Can food
ever be just something you eat?

“Thinking
about food has much to reveal about how we understand our personal and
collective identities. Seemingly simple acts of eating are flavoured with
complicated and sometimes contradictory cultural meanings. Thinking about food
can help reveal the rich and messy textures of our attempts at
self-understanding, as well as our interesting and problematic understandings
of our relationships to social others.”

 

Narayan
1995:64U1 

 

Food has
been studied from ananthropological perspective since decades. In the last half
of the 20th Century, some studies JM2 have centralized food as a key insight into
modern social life. Anthropologists have identified food as a communication
system, a language, which expresses some features of the structure in a
society. However, food seen as language (a body of images, a protocol of
usages, situations and behaviour), can create boundaries and factors of social
inclusion and exclusion, it
can be used as a tool to make nationalism (como pongo eso rocío?).
Different societies use food to reinforce their national identity, traditions
and culture. In this writing I propose two examples of how food can transmit a
message that create boundaries in between different nations. The first scenario
describe one of the most popular dishes in Vietnam, Banh Tet, which is not only
seen as a something  that can be eaten,
but as a key tool that creates boundaries between the Vietnamese and Chinese
culture. The second example that I expose here, studies how food invite to
reinforce the identity of a nation when people lives abroad, this is the case
of a group of expatriate Senegalese in Italy.

 

Why food
is important in anthropology?

 

Food is
a fundamental human necessity. Since early times, societies have the choice of
selecting the food that they want to eat, it represents a iconic way to under-light
the own belonging, the footways and consumption rituals (Mintz, 2002).

Anthropology
of food is a discipline of anthropology that links ethnographic studies with
different social issues in food consumption and production systemU3 . Some pioneer anthropologists have studied
traditions and food habits in specific communities since the latter half of the
20th century. Levy-Strauss (1966) is one of them. He has
demonstrated that each meal or dish can reflect something about ourselves and
about the position we take in the world. JM4 The
anthropologist identified food as an investigation field that represent the
cuisine of a society as a language that, unconsciously, manifest some features
of the structure of a culture (Levi-Strauss, 1966:586). This hidden language by
food habits and traditions were studied deeply by Mary Douglas (1972:68-9)
years after. She argued that food is not only a compilation of products that
provides sustenance and nutrition. Douglas noted that food and meals are also a
system of communication, protocol and behavior, and its contains an important message about how we
understand our personal and collective identities. JM5 She
translated this language by attempting to link social relations to the
configurations of a meal. This is how Mary Douglas(1972:65) delimits a
difference between a meal (social order) to drinks (absence of social order) and
also explored into the hierarchy of a meal (starters, mains, desserts) comparing
to the social hierarchy, and how the meal is adapted to fit the circle of a
given culture.

“If
food is treated as a code, the messages it encodes will be found in the pattern
of social relations being expressed. ” (Douglas, 1972:61)

People
need to follow a communication process in order to sent a message, where a
sender sent information through a specific channel to a recipient. Some ideologists
have argued that communication by food has to follow also a specific process.
The philosopher Rolan Barthes (1961:3) argues that communication by food
appears when food becomes a part of an organization of differences in
signification. All the facts concerning food form a structure analogous to
other system of communication, a sign. The message is about different degrees of hierarchy  (esto esta bien dicho?), inclusion and
exclusion, boundaries and transactions across the boundaries. Food
involucres a social component, as well as a biological one.

 

But how
this communication system works? Can food really be interpreted as a message
that contains information? Can food become a describing factor of a society,
nation, region or culture?

 

Benedict
Anderson help us to understand the way that food; iconic national dishes, take
part in the construction and negotiation of various facets of this entity. The
author (Anderson, 1983:58) declares that “nationalism must be understood by aligning it not with
self-consciously held ideologies, but with the large cultural systems that
preceded it”. The cultural system that Anderson describes is defined
primarily by language, therefore if we understand food as a communication
system, it could also influence in a nation or culture.

Anderson’s
studies (1983) has revolutionized an understanding of the nature of modern
nation-states and how nationalism is originated. But some authors APM6 argues
that Anderson do not dig enough in the different ways by which a sense of “nation”
is maintained and re-forced in the every-day life(Nugent, 2010:92-7), (Avileli, 2005:167-8).

If food
can be interpreted as “language” (a message in between different cultures),
then national dishes can be seen as the words of this language. Specifically, Iconic
dishes of a nation have an important role to create or re-forced community/national
identities, it can be used as a strategy to “do nationalism”, transmit
information and make communication real. Food can be easily seen as a cultural
artefact, making the perfect vessel for complicated and polysemic ideas.

