The Social and Cultural Uses of Food

Carole M Counihan. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas, Volume 2, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Food is what Marcel Mauss (1967) called a “total social fact.” It is a part of culture that is central, connected to many kinds of behavior, and infinitely meaningful. Food is a prism that absorbs a host of assorted cultural phenomena and unites them into one coherent domain while simultaneously speaking through that domain about everything that is important. For example, for Sardinians, bread is world (Counihan 1984). In the production, distribution, and consumption of bread are manifest Sardinian economic realities, social relations, and cultural ideals. An examination of foodways in all cultures reveals much about power relations, the shaping of community and personality, the construction of the family, systems of meaning and communication, and conceptions of sex, sexuality, and gender. The study of foodways has contributed to the understanding of personhood across cultures and historical periods (see Messer 1984).

Every coherent social group has its own unique alimentary system. Even cultures in the process of disintegration reveal their plight in the ways they deal with and think about eating. Cultures articulate and recognize their distinctiveness through the medium of food. The English call the French “Frogs” because of their habit (wildly barbarian to the English) of eating the legs of that creature (Leach 1964: 31). In the Amazon region, Indian tribes that appear alike in the eyes of an outsider nonetheless distinguish themselves from one another in part through their different habits, manners, and conceptions of eating. Maligned other groups are defined as those who eat people and animals thought disgusting, as for example, “frogs and snakes and mice” (Gregor 1985: 14). Food systems are, of course, intimately related to the local environment, but in most cultures “only a small part of this edible environment will actually be classified as potential food. Such classification is a matter of language and culture, not of nature” (Leach 1964: 31). The study of foodways enables a holistic and coherent look at how humans mediate their relationships with nature and with one another across cultures and throughout history.

Food and Power

David Arnold (1988: 3) suggests that “food was, and continues to be, power in a most basic, tangible and inescapable form.” Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins (1986) make a strong argument that there is no more absolute sign of powerlessness than hunger, since hunger means that one lacks the control to satisfy the most basic subsistence need. Food is a central concern in the politics of nation states. Whereas Piero Camporesi (1989: 137) argues that chronic hunger and malnutrition were part of a calculated strategy of early modern political elites to maintain their power by keeping the poor debilitated and dazed, Arnold (1988) and others point out that extreme hunger can bring about popular protest that may seriously weaken a government’s stability. According to Arnold (1988: 96), “The fortunes of the state, whether in Europe or in Africa or Asia, have long been closely bound up with the containment or prevention of famine and, more generally, with provisioning the populace.”

In stratified societies, hunger—like poverty—is far more likely to strike people in disadvantaged and devalued social categories: small children, the mentally ill, the handicapped, women, people of color, and the elderly (Physicians Task Force on Hunger in America 1985; Brown 1987; Brown and Pizer 1987; Arnold 1988; Glasser 1988). Food scarcity mirrors and exacerbates social distinctions; famine relief goes first to groups with power, and in times of economic crisis, the rich get richer by buying the land and other resources of the poor as the latter give them up in the struggle to eat.

A person’s place in the social system can be revealed by what, how much, and with whom one eats. As Jack Goody (1982: 113) says, “the hierarchy between ranks and classes takes a culinary form.” In India, caste is marked quite conspicuously by different food habits and rules prohibiting eating with those of lower caste (Goody 1982: 116 ff.; Khare and Rao 1986). Different consumption patterns are one of the ways the rich distinguish themselves from the poor (Bennett 1943; Fitchen 1988; Weismantel 1988). For example, according to Carol J. Adams (1990: 30), the consumption of meat protein reveals “the white Western world’s enactment of racism.… The hierarchy of meat protein reinforces a hierarchy of race, class, and sex.” Sugar was at first only a food of the rich, who used it to (among other things) create fabulous, ostentatious sculptures that proclaimed their wealth and power through extravagance with the precious and desirable commodity (Mintz 1985).

