Can foodever be just something you eat?”Thinkingabout food has much to reveal about how we understand our personal andcollective identities. Seemingly simple acts of eating are flavoured withcomplicated and sometimes contradictory cultural meanings. Thinking about foodcan help reveal the rich and messy textures of our attempts atself-understanding, as well as our interesting and problematic understandingsof our relationships to social others.” Narayan1995:64U1 Food hasbeen studied from ananthropological perspective since decades.
In the last halfof the 20th Century, some studies JM2 have centralized food as a key insight intomodern social life. Anthropologists have identified food as a communicationsystem, a language, which expresses some features of the structure in asociety. However, food seen as language (a body of images, a protocol ofusages, situations and behaviour), can create boundaries and factors of socialinclusion and exclusion, itcan be used as a tool to make nationalism (como pongo eso rocío?).Different societies use food to reinforce their national identity, traditionsand culture. In this writing I propose two examples of how food can transmit amessage that create boundaries in between different nations.
The first scenariodescribe one of the most popular dishes in Vietnam, Banh Tet, which is not onlyseen as a something that can be eaten,but as a key tool that creates boundaries between the Vietnamese and Chineseculture. The second example that I expose here, studies how food invite toreinforce the identity of a nation when people lives abroad, this is the caseof a group of expatriate Senegalese in Italy. Why foodis important in anthropology? Food isa fundamental human necessity. Since early times, societies have the choice ofselecting the food that they want to eat, it represents a iconic way to under-lightthe own belonging, the footways and consumption rituals (Mintz, 2002).
Anthropologyof food is a discipline of anthropology that links ethnographic studies withdifferent social issues in food consumption and production systemU3 . Some pioneer anthropologists have studiedtraditions and food habits in specific communities since the latter half of the20th century. Levy-Strauss (1966) is one of them. He hasdemonstrated that each meal or dish can reflect something about ourselves andabout the position we take in the world.
JM4 Theanthropologist identified food as an investigation field that represent thecuisine of a society as a language that, unconsciously, manifest some featuresof the structure of a culture (Levi-Strauss, 1966:586). This hidden language byfood 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 thatprovides sustenance and nutrition. Douglas noted that food and meals are also asystem of communication, protocol and behavior, and its contains an important message about how weunderstand our personal and collective identities.
JM5 Shetranslated this language by attempting to link social relations to theconfigurations of a meal. This is how Mary Douglas(1972:65) delimits adifference between a meal (social order) to drinks (absence of social order) andalso explored into the hierarchy of a meal (starters, mains, desserts) comparingto the social hierarchy, and how the meal is adapted to fit the circle of agiven culture. “Iffood is treated as a code, the messages it encodes will be found in the patternof social relations being expressed. ” (Douglas, 1972:61)Peopleneed to follow a communication process in order to sent a message, where asender sent information through a specific channel to a recipient. Some ideologistshave argued that communication by food has to follow also a specific process.
The philosopher Rolan Barthes (1961:3) argues that communication by foodappears when food becomes a part of an organization of differences insignification. All the facts concerning food form a structure analogous toother system of communication, a sign. The message is about different degrees of hierarchy (esto esta bien dicho?), inclusion andexclusion, boundaries and transactions across the boundaries. Foodinvolucres a social component, as well as a biological one. But howthis communication system works? Can food really be interpreted as a messagethat contains information? Can food become a describing factor of a society,nation, region or culture? BenedictAnderson help us to understand the way that food; iconic national dishes, takepart in the construction and negotiation of various facets of this entity. Theauthor (Anderson, 1983:58) declares that “nationalism must be understood by aligning it not withself-consciously held ideologies, but with the large cultural systems thatpreceded it”. The cultural system that Anderson describes is definedprimarily by language, therefore if we understand food as a communicationsystem, it could also influence in a nation or culture.
Anderson’sstudies (1983) has revolutionized an understanding of the nature of modernnation-states and how nationalism is originated. But some authors APM6 arguesthat 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 foodcan be interpreted as “language” (a message in between different cultures),then national dishes can be seen as the words of this language. Specifically, Iconicdishes of a nation have an important role to create or re-forced community/nationalidentities, it can be used as a strategy to “do nationalism”, transmitinformation and make communication real. Food can be easily seen as a culturalartefact, making the perfect vessel for complicated and polysemic ideas. Peoplefeel part of a nation by celebrating different traditions, singing the nationalanthem but also by eating traditional food. Banh Tet a good example of how foodcan do nationalism. Banh Tet is a Vietnamese sweetened cake made mainly fromglutinous rice rolled in a banana leaf.