People
feel part of a nation by celebrating different traditions, singing the national
anthem but also by eating traditional food. Banh Tet a good example of how food
can do nationalism. Banh Tet is a Vietnamese sweetened cake made mainly from
glutinous rice rolled in a banana leaf. This national dish is eating mainly
during the Vietnamese New Year period, but this rice cakes reveals also a lot
about the ways in which contemporary Vietnamese think about themselves, about
their nation (Avieli, 2005).

 

For many Vietnamese people, the notion of their
identity being different from the Chinese is an important and sensitive issue
in contemporary Vietnam. Vietnamese has suffered an important influence of
Chinese culture after the occupation of the Chinese empire, ruling and influencing
almost all the aspect of Vietnamese culture and society. The outcome nowadays
is an ambivalent feeling toward the Chinese and their practices, but Vietnamese
are very keen to show that their culture is unique and different (Bailey, 1999). JM7 (A raiz de este echo, el pueblo vietnamita siente la necesidad de demostrar
al mundo los rasgos que hacen de este país, una nación singular y diferente a
la china).

The
Vietnamese New Year festival (Teg Nguyen Dan) is the most important event
celebrated by ethnic Vietnamese and it carries months of preparation. Teg has
to be celebrated with one’s family and this is an essential part of what it
means to be Vietnamese. Inviting someone to visit during the festival carries
an invitation “to eat” (an tet), stressing the centrality of eating and food.
The New Year rice cakes (bahn Tet) are the main food eating during the
festival. Bahn tet is the most filling dish of the Vietnamese cuisine but also
the main culinary icon of their culture. The cakes are full of symbols that
describe what means to be Vietnamese, some of those metaphors are explained
bellow.

Firstly,
cakes are made with boiled rice forming a square shape that is considered the
symbol of the Vietnamese people in gratitude for the earth that has supplied
thus nutritious food (Schultz 1994:59). The square shape symbolize the square
plots of land from which they grow their crops (Nguyen and Sach 2003:81). The
cakes has their own legend, being a model of the cosmos and the natural
elements, but also model of traditional Vietnamise farming with rice, beans and
pork. Green beans and pork are very important ingredients for Bant Tet, but those
ingredients are hidden in the middle of the cake under a thick layer of rice.
This is interpreted as a model of the spatial organization of the country side:
endless rice fields surrounding by villages where small patches of legumes,
vegetables and pigs and other farms animals are tended near the houses. Another
important factor is the green color of the cakes, which is given by a bamboo
leaf that wrap the rice cake during the boiling process, and it is interpreted
as the green color of the rice fields. Perhaps the most striking symbol about Bant
Tet is that for Vietnamese people, the good rice cakes are made with glutinous
and sticky rice (gao nep), that suggested to many Vietnamese people that
glutinous rice stands for togetherness, social cohesion and unity.

Rice is
the most important element in the Vietnamese diet and cultivating is the most
common activity in Vietnam (Nguyen 1995:2018). Therefore, rice farming is also
a very crucial aspect of Chinese culture, so there is something else about this
cakes that is distinctively for Vietnamese?

U8 

Banh
Tet, Vietnamese New Year Rice cakes.      .

 

Banh Tet
are easy to preserve and used to be carried by the Vietnamese warriors during
nation´s endless wars. Used as an “iron rations”, these cakes are durable, easy
to carry and very nutritious, sustaining people for a long time. This
historical meaning provides an essential feeling of cultural and psychological
satisfaction for Vietnamese people. People from this country have won wars due
to their ability to use the limited resources available to resist. Tet embodies
the spirit achieved by repeated military triumphs and, in some way, those cakes
take part in developing Vietnamese cultural identity and nationalism (Avieli, 2005:180-1).
 In terms of “Imagined Communities”
(Anderson, 1983) analytical framework, this food item serves as an important
means for practicing and “concretizing” national identity. The nation’s diet is
a feast of imagined commensality (Bell and Valentine 1997: 169).

By
studying the impact of Banh Tet in the Vietnamese culture, we can explore some
socio-cultural ideas of contemporary Vietnamese national and, the implicit and
complex ways which they take part in developing Vietnamese cultural identity. That
cakes and their symbolism are so important for Vietnamese people, in part,
because they difference them from being Chinese, they make them feel
autochthonous culture and not influenced/corrupted by Chinese influence
(Avieli, 2005:183). In this studied example, the quote of Menell (1985) makes
sense: “Iconic dishes are powerful markers of national identity”.