As sugar became more plentiful, however, the poor were increasingly able to eat it, which they did, in part, in an effect to emulate the rich and achieve a like status. Sugar consumption conveyed “the complex idea that one could become different by consuming differently” (Mintz 1985: 185). But to eat sugar, the poor sacrificed other foods, and their diet suffered, whereas the rich who could eat sugar and other foods simply chose new ways of proclaiming their difference. According to Stephen Mennell:

Likes and dislikes are never socially neutral, but always entangled with people’s affiliations to class and other social groups. Higher social circles have repeatedly used food as one of many means of distinguishing themselves from lower rising classes. This has been manifested in a succession of styles and attitudes towards food and eating (Mennell 1985: 331-2).

Class distinctions are also manifest through rules about eating and through the ability to impose rules on others (Counihan 1992). For example, we live in a culture that values thinness. The dominant culture—manifest in advertising, fashion, and the media—projects a belief that thinness connotes control, power, wealth, competence, and success (Dyren-forth, Wooley, and Wooley 1980). Research has revealed that obesity for women varies directly with class status and ethnicity. Greater wealth and whiteness go along with thinness; poor Puerto Rican, black, and Native American women have lower status and greater obesity rates than well-off Euro-American women (Garb, Garb, and Stunkard 1975; Beller 1977; Stunkard 1977; Massara and Stunkard 1979; Massara 1989; Sobal and Stunkard 1989). The standard of thinness upholds a class structure where men, whites, and the rich are superior to women, people of color, and the poor.

Food and Community

Manners and habits of eating not only display the complex intricacies of the social hierarchy but also are crucial to the very definition of community, the relationships between people, interactions between humans and their gods, and communication between the living and the dead. In many societies, communal feasts involve a periodic reaffirmation of community “based upon primal conceptions of the meaning of eating and drinking in common. To eat and drink with someone was at the same time a symbol and a confirmation of social community and of the assumption of mutual obligations” (Freud 1918: 174).

Sharing food ensures the survival of the group both socially and materially. A companion is literally a person one eats bread with (Farb and Armelagos 1980: 4). Refusal to share food is a sign of enmity and hostility; as Marcel Mauss (1967: 58) reports of Brahmans, “A man does not eat with his enemy.” For eating together is a sign of kinship, trust, friendship, and in some cultures, sexual intimacy, as we shall discuss further.

On a day-to-day basis, food exchanges are crucial in maintaining good relations between individuals. The message of the following Sardinian proverb (Gallini 1973: 60) is relevant in many cultures:

Si cheres chi s’amore si
prattu chi andet, prattu
chi benzat.If you want love to be
for a plate that goes,
let a plate come back.

Mauss (1967) has shown the pervasive cultural power of the gift that keeps individuals constantly indebted to each other and continuously engaged in positive interaction through giving. In his interpretation of Mauss, Marshall Sahlins has said, “The gift is alliance, solidarity, communion, in brief, peace” (1972: 169). Food is an extremely important component of reciprocal exchanges, more so than any other object or substance (Mauss 1967). As Sahlins says:”By comparison with other stuff, food is more readily, or more necessarily shared” (1972: 215).

Bronislaw Malinowski (1961: 168-72), Miriam Kahn (1986, 1988), and Michael Young (1971) have explicitly demonstrated how in Melanesia, feasting both joins people in community and establishes power relations. Kahn (1986, 1988) describes two different kinds of feasts held by the Wamirans of Papua New Guinea, the T-mode (transaction) feast that serves to reinforce power ranks and the I-mode (incorporation) feast that strengthens community solidarity; “both types of exchanges are equally necessary” (Kahn 1986: 125). Similarly, in the Sardinian community of Tresnuraghes (Counihan 1984), the annual St. Mark celebration involves a collective feasting on mutton, donated by wealthy shepherds, and bread, donated by villagers seeking or repaying divine assistance. This redistributive feast serves simultaneously to bring the community together, to make abundant food available to the poor, and to display the wealth and prestige of those able to sponsor the feast. Similar redistributive celebrations occur in a wide range of peasant and tribal societies and are central to the maintenance of community and political organization.