This national dish is eating mainlyduring the Vietnamese New Year period, but this rice cakes reveals also a lotabout the ways in which contemporary Vietnamese think about themselves, abouttheir nation (Avieli, 2005). For many Vietnamese people, the notion of theiridentity being different from the Chinese is an important and sensitive issuein contemporary Vietnam. Vietnamese has suffered an important influence ofChinese culture after the occupation of the Chinese empire, ruling and influencingalmost all the aspect of Vietnamese culture and society. The outcome nowadaysis an ambivalent feeling toward the Chinese and their practices, but Vietnameseare 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 demostraral mundo los rasgos que hacen de este país, una nación singular y diferente ala china). TheVietnamese New Year festival (Teg Nguyen Dan) is the most important eventcelebrated by ethnic Vietnamese and it carries months of preparation. Teg hasto be celebrated with one’s family and this is an essential part of what itmeans to be Vietnamese. Inviting someone to visit during the festival carriesan 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 thefestival. Bahn tet is the most filling dish of the Vietnamese cuisine but alsothe main culinary icon of their culture. The cakes are full of symbols thatdescribe what means to be Vietnamese, some of those metaphors are explainedbellow. Firstly,cakes are made with boiled rice forming a square shape that is considered thesymbol of the Vietnamese people in gratitude for the earth that has suppliedthus nutritious food (Schultz 1994:59). The square shape symbolize the squareplots of land from which they grow their crops (Nguyen and Sach 2003:81). Thecakes has their own legend, being a model of the cosmos and the naturalelements, but also model of traditional Vietnamise farming with rice, beans andpork. Green beans and pork are very important ingredients for Bant Tet, but thoseingredients 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.
Anotherimportant factor is the green color of the cakes, which is given by a bambooleaf that wrap the rice cake during the boiling process, and it is interpretedas the green color of the rice fields. Perhaps the most striking symbol about BantTet is that for Vietnamese people, the good rice cakes are made with glutinousand sticky rice (gao nep), that suggested to many Vietnamese people thatglutinous rice stands for togetherness, social cohesion and unity. Rice isthe most important element in the Vietnamese diet and cultivating is the mostcommon activity in Vietnam (Nguyen 1995:2018). Therefore, rice farming is alsoa very crucial aspect of Chinese culture, so there is something else about thiscakes that is distinctively for Vietnamese?U8 BanhTet, Vietnamese New Year Rice cakes. . Banh Tetare easy to preserve and used to be carried by the Vietnamese warriors duringnation´s endless wars. Used as an “iron rations”, these cakes are durable, easyto carry and very nutritious, sustaining people for a long time.
Thishistorical meaning provides an essential feeling of cultural and psychologicalsatisfaction for Vietnamese people. People from this country have won wars dueto their ability to use the limited resources available to resist. Tet embodiesthe spirit achieved by repeated military triumphs and, in some way, those cakestake 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 importantmeans for practicing and “concretizing” national identity. The nation’s diet isa feast of imagined commensality (Bell and Valentine 1997: 169).Bystudying the impact of Banh Tet in the Vietnamese culture, we can explore somesocio-cultural ideas of contemporary Vietnamese national and, the implicit andcomplex ways which they take part in developing Vietnamese cultural identity. Thatcakes and their symbolism are so important for Vietnamese people, in part,because they difference them from being Chinese, they make them feelautochthonous culture and not influenced/corrupted by Chinese influence(Avieli, 2005:183).
In this studied example, the quote of Menell (1985) makessense: “Iconic dishes are powerful markers of national identity”.Alonso(1994:380) tries to bridge the gap between the theory of the concept of nationas an “imagined entity” and the daily practices that are produced. Alonsothinks 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 atangible union between the theory and practice of nationalism. But whathappens 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, foodand culinary habits are transmitted between cultures, shoring up a “sense ofcommunity identity” (Brown and Mussel 1984). There isa study made by Fedora Gasparetti (2012) about Senegalese migrants living inTurin (Italy) that explains of how food plays an important role in identity re-constructionin migrants. Gasparetti analyses the role of national dishes to reinforce thesense of belongingness of a Senegalese community. She also explores thenegotiation process of the differences in Senegalese migrants living in Italytrough the consumption of “tie boujenn”, a dish of fish and rice, and the mostfamous in Senegal. Food isan element of pride in Senegalese culture, as well as identification.Preparation and consumption play a fundamental role in regulating socialrelations within Senegalese society.
