Culture, Food and Eating
It has been argued that changes inwhat has been cooked, when, where and by whom are a function of other featureswithin the food economy and will have considerable social, economic and healthconsequences. (Lang&Caraher, 20010)
This essay will discuss the changein relation to culture, food and eating by firstly acknowledging that food, cookingand eating have traditionally been seen principally as the woman’s role insociety. As this is of high significance in examining the consequences ofchange, it will therefore be examined from the assumption that our society isbuilt upon a patriarchal system which underpins our culture to this presentday.
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In addition through the yearsmodernity has brought about change in production and consumption which has rapidlytransformed the way in which we approach food and eating. Technology has takena great leap forward in how we cook and eat food. Globalisation has allowed forfood to be shipped around the planet at whim and for food trends to travelacross the world. Traditions are changing as people move from country tocountry bringing food from different cultures into the home and marketplace.
In all cultures food is imbued withmeaning, it is a currency in society. Food can nourish, entertain and givepleasure. It can also be a source of political conflict for example governmenthealth warnings or arguments around vegetarianism. Not enough food causesextreme problems and at the other end of the scale too much food can be fatal. Someof these issues will be considered when examining the issues around change insociety’s approach to food.
The Extent of Change in Relationto Cooking
In the past cooking and buying offood were traditionally seen as the woman’s role and what was eaten wasdictated by the seasonal food available and the amount of money people had tospend on food. In assessing the extent of change it could be identified as the physicaland social aspect.
Miller and McHoul (1998,p.33) proposethat the physical covers geography, seasons, and economics and that the socialcovers religion, custom, class, health education, advertising, age, gender, andrace. They also recognise the importance of the physiological, which deals withgenes, allergies, diets, needs, and biochemical reaction. In the past thiswould have been seen as the sphere of ‘experts’ but in our information rich,self obsessed society this could be a significant factor in cultural changetowards food and cooking and is one that cannot be overlooked.
Cooking skills were customarilypassed on through families usually from mothers to daughters. In the past themen were the ‘breadwinners’ while the women stayed at home and looked after thehome, a patriarchal concept modelled on the aspiring middle classes of thetime. Although times have changed and most women now work, the notion that foodand cooking are the woman’s domain still prevails.
This has an effect on what haschanged or is changing in food matters. Tansey and Worsley (1995, p.144) acknowledgethat most of the burden of domestic work still falls on women. The fact thatthey go to work and do the housework is having remarkable effects on the foodindustry. It has created opportunities for them to produce what Tansey andWorsley describe as ‘labour-saving and ego-protecting products’. This has ledto a change in shopping, cooking and eating that would have been unimaginable ageneration ago.
Availability of food from all overthe world combined with new ways of cooking has altered the way in which weconsume our food. Refrigeration, freezing and microwaving are examples ofpractical ways in which shopping and cooking has changed. Globalisation has madea large contribution, one aspect relevant to this assessment is a post-modernphenomenon termed ‘McDonaldization’ by George Ritzer in 1996 which has causedmuch debate. Concerns that mass culture is creating a homogenous world whereeverything will become levelled out is deliberated by many theorists of postmodern culture.
But at what point do individualschange their behaviour and attitudes to food? Miller and McHoul (1998,p.33) gosome way towards identifying what could be central to how change takes place inwhat, why, where and by whom food is cooked. They suggest that food stands atthe gateway of nature and culture and involves choice at the point where the biologicalgiven – hunger meets and becomes indistinguishable from a cultural marker– appetite. There are many ways in which appetite can be influenced in today’ssociety which will in turn have a bearing on the key forces driving change. Someof these will be looked at in the next section.
Key forces driving change
With responsibility for everydaycooking taken by women for almost eighty per cent of the time compared withtwenty-five per cent of men (Lang&Caraher 2001, p.9), it is no surprisethat the food industry target women. Marketing of food products can be seen asone of the key forces driving change in the way in which we cook and eat. Therange of advertisements bombarding us can feature anything from foodingredients, ready made convenience foods, to fast food outlets andrestaurants. As consumers we are offered a staggering choice to satisfy ourappetites.
One of the reasons women are seenas so important to the marketers is that they are seen as both consumers andproducers. Rather than simple consumer demand, Lury (1996, p.44) suggests thatthere are a number of different cycles of production and consumption involvedbefore final enjoyment of a meal. She comments Consumer demand can thus beseen as to be mediated by the state and/or the social relations of thehousehold or domestic mode of production
This highlights the fact that foodis not a simple commodity with a one way relationship between production andconsumption. It could be argued that, particularly with food, it cannot beassumed that consumers are passive and that consumption can be taken forgranted even though we clearly will always need food. Rather it emphasises thefact that consumption itself is a socially organised set of practices.