In many cultures, food is instrumental in maintaining good relations between humans and their gods. In Christianity, a central symbol is the consumption of bread, both by Christ and his disciples at the Last Supper, and regularly by the faithful in the Communion ritual (Feeley-Harnik 1981; Bynum 1987). The bread, or host, is the body of Christ; it stands for redemption, holiness, and salvation. The faithful literally eat their God, and, in so doing, incorporate the values and messages of their religion. Ancient Greeks, and many other peoples, use food sacrifices as a means of propitiating their gods (Mauss 1967; Detienne and Vernant 1989). Tibetan Buddhist Sherpas consciously cajole their gods with food offerings and say, “I am offering you the things which you eat, now you must do whatever I demand” (Ortner 1975: 147). By consciously employing the mechanisms of hospitality with the gods that facilitate human interaction, Sherpas hope that “aroused, pleased, and gratified, the gods, like one’s neighbors, will feel ‘happy’ and kindly disposed toward the worshippers/hosts and any requests they might make” (Ortner 1975: 146-7).

Offerings of food to the deceased are a common cultural means of ensuring good relations with them (Frazer 1951; Goody 1962; Huntington and Metcalf 1979; Nutini 1988). On All Souls’ Day or Eve, throughout the Christian world, people make food offerings and sometimes prepare entire meals for the dead. Some Sicilians eat fava beans; others consume cooked cereals (De Simone and Rossi 1977: 53-4). In Bosa, on All Souls’ Day, Sardinians prepare sa mesa, literally, “the table,” which is a meal for the deceased that they lay out as they are going to bed (Counihan 1981: 276-9). They always include spaghetti and pabassini, a special cookie made for All Souls’ Day, as well as many other foods, including bread, nuts, fruit, and sometimes wine, beer, Coca-Cola, juice, coffee, snuffing tobacco, or cigarettes. The meal is destined specifically for one’s own dead relatives, and often the optional food items reflect a specific deceased person’s preferences in life. The meal serves to communicate and maintain good relations with the dead, just as food exchanges regularly do with the living.

In some cultures, the living actually eat the dead to honor them and gain some of their powers (Arens 1979; Walens 1981; Sanday 1986). Sigmund Freud argued that consumption of the deceased is based on the belief that “by absorbing parts of the body of a person through the act of eating we also come to possess the properties which belonged to that person” (1918: 107).The Yanomamo Indians of the Venezuelan Amazon eat the ashes of their deceased loved ones to ensure a successful afterlife. When ethnographer Kenneth Good was deathly sick with malaria, his informants expressed their affection by assuring him, “Don’t worry, older brother. Don’t worry at all. We will drink your ashes” (Good and Chanoff 1991: 133). Consumption establishes connection between the living and the dead, between humans and their gods, among neighbors and kin, and, in particular, among family members.

Food and Family

Feeding is one of the most important channels of infant and child socialization and personality formation. In fact, the Pacific Atimelangers studied by Cora Du Bois believe that the original creation of human beings was from food; they were “created from molded rice and corn meal” (1941: 278-9). Food and the manner of giving it make the child. As Margaret Mead said, “It seems probable that as he is fed every child learns something about the willingness of the world to give or withhold food, to give lavishly or deal out parsimoniously” (1967: 70).

According to Freud, the child’s earliest experiences of eating are the stage for important developmental processes and shape his or her lifelong personality: “The first and most important activity in the child’s life, the sucking from the mother’s breast,” introduces the child to sexual pleasure and prefigures later adult sexuality (Freud 1962: 43; see also Malinowski 1927). Furthermore, breast feeding becomes part of the process of individuation for the child. As it recognizes gradually that the mother is other, and that its source of food is outside of itself, the child begins to establish an autonomous and bounded identity.

