Food and cultural identity

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The concept of cultural identity can be applied in two different ways. First, it can be used to refer to the collective self-awareness that is embodied and reflected by a given group of people. The cultural identity of society is in general terms defined by its majority groups that are usually very distinctive from the other minority groups with whom they share a physical environments and territories. The emphasis made on the aspect of group is akin to the notion of a shared culture, either national or social that describes a particular set of traits that particular community members share collectively beyond the differences that might exists between them at individual levels (Rivas-Drake, Deborah). These traits tend to include a combination of values and attitudes towards their approach to life, family, nature and other aspects. With regard to its collective sense, the concept of cultural identity also encompasses typologies of cultural behaviors that are deemed as either appropriate or inappropriate with regard to the facilitation thereof received in going about their daily activities. The sharing of values, description of problems and how their activities are patterned therefore gives the description of the identity.

Second, another description of cultural identity is centered on the identity of an individual in the perspective of his or her culture. In this regard, cultural identity in the perspective of an individual’s functional personality refers to the fundamental symbol of the existence of a person. In a psychoanalytic literature, the identity of an individual takes various forms at different phases, at one time appearing to refer to the conscious perspective of the identity of an individual, in another as the unconscious quest for the perpetuation of individual character, in another as criterion upon which the silent manifestations of ego synthesis, and finally as the inner solidarity with which the ideals and identity manifest (Erikson, Erik Homburger). Considering the above descriptions of cultural identity, the concept can be seen as the premise upon which the stability of values and a sense of wholeness and integration are founded. In this perspective, cultural influences of food preferences can be seen as part of the definitive elements of cultural identity.

The term food habits was developed to describe the way in which food is used by humans, including aspects such as the criterion that guides its choosing, acquisition and distribution, to aspects such as who prepares it, serves and eats it (Brown., Amy). Food habits are unique to human beings given the significance placed on it. This is complemented the commonly used expression of people being what they consume. This multidimensional reference of food could be used to advance thoughts on what the food on a plate signifies and contributes to the identity of an individual.

Food habits and their association to cultural identity are specifically significant in the modern society that features multiculturalism, which is the coexistence of a myriad of cultures with a groups or society. Such societies have been created by the plurality that exists in contemporary societies as a result of the broad range of First Nation societies and flows of immigrations. Individuals of the various groups need to find ways, through which they can identify as one, hence the opportunity presented by their ethnic foods: preferences and dislikes.

Food can be seen to connect people to their cultures and ethnic groups, through the consumptions of similar food patterns. For instance, immigrant groups can be seen using foods as ways through which they retain their cultural identity (Nguyen, Bich Minh). Different foods are consumed by people from different cultural backgrounds. The ingredients, preparation methods, preservations methods and the kinds of foods consumed at different times is also a manifestation of the diverse cultures that different people come from. The influence of particular food likings and disliking is also greatly determined by regions in which families live and the regions from which their ancestors originated from. The mass pattern of culture of a given society is obtained from elders who passed down to the younger generations, an imprinted in individual members as patterns entangled with their perceptions of identity, and hence is accepted by other members of the society.

Cultural identity can also be seen as symbols of, and individuals’ essential experience, through its incorporation of the general world view, the perceived value system, beliefs and attitudes of a particular group with regard to the shared elements. This is evident in After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town (Jin, Ha), where customers can be seen to seek identification with the American culture by the consumption of American food. Customers were eager to taste the new delicacies which can be seen as attempts by the foreign management of the restaurant to promote American culture in a foreign land through efforts to endear them to American food as an avenue through the provision of novelty of a different and unfamiliar culinary adventure. The above also highlights the importance of food in the expression of identity. For instance, restaurants seek to appeal to the emotional besides the nutritional needs of their customers. This explains the allure that ethnic restaurants have on their clients, since they appeal to their individual sense of belonging. This they accomplish by providing them with a sense of familiarity and authenticity that they are consuming food that is similar to their native provisions in terms of the ambiance in which it is served, the memories it reignited and the sense of belonging it arouses in an individual that makes him or her feel at home.

Food preferences of people can also be said to be influenced by social and psychological factors. for instance, an examination to determine the influence of these factors on the food consumption choices made by people observed that children have the tendency to choose foods that are consumed by the adults they admire (Steim, Richard I., and Carol J. Nemeroff). The study also established that the approval or disapproval of a group to a given food influenced the choice for its consumption greatly. Therefore, group approval was a great determinant of whether a particular food will be adopted in the diet of an individual, in line with the identity of the group that he or she chooses to advance to be part of.

Food also exhibits a symbolic meaning on the basis of the significant experiences that an individual might have had. An example of the symbolic meaning manifested in food is the phrase ‘breaking bread’ that is often used to imply that people sat together and enjoyed a meal. This symbolizes harmony, where friends or family came together in a warm, jovial and inviting way to enjoy a share meal. This is further cemented by the reference of bread a being a staff of life. In some cultures, bread is used in weddings, to be shared by couples as part of the wedding ceremony to signify the harmonious union of two families in marriage.