Lury illustrates this with a quotefrom Appadurai:
Demand emerges as a function ofa variety of social practices and classifications, rather than a mysteriousemanation of human needs, a mechanical response to social manipulation (as inone model of the effects of advertising in our own society), or the narrowingdown of a universal and voracious desire for objects to whatever happens to beavailable.
Critics of the food industry mayargue that we are being socially manipulated by being force fed over-processedfoods which are bad for our health. However, it must be recognised that theindustry has grown in response to social change such as new working patterns,the rise of single households, and a highly stressed society eating on thehoof. With more single households and families not eating together the foodindustry has provided us with ready made meals to suit our lifestyles.
Nevertheless there are many issuessurrounding the food industry which have given cause for concern. The way inwhich food and ingredients are ‘manufactured’ has resulted in worries aboutimbalance in world economies with cheap food from around the world. Healthscares such as BSE and salmonella in the food chain, fats and additives causingobesity and diabetes are just some of the current arguments.
Lang and Caraher(p.10) contend thatfrom the available evidence .. large food retailers are not just respondingto a cultural change, but are using market levers to suit their own agendaswith little thought for longer-term public health outcomes. It has nowbecome so apparent that there is a crisis regarding health, and children’shealth in particular, that the government has launched a variety of campaignsto persuade the public to eat healthily. This also includes putting pressure onmanufacturers. It could be maintained that given the shocking statistics onhealth, the State is destined to become a key force for driving change in thefuture.
The Significance of Change
As already identified, concernsover the health of the nation is one of the biggest issues in society at themoment. It has been said that if this trend continues we are the firstgeneration where parents are expected to outlive their children. While cookingis purported to be on the decline for younger people, it is argued that as anation we know more about diet and nutrition than ever before. If the number oftelevision programmes and magazines on food and health can be taken as evidenceof this it would seem it is true.
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It is clear that our relationshipwith food has changed drastically in recent years, and can be argued that it isa post-modern problem, one of the most visible areas being the explosion of thediet industry. An article in the Observer Food Magazine (March 2005, p.17)considers the latest trend in dieting and why we feel the need to follow adiet. One theory is that it is the sheer abundance of food has changed us intoa nation of nearly 13 million diet addicts. Dr Andrew Hill, senior lecturer inbehavioural studies contends:
It is only in the lastmicro-second of human evolution that we have become surrounded by a sea ofcalories. We’ve become international, non-seasonal feeders and for anincreasing proportion of people, this represents a challenge. We simply don’thave the psychological controls to cope. Our biological system is tilted infavour of over-consumption …
This and other issues around foodhave brought it into the public eye and inevitably become a matter ofgovernment policy. Tansey and Worsley (p.214) point to five areas with whichthe conventional economic approach to policy concerns itself; efficiency,growth, stability, sustainability, equity. They demonstrate how important foodpolicy is with a quote from John McInerney:
Food is an exceptionallypolitical commodity the idea of there being a COLLECTIVE wellbeing inaddition to an individual one will lead to an array of policy actions designedto protect or foster the interests of the weak and vulnerable, referee theinteractions both within and between groups all along the food chain, insulateone group from the actions of others, and redistribute the benefits to achievea more equitable pattern than the market system can manage on its own.
With health at the top of thepolitical agenda for any government it could be anticipated that policy willchange the way we approach food. While the government lobbies the food industryand bombards us with the latest health campaign they could expect some results.But when it comes back down to individuals who will implement this in the home?Yet again the burden will fall on the shoulders of women as Guardians of thefamily’s health.
There are many factors involved inthe change in our attitude to food, cooking and eating, of which only a fewhave been discussed in this essay. One thing that remains constant is that westill view our society through the lens of patriarchy therefore, whetherconsciously or unconsciously rely on gender stereotypes of the mother as thenurturer. While this is still largely true the last twenty or thirty years haveproved that the feminist ideals of women being able to ‘have it all’ has notlived up to its promise. Women have had to rely on a flourishing food industryto help them cope with the domestic load as well as going to work outside thehome. While this has been celebrated by many women as releasing them from thekitchen and allowing them to have a career of their own, it becomes clear thatsociety has not been able to offer any real alternative to women’s unpaid workin the home.
The concern we have at present withfood, health, and eating has evolved as a consequence of new social patterns,globalisation, marketing, industry and state policy. As a society we must askourselves whether culturally we still put the responsibility for these issuesat the feet of women on the basic level that as the ‘nurturers’ they areletting down their families. If that is so it then it is not until eachindividual takes responsibility for their own approach to food that things willchange for the better.
Miller, T & McHoul, A 1998, PopularCulture and Everyday Life
Tansey, G & Worsley, T 1995, TheFood System, a Guide
Lang, T & Caraher M, 2001, IsThere a Culinary Skills Transition? Data and debate from the UK about changes in cooking culture, Journal of the HEIA, Vol 8, No 2, 2001
Lury, Celia 1996, ConsumerCulture
Observer Food Magazine, March 2005,Do the Science, The Observer 13/3/05
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