In some cultures, the family may be most effectively conceptualized as those people who share a common hearth (Weismantel 1988: 169). As Janet Siskind says of the Sharanahua Indians of the Peruvian Amazon,”Eating with people is an affirmation of kinship” (1973: 9). So important is feeding to the establishment of parent-child relations in Kalauna, Goodenough Island, that “fosterage … is wholly conceived in terms of feeding” (Young 1971: 41). Young goes on to note that this same “identification is buried in our own language: Old English ‘foster’ means ‘food'” (1971: 41). In Kalauna, the father establishes his paternity by providing food for his pregnant wife. Young says:

While the role of the mother in producing the child is self-evident, the father must reinforce his own role by feeding his wife during pregnancy. This is explicitly seen as nurturing the foetus, and it is a principal element in the ideology of agnatic descent (1971: 40).

Problematic feeding can lead to personality disturbances in children, and dysfunctional families may have members who suffer from eating problems (Palazzoli 1971; Bruch 1973). Anna Freud suggests that disturbed eating patterns may be “symbolic of a struggle between mother and child, in which the child can find an outlet for its passive or active, sadistic or masochistic tendencies towards the mother” (1946: 121).

Dorothy N. Shack (1969) and William A. Shack (1971) attribute a host of personality characteristics of the Gurage of Ethiopia to their inconsistent early-childhood feeding habits and later patterns of want and glut that reveal severe “dependency-frustration” (W. Shack 1971: 34). Gurage children are often neglected when hungry and then finally fed to excess after crying for hours (D. Shack 1969). Adults eat sparingly and quickly on normal occasions, but occasionally find themselves forced to eat when not hungry at feasts or as guests (W. Shack 1971). D. Shack argues that such eating patterns contribute to the development of personality traits that include “selfishness,” “emotional detachment,” “unrelatedness,” “passivity,” “dependency,” and feelings of worthlessness (1969: 298).

Shack suggests that because the food supply is particularly unreliable for low-status men, they are susceptible to awre(spirit possession), marked by “loss of appetite, nausea and intermittent attacks of severe stomach pains” (1971: 35). The affliction is cured through a collective ritual in which the victim is covered by a white shawl, seated in a smoky room, and given special food called brabrat.With this, he “begins greedily and ravenously stuffing his mouth” and continues to do so until the spirit, “speaking through the possessed person, utters with a sigh, several times—‘tafwahum’—’I am satisfied'” (W. Shack 1971: 36). The rite of awre -spirit exorcism allows a low-status man deprived of both food and prestige to gain both. It is a temporary overcoming of the dependency frustration embedded in the cultural foodways that produces a chronic anxiety in those most often hungry. The Gurage exemplify how feeding patterns can influence personality formation and show how different cultures have distinct ways of ensuring that people get fed.

Food as Meaning, Symbol, and Language

In every culture, foodways constitute an organized system, a language, which—through its structure and components—conveys meaning and contributes to the organization of the natural and social world. According to Roland Barthes (1975: 49-50),”Food … is not only a collection of products that can be used for statistical or nutritional studies. It is also a system of communication, a body of images, a protocol of usages, situations and behavior.” Foodways are a prime domain for conveying meaning because eating is an essential and continuously repeated activity; foods are many; there are different characteristics of texture, taste, color, and modes of preparation of food that are easy labels for meaning; food constitutes a language accessible to all; and eating is extremely pleasurable.

In examining the meaning of food, social scientists have studied cuisine, the food elements used and rules for their combination and preparation; etiquette and food rules, the customs governing what, with whom, when, and where one eats; taboos, the prohibitions of and restrictions on the consumption of certain foods by certain people under certain conditions; and symbolism, the specific meanings attributed to foods in specific contexts. There is of course much overlap between these four domains. For example, the study of Jewish dietary law involves examination of foods eaten and not eaten and the legitimate bases of their combination (cuisine). But it also concerns the study of meals, the arrangement and sequence of foods, peoples’ roles in the preparation and serving of food, and their placement at the table (etiquette). In addition, it includes the study of foods not eaten and why (taboo). And finally, to make sense out of all this, it involves the study of the complex and multivocal meanings of the foods and the behaviors centered around them (symbolism).