Alonso
(1994:380) tries to bridge the gap between the theory of the concept of nation
as an “imagined entity” and the daily practices that are produced. Alonso
thinks that food, eating habits and cooking design nationalism. Additionally, Palmer
(1998:183) identifies food as one important “flag of identity” (like coins,
ceremonies, anthems, costumes…) and symbol of national belonging that makes a
tangible union between the theory and practice of nationalism.

But what
happens when you must protect your culture and nation in an abroad land? As a
“language”, food can be spread. With the process of people´s migration, food
and culinary habits are transmitted between cultures, shoring up a “sense of
community identity” (Brown and Mussel 1984).

There is
a study made by Fedora Gasparetti (2012) about Senegalese migrants living in
Turin (Italy) that explains of how food plays an important role in identity re-construction
in migrants. Gasparetti analyses the role of national dishes to reinforce the
sense of belongingness of a Senegalese community. She also explores the
negotiation process of the differences in Senegalese migrants living in Italy
trough the consumption of “tie boujenn”, a dish of fish and rice, and the most
famous in Senegal.

Food is
an element of pride in Senegalese culture, as well as identification.
Preparation and consumption play a fundamental role in regulating social
relations within Senegalese society. Dispersed communities of Senegalese people
living in Italy, often maintain a sense of identity and history though food
consumption. More broadly, in a world where consumption is so central to
identity formation, the ‘community of consumers’ might supersede other aspects
of identification (Gasparetti, 2012:7-8).

Gasparetti
(2012:9-11) notice that cooking and eating are often of central importance for
migrants living abroad, but she also points out how people from Senegal tend to
re-define their identity in this host  society
(Italy) by food. Senegalese food represents a vital link with the motherland,
nourishing all the Senegalese community abroad. People living away from their
original place could find traditional dishes as way of express their ethnicity.
Pierre L. van den Berghe (1984:395) agrees to this idea: “Like ethnicity
itself, ethnic cuisine ‘only becomes a self-conscious, subjective reality when
ethnic boundaries are crossed’.

For
Bourdieu (1979:184-185) food is acomponent that highlighting the differences
between cultures, groups and social strata. Senegalese community in Italy is
not a homogeneous group. In this community is possible to find people coming
from different parts of Senegal, with diverse traditions, habits, religions and
ethnicities. Therefore, it is difficult to talk about a unique “Senegalese” ethnicidentity.
Furthermore, regardless of these internal differences that make difficult
stablish a broad vision of identity, when Senegalese eats tie boujenn together,
a special link is made, a sense of belonging to a Senegalese community in a
broader sense. It brings a strengthens and union in the internal cohesion of
the group (Gasparetti, 2012).

Gasparetti
(2012:18) identifies the way through the consumption of Senegalese food and
traditional drinks become an “identity marker” for Senegalese trans-migrants,
creating and reinforcing the “experienced identity”. Food here plays a symbolic
role in displayed process of identity construction. Community identity can get
articulated through food in many ways. Places where sharing food and drinks
helps bond us into a community. But we must always be mindful of the fact that
communities are about exclusion as well as inclusion: a food is one way in
which boundaries get drawn, and insiders and outsiders distinguished. The anthropologist Levis
Strauss (1966) contributes to this idea by identifying the cultural meaning (which
is constructed in a specific nation) acquires even greater importance in the
migration context. Senegalese people, for example, accompany religious and cultural events,
rituals and everyday life with the consumption of national food. “In the migration context, the
immigrant group’s efforts to reconstruct the supply infrastructure required by
its foodways ensure that its own dietary culture is at least partly preserved”.

Food
represents a way to gain social and economic power. It can acquire different
meanings according to the different consumption situations. Food can represent
a venue and space for memories, with its evocative power enabling Senegalese migrants
to “feel at home” when abroad. In some ways, food plays a central role in the
construction of personal and social identity for Senegalese migrants belonging
to other immigrant groups, contributing to the creation of new relationships
outside the group.
U9 

By studying food consumption we observe
patterns that cross countries and span continents: some reflect process of
globalisation or of urbanisation, but others trace the movements of people
around the world. Indeed, the national dishes of countries commonly bear the
mark o successive waves of migration. Some ethic and/or religious communities
within host countries are marked as different, and attempt either to maintain
that difference or to erase it, though cultural process and practices. U10 

As I have explained above, nation’s
diet can have a key role to play in nationalistic sentiments. However
threatened invasions of ‘filthy foreign food’ can being seen as dangerous to
the whole fabric of national identity. – The nation is also an organisational
unit, of course, and the bodies which regulate its behaviour always take an
interest in what is eating.

