Foodways: The Path from our Stomachs to Ourselves

Hello again! Thanks for coming back for a second helping of Hot for Pots.

I’m guessing that if you are reading this blog, you probably like to eat food, but some of you may be wondering why the heck are archaeologists and anthropologists so interested in studying food? What can food tell us about people of the past (archaeology) and present (cultural anthropology)? Quite a lot, actually. Food is closely tied to our daily lives, identities, social relationships, environment, economics, politics, and ideologies/beliefs. “Foodways” is the study of the connection between food and these various cultural and historical factors. Another term I’ll be using in future blogs is “cuisine,” aka food culture, which includes food selection and cooking traditions.

To demonstrate the centrality of food in our daily lives, I want you to think about your day. How much of it is structured around food? In the morning, you may have time to enjoy a leisurely breakfast, or you may be in a rush to get to work and get something on the go (or skip it entirely). You go off to work, where you eat lunch alone at your desk, gather in the lunchroom with coworkers, or go out to eat, depending on your budget and workplace culture. At night, you may microwave a frozen meal, cook an elaborate dinner, or pick up take out. The exact times you eat and the types of food you eat (fast vs. slow) depend on your schedule, but your day is likewise structured around the ritual of eating regular meals.

Much as our daily lives structured around the preparation and consumption of food, so too are many special occasions and annual holidays, as dictated by our cultural traditions and religious backgrounds. Birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and other special events are often celebrated with dinners out with family and/or friends, or parties in which food is heavily featured (often including cake, thank goodness!). Holidays are often heavily centered around large meals, such as the iconic Thanksgiving feast, featuring special meals and dishes that are closely associated with these occasions rooted in cultural and family traditions.

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Cake: the only reason to look forward to birthdays           (photo credit: http://www.southernliving.com)

Now think about not only WHEN you eat, but WHAT you eat. How does your background influence the foods you choose to eat?

Consider this story: I grew up in rural Wisconsin on a dairy farm. We lived in a predominantly Euro-American area with little ethnic diversity, so options for international cuisine were limited. Some restaurants may have had some Mexican food options, but there were no establishments with offerings such as sushi or Thai food. The local grocery store certainly did not carry the ingredients for people to make these dishes themselves. My family was large and on a budget, so even if there had been a sushi restaurant nearby, we could not have afforded to eat there. Lastly, I grew up hearing about sushi but found the idea of eating raw fish gross. We did not live on the coast with regular access to fresh fish, so fish in general were not part of our regular diet, much less the uncooked variety. After I moved to more urban areas and tried more foods, I eventually become sushi fan, but I still have family who would not touch it with a ten-foot pole!

fish fry

The iconic Friday night fish fry is as close to sushi as you get in rural Wisconsin (photo credit: http://www.eater.com)

Thus our diet and eating habits are shaped by cultural background/ethnicity, regional food traditions, access, urban vs. rural environments, and economic status. Other factors influencing food selection and consumption include gender, religion, and even politics. The foods we eat are therefore often tied to our identities, or how you identify yourself (based on ethnicity, nationality, religion, etc). But food and identity are a whole other blog!

Now that you have thought about how your food habits both shape and are shaped by your life, I hope you can see why archaeologists like to study foodways. It allows us to peer into the lives of past peoples. Identity, politics, and religion are not physical objects that can be unearthed and analyzed. But food remains, those few precious items that are sometimes preserved in archaeological sites, can be observed and studied in the present, and we can use them to infer the more intangible aspects of past life.

In future blogs, I will be detailing both how people can study food archaeologically and delve more into the types of things we can infer by figuring out what people ate, including my own research methods and findings. So stay tuned!

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