Culture on a Plate

by Lucy Bradley

“Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are” proclaimed Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1826. In his magnum opus, The Physiology of Taste, was the gastronome arguing quite simply that you are what you eat – now a commonplace – or was he alluding to something more metaphysical, beyond the nutritional, that food is an integral and powerful part of one’s identity and elemental to constructing belonging? Cultural memory is rooted in a collective heritage, binding members of a living community to each other through a common past that lives on through social rituals. Food lies at its heart.

Contributing to a vast and dynamic literary industry about food, these mini essays focus on the perspective of eating and food in the domestic context, as a collective activity, with the intention of opening up a dialogue. The subject encourages a conversation that enriches our everyday understanding and experience of food, exploring the closely related notions of identity and belonging at the individual and collective level.

Food as Identity

The absence of learned boundaries enables exploration and experimentation without the need for courage; pure inquisitiveness is the essence of the adventure. What is and what is not done; what is safe or unsafe have not yet permeated the consciousness. I remember a neighbour telling me how she had to keep an eye on her daughter whilst she played in the garden because she would pick up grubs – things like snails – and nonchalantly, put them into her mouth and down they would go. I recoiled at this vivid image of a fat, slimy snail yet it had done her no harm; the fresh garden delicacies were definitely edible yet, to me, distinctly unpalatable. Like her mum’s, my revulsion had been learned. This anecdote I think brings us onto the interesting issue about food as cultural identity.

Babies put anything in their mouths, both edible and not, from snails to Lego. The unbridled experimentation that accompanies early childhood is replaced as we begin to adopt the eating habits that we are taught; norms that delineate what we eat. Cultural inheritance – whose patterns lie in specific geographies and histories- endows food stuffs with cultural meanings and emotional resonance.

As such, although we seldom think about it, food subconsciously defines ‘us’ and thereby creates the ‘other’. We learn what is food- not what is edible. Faced with something completely ‘other’ challenges these boundaries, and can evoke visceral reactions. A food substance that in one culture is normal, in the West – let’s say blue cheese, is regarded with revulsion by the Chinese. Similarly, the idea of eating snake or a crispy cricket, alien to Western taste buds, might even elicit fear. Being edible is therefore not a sufficient condition to be food although the two are often conflated: what we don’t consider as food is often deemed repulsive or disgusting and vis-à-vis inedible.

As well as telling us what parts of which animal or substance to consume (or not), cultural inheritance often denotes to us that something is barbaric if it involves processes we abhor; uncultured if it does not conform to our expectations of social norms. This informs how we cook food as well as our understanding of how one should eat meals – social niceties like manners for example, or the implements that we use to eat. Chopsticks, cutlery, our hands.

The discussion around edibility and food is interesting, and the more one thinks about it the greyer the distinction becomes. It is clear that everything that is edible is not universally regarded as food, but conversely is all food edible? One would assume so. In common parlance the word edible holds a categorical, objective authority. A substance is either edible or it’s not. But what does edible mean? The dictionary definitions of edible include: safe to eat; fit for human consumption; good to eat; palatable. Are the first two characteristics somehow more objective- universally ‘true’- while subjectivity plays a more dominant role in defining what is ‘good’ and ‘palatable’?

According to these definitions, qualifying what is ‘good’ or ‘palatable’ is surely determined by cultural subjectivity, while ‘safe to eat’ and ‘fit for human consumption’ are rooted in a more objective understanding, in a scientific sense? But how about the liver of Fugu the Japanese delicacy otherwise known as puffer fish.  Given it’s perilous reputation, is it safe or fit for human consumption? In terms of safety it’s a sort of lottery, but through cultural tradition it’s considered edible. Capsaicin, the chemical that makes red chilies, jalapeños, and habaneros hot, for example, is poisonous in very high doses, and alcohol and salt are other commonplace consumables that carry health warnings. Other things, like almonds and cashews, require heating to remove poisons and transforms raw substances into food that is both good and safe to eat; edible. Terms that seemed pretty cut-and-dry appear more open to negotiation. It is difficult to untangle ‘edibility’ which is enmeshed in a mix of science, tradition, custom and habit.