Food functions effectively as a system of communication because human beings organize their food-ways into an ordered system parallel to other cultural systems and infuse them with meaning: “The cuisine of a people and their understanding of the world are linked” (Soler 1973: 943, my translation). It is to this cultural association between food and meaning that Claude Lévi-Strauss (1963a: 89) was referring in his oft-quoted statement that certain animal species are chosen as totems “not because they are ‘good to eat’ but because they are ‘good to think.'” Foods have and convey meanings because they are part of complex systems; “food categories … encode social events” (Douglas 1974: 61). Jean Soler suggests that a food taboo “cannot be understood in isolation. It must be placed in the center of the signs of its level, with which it forms a system, and this system must itself be connected to systems of other levels, with which it articulates to form the socio-cultural system of a people” (1973: 946, my translation).

Structuralists (for example, Lévi-Strauss 1966; Verdier 1969) emphasize the dual nature of food and cuisine, which both stand between and mediate nature and culture. The process of naming a wild product as food and transforming it into something edible involves the “culturizing” of nature. And cuisine, because it is a “means of transformation, must facilitate at least metaphorically all transformation” (Verdier 1969: 54). Hence, foods are very often used in rites of passage (see Goody 1982: 79-81).

Among the Mehinaku, initiation ceremonies for girls involve the ritual of first menses, for boys the earpiercing ceremony. These rituals and the related blood flow are seen as parallel and involve the same restrictions on eating:

Both boys and girls must follow certain food taboos to ensure the rapid cessation of the flow of blood and a favorable dream. Initially, the children are subject to a fast; they are allowed to drink water after twenty-four hours.… Following the fast, they may eat all foods but fish, which would prolong the blood flow. “Fish,” it is said, “eat other fish and therefore are filled with blood.” Monkeys and birds eat only fruit and have a “different kind of blood” and are therefore acceptable to “menstruating” boys and girls.… With the total cessation of the flow of blood, a ceremony reintroduces fish to the diet. The boys are led outside, taste a small amount of fish, and spit it onto a fiber mat. The girls follow the same ritual inside the house.… Fish are now permissible … (Gregor 1985: 189).

Here food is used to signify the transformation of boys to men and girls to women while it simultaneously marks the similarity of the maturation of boys and girls (see also S. Hugh-Jones 1979 and C. Hugh-Jones 1979, especially chapter 5).

Food can be used metaphorically to convey just about any imaginable condition, thought, or emotion. American college students, for example, express feelings of love, anger, anxiety, depression, sorrow, and joy through their eating habits (Counihan 1992). After a satisfying meal, Sardinians say,” consolada(o) soe “—”I am consoled”—and imply the metaphorical and physical overlap between good food and good feelings (Counihan 1981). Because of the strong visceral pleasure of eating and pain of hunger, food readily adopts powerful connotations and is a rich symbol in written and oral literature.

Food in Folklore and Literature

Food meanings are paramount in Lévi-Strauss’s (1963b, 1966, and 1969) monumental study of mythology. He is concerned with understanding, through mythology, the structure of the human mind. According to Lévi-Strauss, binary oppositions are embodied in our brains and appear in many levels of our thinking. The oppositions in the human relationship to nature mediated through food (for example, “the raw and the cooked,” nature and culture, or animal and human) reveal universals in human thinking.

In stories told to children, proper eating represents humanness and effective socialization, whereas out-of-control eating and cannibalism stand for wildness and incomplete socialization. The widely known European folktale “Hansel and Gretel” is a good example of these themes; it “is about conflicting family loyalties expressed in terms of sharing and hoarding food” (Taggart 1986: 435). Bruno Bettelheim interprets the food themes of the story as being about children’s struggle to outgrow oral dependency and symbiosis with the mother (1975: 159-66). Hansel and Gretel are forced from home due to food scarcity and they, subsequently, gobble up the candy house without thought or restraint.