Dispersed communities of Senegalese peopleliving in Italy, often maintain a sense of identity and history though foodconsumption. More broadly, in a world where consumption is so central toidentity formation, the ‘community of consumers’ might supersede other aspectsof identification (Gasparetti, 2012:7-8). Gasparetti(2012:9-11) notice that cooking and eating are often of central importance formigrants living abroad, but she also points out how people from Senegal tend tore-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 theiroriginal place could find traditional dishes as way of express their ethnicity.Pierre L.
van den Berghe (1984:395) agrees to this idea: “Like ethnicityitself, ethnic cuisine ‘only becomes a self-conscious, subjective reality whenethnic boundaries are crossed’. ForBourdieu (1979:184-185) food is acomponent that highlighting the differencesbetween cultures, groups and social strata. Senegalese community in Italy isnot a homogeneous group.
In this community is possible to find people comingfrom different parts of Senegal, with diverse traditions, habits, religions andethnicities. Therefore, it is difficult to talk about a unique “Senegalese” ethnicidentity.Furthermore, regardless of these internal differences that make difficultstablish 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 abroader sense.
It brings a strengthens and union in the internal cohesion ofthe group (Gasparetti, 2012).Gasparetti(2012:18) identifies the way through the consumption of Senegalese food andtraditional drinks become an “identity marker” for Senegalese trans-migrants,creating and reinforcing the “experienced identity”. Food here plays a symbolicrole in displayed process of identity construction.
Community identity can getarticulated through food in many ways. Places where sharing food and drinkshelps bond us into a community. But we must always be mindful of the fact thatcommunities are about exclusion as well as inclusion: a food is one way inwhich boundaries get drawn, and insiders and outsiders distinguished. The anthropologist LevisStrauss (1966) contributes to this idea by identifying the cultural meaning (whichis constructed in a specific nation) acquires even greater importance in themigration context. Senegalese people, for example, accompany religious and cultural events,rituals and everyday life with the consumption of national food. “In the migration context, theimmigrant group’s efforts to reconstruct the supply infrastructure required byits foodways ensure that its own dietary culture is at least partly preserved”.
Foodrepresents a way to gain social and economic power. It can acquire differentmeanings according to the different consumption situations. Food can representa venue and space for memories, with its evocative power enabling Senegalese migrantsto “feel at home” when abroad. In some ways, food plays a central role in theconstruction of personal and social identity for Senegalese migrants belongingto other immigrant groups, contributing to the creation of new relationshipsoutside the group.
U9 By studying food consumption we observepatterns that cross countries and span continents: some reflect process ofglobalisation or of urbanisation, but others trace the movements of peoplearound the world. Indeed, the national dishes of countries commonly bear themark o successive waves of migration. Some ethic and/or religious communitieswithin host countries are marked as different, and attempt either to maintainthat difference or to erase it, though cultural process and practices. U10 As I have explained above, nation’sdiet can have a key role to play in nationalistic sentiments.
Howeverthreatened invasions of ‘filthy foreign food’ can being seen as dangerous tothe whole fabric of national identity. – The nation is also an organisationalunit, of course, and the bodies which regulate its behaviour always take aninterest in what is eating. Conclusion In thispaper we have studied how the field of anthropology has been interested instudying the role of food and its consumption since early times. Anthropologistssuch as Mary Douglas or Lévi-Strauss offer us a new perspective to understandthe hidden language that food and its consumption contain.Anthropologyhas explained how food can be interpreted as a language system capable ofexpressing ideas within a specific culture, as between different communities.In this way, food acquires a different meaning that can be exploited bydifferent communities, both to characterize the values ??and nationalisticcharacteristics of a specific society and to reinforce the identity of a nationwhen people live abroad. In this writing, my intention was to demonstrate,through the use of different scenarios, how national dishes fulfil thisimportant role.Banh Tetis not only a rice cake for the Vietnamese community.
This national dishreinforces their sense of originality and – their gastronomy – makes themdifferent from the Chinese community, which has control almost all aspects ofthe Vietnamese culture during years. As a result, national dishes like this oneare involved in “powerful rituals of self-identification and socialcohesion” (Douglas, 1984).In thecase of the group of Senegalese living in Italy, their eating habits, consumptionof thypical dishes and food choices represent an explicit tool that migrantscan use to recreate their identity in the context of migration (Medina 2001).
As weanalyzed the concept of Anderson (imagined communities), I came to theconclusion that some authors thought that Anderson did not inquire too muchinto the way in which a nation maintains and reinforces its particular identityon a day-to-day basis. For Anderson, language is one of the most importantcharacteristics that shape the identity of a nation. So, if we contemplate foodas language, we can obtain a communication system based on food. This is howAlonso (1994: 380) uses food, eating habits and national cuisine to betterunderstand the way in which a community “exercises nationalism” andmakes it different from other societies.Tofinish I would like to reinforce the idea of ??food as “something that notonly comes, but a vehicle that can lead us to deeper meanings”…
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