Cooking as Art

In its naked form cooking is art, a mode of self expression. When we cook we are creating. Raw food is like the blank canvas of a painting. Applying the paint to the canvas, the artist fashions forms and shapes into a visual representation whose expression, although unique, can be placed within a particular artistic tradition or movement. This analogy illustrates the duality of identity: were the painting to have one, it would emanate from the artist’s own recognisable style (a product of how one is taught and the ideas exposed to)- and the tradition or movement to which it was bound. In the West this might be romanticism, expressionism, modernism, pop art, and so on.

Likewise in the kitchen, as Allen Weiss says, ‘culinary style begins as natural form’. The cook brings together the ingredients to create the dish, whose cultural and, in a loose sense of the term, political characteristics derive from the way it is prepared and cooked. As we prepare a dish it begins to reflect multiple expressions of identity; from the choice of ingredients all the way through to the aesthetic presentation which reflect our personality, heritage and skill. Even if we are following a recipe, no two dishes will come out tasting exactly the same. In the same way a piece of art fits into a particular genre, the flavours and ingredients locate the dish within a geographical and historical cultural heritage.

We can transpose this analogy into the post-modern world. The variety of foods stuffs we have access to is indicative of the forces of globalisation and the dishes we put on the table reflect this influence. The blurring or eradication of boundaries, which defines this period of history, levels out cultural differences. As a result the world is not as clear-cut as it once was, there is a less satisfactory fit in terms of being able to ascribe an identity to, or locate where a food, cuisine or art originates from. But perhaps this is exactly what defines the post-modern period. While it was easy to classify a Cubist artist of the avant-garde, Braques, Picasso, Delauney, Leger, Klee, today, works by renowned artists defy such neat classification, and I would say the same goes for cuisine. Taken from the Real Food Suomi blog, the following excerpt about Finnish food illustrates this point:

“During my first year here a number of Finns asked me if I like Finnish food. Honestly I don’t even know what they mean, and I don’t know how to answer… If they mean Finnish food in the traditional sense then I couldn’t say because I’ve never tried it!”

Likewise, what is a ‘British’ dish or British cuisine in the twenty first century? Whatever it is, the fact that it is difficult to pinpoint or describe coherently is itself a marker of this current period of history.

To what extent have non-native foodstuffs contributed to the demise of traditional cuisines, which evolved out of foods that could be grown locally or regionally? International foods have been available in the UK food market for hundreds of years, many of which have been naturalized into our diets and are no longer regarded as exotic, such as bananas, aubergines and broccoli. They may have embellished the traditional dishes and recipes we cook, but did not supplant the cuisine. International, pan or hybrid recipes are integrated into evolving food traditions which reflect contemporary history and culture, again without supplanting traditional cuisine.

It seems that the demise of traditional dishes in home cooking is significantly linked to changing staples. Research shows the traditional English ‘meat and two veg’ is dying out as people increasingly turn away from potatoes to eating more rice and pasta. Basic architectural principles illustrate this significance: the foundations determine the whole structure. In other words it’s unlikely you are going to eat traditional steak, casserole or roast with pasta or rice. (I suppose we could then ask what is motivating this change? I think it’s more complex than personal preference and involves a whole host of economic factors that underpin global trade regimes and consumer preferences – which boil down to domestic economics, and lifestyle). When we change the staple, the foundations of a cuisine and heritage are fundamentally compromised. When whole dishes disappear, pillars of cultural memory dissolve. Our pan becomes a melting pot.

Inevitably, the ability to experience cooking as art and a mode of self-expression is contingent on a lack of constraints; two significant ones being time and budget. In reality art, creativity and expression are luxuries in today’s world where the majority of us are time poor and/or economically stretched. The food journalist Michael Pollan observes that as women went into paid work corporations took over the job of cooking. The ready meal “liberated” the female from kitchen drudgery. It turned food into a functional commodity, cooking became heating up and microwaving. Alienating food from it’s creative potential, the ritual of meal preparation became methodical, impersonal and de-skilled – and instantaneous. Bringing us back to the idea of cooking as art, comparing the qualitative difference between a ready meal and one that has been personally crafted, it’s like the comparison between an original work of art and a reproduction. It goes without saying, some prints are better than others, it just depends on what you can afford.

An interesting side issue beyond the scope of this article is why in Anglo American culture did cooking and the kitchen became associated with domestic drudgery? Social attitudes towards the role of cooking in the home says a lot about the politics, economics and power relations within a given society.

