Breaking Bread – An Introduction

by Evy Jokhova

In my introductions to the ALLOTMENT dinners, I aim to pose questions that I find pertinent to the role of food in today’s society, as well as share snippets of research and articles that I have found relevant to the topic of discussion.

“One cannot fully understand cultural practices unless ‘culture’, in the restricted, normative sense of ordinary usage, is brought back into ‘culture’ in the anthropological sense, and the elaborated taste for the most refined objects is reconnected with the elementary taste for the flavours of food.” Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction, 1984

Bourdieu explores patterns of consumption in the contemporary world. In his work Distinction, he looks at the economy of culture which produces both consumable goods (commodities) and consumers for the produced goods. Bourdieu correlates the hierarchy of cultural good with social hierarchy, wherein, he argues that ‘taste’ acts as an indicator of class. Bourdieu aims to merge the often separated understandings of ‘high culture’ (which he views as restricted) and mass culture (which he considers ‘culture’ in the anthropological sense) in order to examine how cultural distinction may act as a measure of class. The experience and role of food in human life often goes unnoticed and food may be seen as merely a sustenance, yet, what we eat and how we eat it invariably defines us. Vernacular cuisine was often simple, consisting of high carbohydrate content that aimed to fill and feed many, whereas in the Royal courts food was sculpted into objects, landscapes and animals aimed to wow and humble guests showing off the riches of the hosts defining the social status of those at the table.

Darwin thought language to be half art and half instinct which fuelled our capacity for invention and understanding. Through language we have come to form our various cultures, and through language we have defined and named our traditional dishes. But what is cultural value and how do we come to measure it. Do we see taste as an index of culture like Bourdieu? And can taste be a viable marker in a multicultural society? Is evaluation solely about value and is measurement a value-laden political decision?

If we consider politics, then who is it who decides what we eat? Is it us, when we chose our vegetables at the supermarket, or the PR agency that has branded the supermarket in a way that appeals to us and helps us define ourselves? Is it large corporations that are squeezing out the independent grocery stalls, moving them out of geographical reach, or the corporations who buy out the independent grocery stalls, making sure that consumers remain unaware of this and continue to believe that they are shopping at an independent grocery stalls? Or is it the environment that creates the seasonal produce that purchase at farmers’ markets? Politics comes with two questions: who decides? and who decides who decides? In several Eastern European cultures there is a saying that the although the man is head of family, the woman is the neck who turns the head whichever way she likes. So do we really decide and choose for ourselves or have our heads already been turned and preconditioned to chose specific things and how does this relate to and inform culture and tradition?

“The “civilisation” which we are accustomed to regard as a possession that comes to us apparently ready-made, without our asking how we actually came to posses it, is a process or part of a process in which we ourselves are involved. Every particular characteristic that we attribute to it – machinery, scientific discovery, forms of state, or whatever else – bears witness to a particular structure of human relations, to a particular social structure, and to corresponding forms of behaviour.” Norbert Elias, The Civilising Process

In The Civilising Process Norbert Elias outlines our relationship to culture as something we take completely for granted, for from childhood we have been conditioned and moulded by set social standards. Yet, society developed gradually and arduously.  Elias uses the “humble” fork as an example. The fork, introduced in the Middle Ages, entered into a society which largely ate with their hands, shared goblets and soup bowls. ‘Civilisation’ in Elias’s view came about through a conditioning of society through the gradual introduction of forms of  shame, evaluations of relationship and conduct. He views society as something that is in constant flux, where the ongoing transformation towards evermore ‘refined’ civility rooted in feeling of shame and embarrassment continuously reinforce separations between bodies, invisible walls between people and individualisation as social norms.

Customs and traditions are often something that fit the needs of people in specific forms and at a specific times, thus, they evolve as needs evolve, much like the view of Elias. My personal connection to the dining table is very much a cultural one. I was born towards the end of the Soviet era in Russia, yet many habits pertaining to that time, are still strongly present in my life today. Social time in Soviet Russia was at the table, there were no pubs or late night clubs for people to gather in, so people gathered at the table. Neighbours and friends gathered in each others kitchens or dining rooms, evenings were filled with lengthy discussions, debates, of course, not without the drinking, and meal times were very much a communal event. With the development of technology, android phones and social networking this communal meal time dynamic is changing as much in urbanised areas in Russia as it is in Western cultures. Having lived in London for over 10 years, and observed social relations of people eating out, I increasingly encounter people sat in restaurants glued to android devices which they detach themselves from only for short burst of time when their meal is served, regardless of whether they are with someone or dining alone. Yet, despite this, food, as a subject, has been acquiring increased presence in our lives lately. More and more ‘trendy’ diners, food stalls and events are popping up, images of food and restaurant reviews are omnipresent on the web, food scandals feature highly in the news. Trolling through twitter feeds recently I came across an artist asking in frustration how many more dinner photographs we (or perhaps just her) still need to see, coupled with the phrase: “fed up with Instagram!” Irritation at Instagram or food images on social media is not infrequent, however, from the numerous articles written recently on food images in social media some have a positive take on the matter.

A Tweetable Feast, Keller’s article in Aeon Magazine discusses just this – the overload of food images in social media. Referencing a priest’s speech at a wedding and a public acknowledgement of food images of Instagram, Keller implies that many are aware of how deeply our lives have become intertwined with social media. Images of food [on social media] permeate through our lives, some of us embrace this, others sneer at the trend (or phenomenon as other may see it), yet still some of us are oblivious of this. Keller argues that this may not necessarily be a negative, as by taking an image of our meal and posting it online, we are inviting our family and friends to partake in our meal in a way. He does not argue that this can in anyway replace a real shared meal and conversation, but proposes that sharing food images can help people feel connected despite the distances between them. Keller views sharing images of food as, albeit a meagre one, but still a substitute for the physical process of sharing food at times when it is not possible due to conflicting schedules and geographical separation.
References:

Bourdieu, P (1984) Distinction. Harvard University Press

Elias, N. (1978) The Civilizing Process. Blackwell Publishers,London

Keller J. A Tweetable Feast: Aeon Magazine, Published 23 May 2013

Pollan, M. (2008) In Defence of Food: An Eaters Manifesto. Penguin Books

Thakkar, J. The Ugly Truth: Aeon Magazine, Published 12 Feb 2014

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