FOR SOCIAL REASONS
For humans, food does more than merely nourish.
It socializes----and civilizes-----us as well.
By: Jeffrey Kluger
I F YOU EVER FIND YOURSELF DINING WITH A FAMILY IN THESouth African kingdom of Lesotho, you’d better have a taste for eyeballs—that is, if you’re the male head of a household. Tradition requires the host to honor your family in a truly special way: with the cooked head of a sheep. Everyone will be served the feast, but only you will be presented with the eyes. A sheep’s head is a big deal in Lesotho, where most folks don’t often get to enjoy meat. When they do, they like it rich and fatty, and they eat it right down to the offal. Presenting the crowning part of so prized a meal to a guest is no small gesture.
For human beings, eating has never been a simple matter.
To a frog snagging a fly or a pelican nabbing a fish, food is fuel and nothing more. To a human, the ritual of eating—the act of pulling up and tucking in, of passing around and helping oneself—is one of the most primal of shared activities. We eat together when we celebrate, and we eat together when we grieve, we eat together when a loved one is preparing to leave, and we eat together when the loved one returns. We solve our problems over the family dinner table, conduct our business over the executive lunch table, entertain guests over cake and cookies at the coffee table. “Interaction over food is the single most important feature of socializing,” says Sidney Mintz, professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. “The food becomes the carriage that conveys feelings back and forth
It’s not just families that define themselves through foods.
Whole cultures do so too. Muslims eat halal and Jews eat kosher and Roman Catholics forgo meat on Fridays. Moroccans don’t eat what Swedes eat, who don’t eat what the Japanese eat, who don’t eat what Croatians eat. When families leave their home countries and settle elsewhere, the cultural feathering they bring with them—language, dress, music—is often shed within a generation. But the foods linger. “The last part of a culture that gets lost are the food ways.” says Barrett Brenton, nutritional anthropologist at St. John’s University in New York City. “We find comfort in our cuisines.”
Although that has long been the way food works, it is becoming less so—at least .in the developed world, where scarcity has been replaced by overabundance and undernourishment by obesity. Increasingly, the connection between eating and ritual is becoming unhinged. We turn too much to food for solace and celebration, and we do it with less and less reference to traditions or even formal mealtimes—to the detriment of our figure and our health.
If the routines we have built around food are complex,
it’s because we have been working on them for so long. Well before we were very social creatures, we were decidedly hungry creatures, and we ate anything we could lay our hands on. Insects, worms and up to 20 kinds of game were nothing to a hunter-gatherer. As our tastes became more refined, the number of items on our menus shrank, mostly because we did a better job of intuiting what we needed. Cultures that developed a taste for rice and beans didn’t know a lick about combining incomplete proteins, but that’s what they were doing. People who learned to enjoy high-fiber foods didn’t understand intestinal health, but they were helping to ensure it nonetheless. “A co-evolutionary process unfolded between cuisines and nourishment,” says Brenton. “There’s nutritional wisdom behind it all.”.””
How and when we ate became formalized too. When food was scarce, it had to be guarded, so families huddled close to eat what they had caught or picked. Somewhere in there may lie the origins of the dinner table. When food was abundant enough to share, it was passed around mostly at celebrations—harvest festivals, when the foods of autumn were eaten; Easter feasts, when the spring lamb re- called both Jesus’ sacrifice and the story of Passover. “The foods became the anchor to which the rituals connected7 says Brenton. “You don’t see the same foods at a wedding as at a funeral as at a naming ceremony.
All.” these customs are more than cultural frippery, though we don’t always realize it until food and tradition come uncoupled. Among immigrants, particularly those coming to the U.S., the obesity problem has become a full-blown crisis. Even the stubbornest new arrivals may find that their food practices are impossible to maintain in a new environment, where familiar ingredients aren’t available, old-world holidays aren’t observed and the Mediterranean tradition of the heavy lunch must yield to the less healthy practice of postponing the big meal until the end of the day. “There’s a lot of food-related culture shock for new immigrants.” says anthropologist David Himmelgreen of the University of South Florida in Tampa.
That discordance can do a lot of damage. Himmelgreen tracked the weight of Puerto Rican women living in the continental U.S. and found that the longer they had been here and the better their English, the more they tended to weigh. “People’s food habits change dramatically when they arrive.” he says. “The weight gain can happen in a very short time For people who have always lived in the U.S., the problem is even worse. There are a lot of reasons for America’s obesity epidemic --oversize portions, over-processed foods, too little exercise. But nutritionists and anthropologists agree that the death of the official mealtime may play the biggest role. “By the time children go to middle school,” says anthropologist Marquisa LaVelle of the University of Rhode Island in Kingston, “many families have basically stopped eating together.” Solitary eating can be uncontrolled eating—snacks, sweets and meals behind the wheel. “By age 10, everyone in the family can feed themselves whatever they want—and they do:’ says LaVelle.
Families can change all.” that. Picking better foods and preparing them healthfully certainly helps. But so does a return to the time when eating was seen as not just a way to fill up but as an opportunity to transact the business of being human also. A set table and a balanced meal take a lot more work than a carry-out pizza. But the rewards are infinitely richer.
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