Food as Theatre

Cooking is closely linked to the origin of domestic space, and food to the built environment. Situated at the heart of the domestic realm across all societies, the symbolic placing of the campfire, hearth, or kitchen and eating areas marks the centrality of meals to the human condition; inscribed in philosophy Cicero described Hestia, Greek goddess of cooking and the home as the “guardian of the innermost things”. The earliest signs date back one million years at Wonderwerk Cave, in South Africa, where evidence of cooking and campfires happening repeatedly on the same spot shows that humans designated areas specifically for cooking well before other domestic space was formally delineated. Interestingly the ability to make fire and cook transformed early human living practices which led to our anatomical evolution as a species.  Variations in the design and arrangement of these spaces broadly reflect social and cultural differences and eating practices, rituals and traditions, and have made kitchens as much cultural as practical arenas. Beyond the home, Ferruccio Trabalzi draws our attention to the decisive influence of food on architecture; ‘much of the built environment is built around food: producing, storing, transporting and selling, serving, and eating it’ [2].

“Food as theatre” might conjure up images of the dramatics and costumes of Carnival, but here I am talking about the everyday context. Let us consider the space in which the meal takes place as the theatre; the table becomes the stage, and the meal- with its rituals and traditions- is the performance; the tableware are the props. This angle enables us to ask a number of questions that prompt us to consider aspects of daily meals that are so normal they go unnoticed. Thinking about the assignment of roles – such as who cooks, who serves; how are the physical spaces occupied and shared by sub-groups, does everyone eat together; what about the elderly or the young? – provides clues as to the social hierarchies and power relations within societies and also how these change across time or space. For example, in the majority of societies the kitchen has been the female domain, while in traditional Samoan culture, before the arrival of Western influence, men were responsible for cooking, from the daily meals to celebratory feasts.

Another important feature that we rarely think about is the table; it’s shape- round or square alters the dynamics, who sits where? Is there a head of the table and if so why, what role do they play- traditionally or now? Laying the table, table manners, courses… these rituals are dictated by convention. As discussed before, we learn the norms, what’s done and what’s not, often without really thinking about it. It seems like second nature. Rooted in heritage and tradition collectively the mealtime rituals and norms, and the very act of meeting and talking, connect us to a specific cultural heritage. Extending the metaphor of the theatre, the social exchanges provide the dialogue of the meal, in a narrative of giving and sharing. Food is ‘a currency of love and desire, a medium of expression and communication’[3]. As Claude Lévi-Strauss articulated in The Raw and The Cooked, ‘food is good not because it is good to eat but because it is good to think’ together. If we think about our own experiences of sharing food and meals, it is usually something we do with people we love or care about. Whether sharing and eating together happens between members of the family, with friends, or the wider community at feasts or banquets – Burns Night in Scotland or the feasts of the contradas in Siena that celebrate Il Palio – these events reinforce human bonds and a collective identity. The meal as a social event is an anchor of cultural memory.


[1] Weiss, A. Culinary Manifestations of the Genius Loci, In: Eating Architecture, eds. J. Horowitz & P. Singley. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. p.22.

[2] Trabalzi, F. (2004) Local Food Products, Architecture, and Territorial Identity. In: Eating Architecture, eds. J. Horowitz & P.Singley. MIT Press. p.71.

[3] Sceats, S. (2000) Food, Consumption and The Body in Contemporary Women’s Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p 11.

Bardhi, F., Ostberg, J. and Bengtsson, A. (2010). Negotiating cultural boundaries: Food, travel and consumer identities. Consumption, Markets and Culture, 13 (2); 133-157.

Berna, F. et al. (2012) Microstratigraphic evidence of in situ fire in the Acheulean strata of Wonderwerk Cave, Northern Cape province, South Africa. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2 April 2012.

Marshall, D. (2005) Food as ritual, routine or convention. Consumption Markets & Culture, 8(1): 69-85.

Pollan, M. (2011). The Omnivore’s Dilemma. London: Bloomsbury.

Riley, H. (2010). Potato consumption in the UK – why is ‘meat and two veg’ no longer the traditional British meal?. Nutrition Bulletin, 35(4): 320–331.

Singley, P., and Horowitz, J. (2004). Introduction. In: Eating Architecture, eds. J. Horowitz & P. Singley Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Sita. (2012) Traditional foods in Europe are disappearing. Real Food Suomi, [blog] Published 19 December 2012.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s