In other cultures, for instance in western weddings, the newly wedded couple gets rice thrown at them as a symbol and blessing for fertility. In Hindu weddings, food (coconut) is passed around between the couple as a symbol of prosperity; while cumin and brown sugar are a symbolism of the bitterness and sweetness of life (Rahman, Urmi). In the Christian religion bread is used in symbolism to the body of Jesus Christ in the form of the sacrament of communion. This is a significant symbolism for individuals who identify as Christians, and is important in their commemoration of how Christ sacrificed his body for the sake of the forgiveness of the sins of all human kind.

Various cultures also have specific foods that symbolize specific aspects of their culture. For instance, in Italian families, the matriarch of the family prepares a large pot of spaghetti. The entire family then gathers together to eat the pasta whilst enjoying the company of each other. Invited guests- aunts and uncles, arrive during dinner time with hot bread that will be buttered and used for dessert together with salad. It is during such times that the family culture and heritage is passed down to all family members through the shared memories, given the emotional connections, the sense of belonging as well as a sense of ethnic pride, thereby giving confirmation of food being more than just a mere source of nutrients. However, the degree of importance placed on food varies between different families in the various distinct cultures. For instance in American Samoa, food is the center of a majority of the family activities as well as ceremonies. The prosperity or societal of the host family is exhibited through the provision of large food quantities (Shovic, Anne Caprio). This, however, might not be the case for other families with other cultures.

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The concept of cultural identity, however, is not restricted to the consumption of specific foods in manifesting an individual’s connection to a particular ethnic group or race. In some regions such as in America the social standing of an individual in the community and profession are signifiers of one’s culture. These are followed by norms and standards that are manifested in their dining habits that are also referred to as etiquette or manners. These express an individual’s membership to a certain group. Memberships to such a class of people requires that specific dining expectations are adhered to for various dining occasions, such as not speaking when the mouth is full with food, especially when in formal dining occasions, these is and indicator than one is well cultured, thereby warranting their belonging to a certain elevated class of well-cultured people. The amount of food consumed and left uneaten attracts varied interpretations and implications between different groups. Some people from the middle Eastern and Southeast Asian countries prefer leaving little amount of food on their plates to portray that they hunger has been satisfied (Kittler, Pamela Goyan et al.). In some other regions, leaving food on the plate is regarded as being offensive, since it is perceived as an indication of the guest disliking the food that was provided. A clean plate could ether imply satisfaction of desire for more food. All these depend on the structured culture of an individual.

The conceptualization of cultural identity ought to include interrelated levels of integration and analysis. The cultural identity of an individual is made up of symbols as well as images that imply psychobiological and also psycho-philosophical realities that are well bound by culture that operates through sanctions and rewards, myths, taboos, prohibitions and totems. The society’s integration, nature and its cosmos are mirrored by the total self-image as well as the day-to-day awareness and self-consciousness exhibited by an individual. This can be manifested in the pride that one feels in the consumption of particular foods, and the refusal thereof to partake specific foods. For instance, the family attitudes of the Tonkasu family towards their Japanese heritage that is manifested in their food habits (Goto, Hiromi)

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  1. , Amy. Understanding Food. 5th ed., Cengage Learning, 2014.
  2. Erikson, Erik Homburger. “The Problem Of Ego Identity.” Journal Of The American Psychoanalytic Association, vol 4, no. 1, 1956, pp. 56-121. SAGE Publications, doi:10.1177/000306515600400104.
  3. Ha, Jin. “After Cowboy Chicken came to Town.” Triquarterly, Vol. III, No. 107, 2000, pp. 98-122.
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  5. Kittler, Pamela Goyan et al. Food And Culture. 6th ed., Belmont, CA, Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, 2012,.
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  8. Rivas-Drake, Deborah. “Ethnic Identity And Adjustment: The Mediating Role Of Sense Of Community..” Cultural Diversity And Ethnic Minority Psychology, vol 18, no. 2, 2012, pp. 210-215. American Psychological Association (APA), doi:10.1037/a0027011.
  9. Shovic, Anne Caprio. “Development Of A Samoan Nutrition Exchange List Using Culturally Accepted Foods.” Journal Of The American Dietetic Association, vol 94, no. 5, 1994, pp. 541-543. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/0002-8223(94)90219-4.
  10. Steim, Richard I., and Carol J. Nemeroff. “Moral Overtones Of Food: Judgments Of Others Based On What They Eat.” Personality And Social Psychology Bulletin, vol 21, no. 5, 1995, pp. 480-490. SAGE Publications, doi:10.1177/0146167295215006.
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