What Does Food Mean

"We think, dream and act according to what we eat and drink." —F.T. MARINETTI
The Sumerians may have said it best:“Food: That’s the thing! Drink: That’s the thing!”
What is the meaning of food? We humans live by symbols; they help us to make sense of the world, to organize and give meaning to our existence. Our alphabets are symbolic: we agree that a certain symbol stands for a certain sound. Time is another human invention: daylight,standard, leap year. Christianity’s year 2006 is Judaism’s 5765, Islam’s 1427, and China’s 4703. Nobody needed a nanosecond until Bill Gates and computers came along at the end of the twentieth century. So, too, we give food meaning far beyond its survival function. It has been used in rituals to guarantee fertility, prosperity, a good marriage, and an afterlife. It has been used to display the power and wealth of the state, the church, corporations, a person.
Food is one of the ways humans define themselves as civilized. But “civilized” is a slippery concept, very much in the eye of the beholder. For example, civilized people use utensils—forks, knives, spoons, chopsticks. Unless they’re eating with their hands. Civilization has been used as a reason for vegetarianism—not eating meat elevates humans and separates them from “savages.” But notorious vegetarians include mass murderers like Robespierre, the leader of the Terror that followed the French Revolution, and Hitler. Overcoming prejudices about what is civilized can be difficult or impossible, even when survival is at stake. During WWII, starving American servicemen could not bring themselves to eat nutritious insects.
Identity—religious, national, ethnic—is intensely bound up with food. Every group thinks of itself as special and exceptional and uses food to show it. The French identity is connected to white bread, while southern Italians insist on tomato sauce. This identification can also take the form of a negative, in foods that are excluded: “We don’t eat that. They (religion, country, ethnic group) eat that.” Some examples are the Jewish and Muslim avoidance of pork, and the Buddhist taboo on beef.
Everything about how humans cook and eat has meaning: who is allowed to fish for it, farm it, mill it, or kill it; what vessels and utensils are used in the preparation; what time of day the meal is eaten; who sits where at the table (if you’re eating at a table), how close to an important person, a certain food, the salt, a person of another gender, race, or class; what order the food is served in; who serves it; whether it is hot or cold, cooked in water or by direct fire. In European and American cultures, serving a whole boiled chicken at an important occasion would be an insult, while in Taiwan, it is the centerpiece of a banquet.
Alcohol, too, is used differently in different cultures. For Jews and Christians, wine has always been a crucial part of the religion. In ancient Greece, wine was consumed after the meal at a symposium, a religious and political ritual attended only by men. In ancient Rome, men and women drank wine with the meal. Americans couldn’t wait for the meal and invented the cocktail.
Whether you take your tea with sugar, cream, and small sandwiches in the middle of the afternoon, green in a special ceremony, iced, call it “chai,” or use the leaves to smoke foods or tell your fortune depends on where you are—England, Japan, the U.S., India, China, or Turkey. If you think cinnamon is a hot spice that belongs in a meat sauce, you’re in western Asia. If it’s a sweet sprinkling on a breakfast bun, you’re in Europe or North America.
Let’s take a look at an average household in two cultures that seem the same. Both spend a great deal of money on plants and take great pride in their landscaping. Both keep animals. Both have habitats for fish. But in the first culture, everything is for food. The plants and animals are edible and the artificial ponds are stocked with fish for eating. In the second culture, everything is for show. The plants are ornamental, the animals are pets, and the fish in the aquariums are expensive, exotic, and inedible. The first culture is ancient Rome; the second is the United States. The Romans had words for meadow and grass (herba), because those were places where sheep could graze. But a lawn, which is a holdover from European estates 300 to 400 years ago, would have made no sense to them. These are vast differences in culture and in human´s relationship to nature and to their food supply.

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