 

Conclusion

 

In this
paper we have studied how the field of anthropology has been interested in
studying the role of food and its consumption since early times. Anthropologists
such as Mary Douglas or Lévi-Strauss offer us a new perspective to understand
the hidden language that food and its consumption contain.

Anthropology
has explained how food can be interpreted as a language system capable of
expressing ideas within a specific culture, as between different communities.
In this way, food acquires a different meaning that can be exploited by
different communities, both to characterize the values ??and nationalistic
characteristics of a specific society and to reinforce the identity of a nation
when people live abroad. In this writing, my intention was to demonstrate,
through the use of different scenarios, how national dishes fulfil this
important role.

Banh Tet
is not only a rice cake for the Vietnamese community. This national dish
reinforces their sense of originality and – their gastronomy – makes them
different from the Chinese community, which has control almost all aspects of
the Vietnamese culture during years. As a result, national dishes like this one
are involved in “powerful rituals of self-identification and social
cohesion” (Douglas, 1984).

In the
case of the group of Senegalese living in Italy, their eating habits, consumption
of thypical dishes and food choices represent an explicit tool that migrants
can use to recreate their identity in the context of migration (Medina 2001).

As we
analyzed the concept of Anderson (imagined communities), I came to the
conclusion that some authors thought that Anderson did not inquire too much
into the way in which a nation maintains and reinforces its particular identity
on a day-to-day basis. For Anderson, language is one of the most important
characteristics that shape the identity of a nation. So, if we contemplate food
as language, we can obtain a communication system based on food. This is how
Alonso (1994: 380) uses food, eating habits and national cuisine to better
understand the way in which a community “exercises nationalism” and
makes it different from other societies.

To
finish I would like to reinforce the idea of ??food as “something that not
only comes, but a vehicle that can lead us to deeper meanings”…

 

Bibliografia

Gasparetti,
F. (2012). Eating tieboujennin. Turin: Negotiating Differences and Building Community Among Senegalese
Migrants in Italy. Food and Foodways, 20(3-4), pp.257-278.

Levi-Strauss,
C. (1966). The Culinare Triangle. Partisan Review (1966).

Douglas,
M. (1972). Deciphering a Meal. Daedalus. Volume 101. Issue 1.

Barthes,
R. (1961) Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption. Originally
published as “Versune psycho-sociologie de l’alimentationmoderne” in
Annales: Economies, Societes, Civilisations 5 September-October, pp. 977-986.
Extract used from Food and Culture: A Reader, 2nd edition, ed. by Carole
Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. Routledge, 2008, pp 28-35.

Benedict,
A. (1983), Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of
Nationalism, London: Verso.

Nugent,
P. (2010). Do Nations Have Stomachs? Food, Drink and Imagined Community in
Africa. (Africa Spectrum, 45, 3, 87-113).

Avieli,
N. (2005). Vietnamese New Year Rice Cakes: Iconic Festive Dishes and Contested
National Identity. Ethnology, 44(2), p.167.

Bell and
Valentine (1997). Consuming Geographies: We Are Where We Eat.

Palmer,
C. 1998. From Theory to Practice: Experiencing the Nation in Everyday Life.
Journal of Material Culture 3(2): 175-199.

Van den
Berghe, P. (1984). Ethnic cuisine: Culture in nature. Ethnic and Racial
Studies. Volume 7, Issue 3.

Bourdieu,
P. (1979)Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. (Translation
by Richard Nice)

Narayan,
U. (1995) Eating cultures: Identification, identity and Indian food.

Bailey,
S. (1999) The STRUGGLE FOR Independence and National Identity: Nguyen
KhacVien’s Vietnam: A Long History.

Mintz, S. & Du Bois, C. (2002) The
anthropology of food and eating. U11 

 U1ref

 JM2Que estudios? Que autores

 U3Klein and Watson (2016). The Handbook of Food and Anthropology. Bloomsbury Academic. p. 3

 JM4Consuming geographies/ David bell & gill valentine

 JM5Narayan 1995:64

 

 APM6Which authors?

 JM7referenciar

 U8refeenciar la foto

 U9ref

 U10Mintz

 U11http://tucnak.fsv.cuni.cz/~hajek/ski/kolokvium/projekty2007/cista_strava_spravna_strava/Mintz%20et%20al%20%282002%29%20%20The%20anthropology%20of%20food%20and%20eating.pdf