Every individual needs to eat to survive, and thus every culture has its food traditions (a.k.a. foodways). But folklorists are interested in food for a ton of reasons, including the role of tradition and variation and the display of identity.
Folklorists define foodways as the study of culture through food. We’re specifically interested in those foods that are transmitted folklorically: foods that are passed along through informal and traditional means. We study the preparation, selection, consumption, and preservation of foods, ranging from recipes and meal assembly to the norms and rituals governing consumption.
Is it considered polite or impolite to eat with your hands? What are the “right” sides to go with your plate of BBQ? Which foods should never, ever appear on the same plate together? Which foods go on an altar to ancestors or deities? How did Cincinnati chili evolve? Folklorists studying foodways answer these questions, and more!
While we consider foodways to be an area of material culture – the physical manifestation of folklore – food weaves in and out of other kinds of folklore. Timothy Lloyd documents the folkspeech associated with Cincinnati chili in terms of how you order it (asking for a “five-way no onions” for example). There are urban legends about the deliberate contamination of fast food by disgruntled workers (Kentucky Fried Rat, anyone?). Food appears as a theme in other folk narrative genres too; think of folktales and fairy tales about gingerbread men and houses, or wolves devouring little girls. We could study the occupational folklore of food service workers, whether they’re in fast food or fancy restaurants. And so on.
But since food exists on the physical plane, we use a lot of the same techniques to document it as we would body art, vernacular architecture, and so on. We ask about the process and materials involved in making it. Who buys the groceries or raises the crops? How are foods sorted and organized in storage? When something’s not going to be eaten right away, how it is preserved for later? A lot of these processes are folkloric in nature, in that they’re passed along through informal channels of transmission. Many people’s interactions with food are learned in the natal home, leading to a “well that’s just how we’ve always done it” attitude, which is always a sign that there’s folklore at work.
Folklorists who study food collect recipe texts, but also consider entire meals to be “texts” that we would document and study. We want to know the techniques that go along with dishes and meals, as well as the less-tangible aspects of how foods are grouped together, why certain foods are chosen over others, and so on.
A major area of food study involves documenting holiday foods. The food associated with special occasions tend to have a unique significance in people’s emotional lives, and to be fiercely upheld and guarded. Similarly, the foods that come from your family’s folklore – what your family eats on Christmas morning, or does for birthdays – tend to be near and dear to people’s memories.
With Thanksgiving being today (the date this post goes live), I’d also point out that food helps illustrate tradition and variation in concrete ways. In most parts of America, the turkey is the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal, with a handful of “necessary” sides (mashed potatoes, gravy, and stuffing). These represent what is traditional (or stable) about the Thanksgiving meal. From there, variation becomes apparent: what about sweet potatoes, green beans, corn casserole? Are pies a necessity? How much of the variation is governed by regional, ethnic, or religious identity? What if you’re vegetarian? And so on.
Food fulfills multiple functions in people’s lives. Obviously the first is physical nourishment, but beyond that, food helps build shared identity. Many of us have go-to comfort foods that we eat when we’re feeling down, and often these are reminiscent of foods that we were fed while ailing youngsters. Food thus has an emotional impact for many people.
Food is also linked with religious belief and behavior for many; food prohibitions exist for entire food groups, or on certain days of feasting or fasting. The audience for foodways is not always human, as some people interact with the divine through ritual sacrifice, altar offerings, and so on. Bizarrely, my Jewish-but-not-religiously-so upbringing influenced my food tastes quite a bit, such that I don’t really like pork, even though we never kept Kosher.
Sometimes foodways and ethnicity are closely interlinked. When you think of foods by ethnic category – Indian food, Italian food, and so on – you’re thinking of how that culture’s foodways have been consolidated and repackaged for consumers. That represents a homogenizing process; having been to India, I know that the food from Indian restaurants in America represents only a narrow slice of the foods actually eaten in various parts of India. The stereotypes and slurs thrown at various groups can involve food, too.
Other times, regional identity governs foodways more than ethnic identity. As Martha Sims and Martine Stephens remind us:
Consider New Year’s Day food traditions of different communities in the United States. Midwesterners often celebrate with sauerkraut and pork for luck, traditions that have been brought to the U.S. by the Germans who settled in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana. Southerners may celebrate with blackeyed peas and other foods that have come from southern agriculture, and some Texans eat tamales on New Year’s Day. Not all the people who follow these traditions may be of German or Mexican descent or originally from the South, but because the people who live around them eat these kinds of foods, they do, too. The tradition is no longer associated with a particular ethnic or national group, but with a local, geographically bounded group. (38-39)
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention gender identity in relation to food. In many cultures, the emotional labor expected of women extends to food preparation, acquisition, preservation, and clean-up. Certain foods are regarded as more suitable for men or women in America at least; the unspoken norms governing what it’s okay to eat on a first date, or who should have beer vs. wine, or a burger vs. a salad, are quite prevalent.
And as a body scholar, I’m always interested in the physical nature of our relationships with food: how food feels settling in our bodies, what we think of as “healthy” food, and so on. The issue of access to health food is a systemic one, impacting how we think of social class, fatness, and stigma.
I love food, so I could go on and on about it. For now, though, I’m curious: if you’re an American reader, what are your family’s Thanksgiving food traditions?
Llord, Timothy. “The Cincinnati Chili Culinary Complex.” Western Folklore 40.1 (1981): 28-40.
Sims, Martha C., and Martine Stephens. Living Folklore: An Introduction to the Study of People and Their Traditions. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2005.