Food, Ritual, and Culture
Food is an expression of culture. In every important milestone or seasonal event, food plays a role, through connection with the local area and land, and the social aspect of sharing a meal with others. More recently, food is a constant feature in photographs on social media, facilitating a public expression of identity.
While I write this short text, we have entered the month of November, and as the season begins its shift towards colder days, the evenings grow shorter, the leaves turn colour and the warmth of summer abates. The familiar autumn season, even on the other end of the Eurasian continent, evokes sights, smells and flavours from childhood―seasonal foods and a subtle yet distinctive scent on the cooler air. The feast of Samhain (better known to most as Halloween) has just passed, marking the end of harvest and time to settle in for the winter. This Gaelic celebration combines rich histories, cultures, and traditions from across Europe. There is some debate about the origin of Samhain (translated as “summer’s end”), but it has its roots in Celtic culture. In countries that see a significant shift in seasons, the harvest festival has practical and cultural importance. At the end of the harvest, family and community came together to celebrate Samhain, to ward off the spirits of ancestors and to share their local culture, feasting together. Food is still an equally important part of Halloween as for any traditional celebration, by way of barm brack, colcannon and soul cakes*1.
This time of year used to see preparation for winter underway through the traditions of preserving, pickling and fermenting. Ultimately, the human body and the seasons are intertwined through our need to eat to survive, and such distinctions of season are deeply tied to farming and survival through the less abundant months of the year. In this globally interconnected world, it is easy to forget how so many of our cultural festivals were deeply connected to seasonal change and survival. But despite this, food holds great cultural meaning, even today, despite the availability of almost any food all year round. These days, methods and recipes are still passed down through generations, even if only for cultural preservation rather than their original purpose as a means of survival.
Food and social interaction have always been interrelated. These days, food is shared not only in person but also through social media. Consumer-generated images fill social media threads, with hashtags such as #foodporn or #foodgasm. A recent publication in the Journal of Consumer Marketing*2 suggests that the act of taking a photograph of one’s meal, combined with the delayed satisfaction of stopping to upload an image, actually makes the act of eating more pleasurable. Another study*3 found some correlation between eating in front of a mirror―as substitute for eating with others―and improvement in the eating experience, also resulting in a greater appetite and consumption of food. The 1960s T.V. dinner has been replaced by the gastrogramming of today’s social media generation, both of which create a way for the lone diner to feel some connection with the wider world. Our means of social interaction change, particularly with developments in technology and media but, of course, there is far more going on in the sharing of eating experiences through social media than seeking companionship. Through the selection of food, any of the wide range of identifiers―religion, nationality, vegetarianism, health-consciousness―used to build our online persona, true to that of our “real-life” self or otherwise, are made public.
It is at this time of year that I begin preparing Christmas puddings, based on a recipe from my grandmother. This traditional preserved food will be a centre-piece when celebrating the year’s end with friends, setting the pudding alight at the climax of the meal, and no doubt it will make its way onto social media in some form, an expression of my own heritage and the making of memories, connecting across differences of language, culture, or politics―all gathered at the table to feast together.
*1 I do not include pumpkins in this list, as they are a relatively recent addition to Halloween celebration, a change brought about through the mass emigration of Irish to the United States between 1820 and 1860, approximately 2 million people. It was only in America that the traditional carved turnip was ousted by the easier to carve, and tastier, pumpkin.
*2 Sean Coary, Morgan Poor, (2016) ‘How consumer-generated images shape important consumption outcomes in the food domain’, Journal of Consumer Marketing, Vol. 33 Issue: 1, pp.1-8
*3 Ryuzaburo Nakata, Nobuyuki Kawai, (2017) ‘The “social” Facilitation of Eating without the Presence of Others: Self-Reflection on Eating Makes Food Taste Better and People Eat More’, Physiology & Behavior, 179. Supplement C, 23–29