are rediscovered as a source of identity and pride. Locally grown food instead of exotic delicacies serves as an indicator of prestige, while also providing an enhanced sense of food security, though this may be illusory.
With over 1 billion people suffering from hunger and exploding food prices that are making a bad situation worse, food security is still a top topic on the global political agenda. Given the current rate of population explosion, it is doubtful that any region can be entirely import independent in this globalized world, especially while meat production and demand remains at current levels. Add to these dilemmas the unpredictable ways that climate change is likely to affect harvests, food security, whether homegrown or otherwise remains an elusive dream for a large portion of the global population.
Food security is still as much an indicator of privilege and power as it has ever been. Without dismantling the political structures that re-enforce poverty, the universal right to food as set out in the declaration of Human Rights will remain no more than a noble aspiration. Additionally we now face the global challenge of climate change, which unless we collectively assume responsibility as a human family tackle it, will only deepen the food privilege divide. Global access to food is a human right - it is our responsibility to safeguard the essential ingredients for production - healthy land, clean water and seed diversity as the keys of life, for all.
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