This regression to “primitive incorporative and hence destructive desires” only leads to trouble, as they are trapped by the wicked witch, “a personification of the destructive aspects of orality” (Bettelheim 1975: 160, 162). Eventually, the children use reason to dominate their oral urges and refuse food so as to be able to kill the witch. Then they inherit her jewels and become reunited with their family in a new status: “As the children transcend their oral anxiety, and free themselves of relying on oral satisfaction for security, they can also free themselves of the image of the threatening mother—the witch—and rediscover the good parents, whose greater wisdom—the shared jewels—then benefit all” (Bettelheim 1975: 162).Their struggle with food, in essence, represents stages in their maturation.

The same theme about the power of food in family relations is beautifully depicted in Maurice Sendak’s Caldecott Medal-winning children’s story Where the Wild Things Are (1963). The tale, which many have placed in the category of superb children’s literature, goes something like this: Once upon a time there was an energetic little boy, Max, who put on his wolf costume and pretended to be a ferocious animal. He annoyed his mother so much with his rambunctious behavior that she called him a “wild thing.” When in response he threatened to eat her up, she made him go to bed without his supper.

While Max was lying in the dark, his room turned into a dense forest, and a boat arrived. He boarded it and it took him to the land where the wild things lived. He “tamed” them, and they liked him so much that they crowned him their king, which began a boisterous and rowdy time for all.

After a while Max became annoyed by all the commotion and wanted it to stop. As their king he called an end to the rumpus and sent everyone to bed without supper. By now he missed his family and their love for him, and he detected a wonderful aroma that could only be the good food at his house. Very homesick now, he decided to give up his crown and leave the kingdom. He told the wild things that he wanted to go home.

His unruly subjects, however, were not willing to let him leave. They first claimed to love him too much to let him go; in fact, they said that they loved him so much they would rather eat him up than see him leave. But when he insisted, they acted ferociously toward him, making horrible sounds and showing their fangs, and their eyes were evil and menacing. The boy relinquished his kingdom nonetheless and boarded the boat from which he waved good-bye. The way home was a very long journey. It seemed to the little boy to take over a year—but when he finally arrived back in his room, a meal was laid out to greet him. It was still warm.

Sendak’s story shows how food is a source of love, power, socialization, and connection between parents and children. In the story, Max is a “wild thing,” an incompletely socialized child. His wildness is shown by the wolf suit and his desire to eat his mother up, a desire that simultaneously expresses the incomplete separation of the child from the mother. This theme of eating as incorporation is recreated later in the story when the wild things want to eat Max up, to keep him from leaving them. But Max does not stay with the wild things; he feels the pull of love in the smells of “good things to eat” that come from the place “where someone loved him best of all.” He follows a long journey home where love awaits him in the form of the supper that was previously denied him because of his bad behavior. The fact that “it was still hot” symbolizes the mother’s love that persists and is there to facilitate his socialization.

Food, Gender, Sex, and Sexuality

One of the most significant domains of meaning embodied in food centers on the relation between the sexes, their gender definitions, and their sexuality:

Wives are like mothers. When we were small our mothers fed us. When we are grown our wives cook for us. If there is something good, they keep it in the pot until we come home. When we were small we slept with our mothers; when we are grown we sleep with our wives. Sometimes when we are grown we wake in the night and call our wives ‘mothers’ (Du Bois 1944: 96).

Eating is a sexual and gendered activity throughout life. Food may stand for sex; as Thomas Gregor says of the Mehinaku Indians, “A literal rendering of the verb to have sex might thus be ‘to eat to the fullest extent.’ … The essential idea is that the genitals of one sex are the ‘food’ of the other’s” (1985: 70). Food and sex are metaphorically overlapping: Eating may represent copulation; foods may stand for sexual acts. The poet George Herbert captured this relation in the early seventeenth century:” ‘You must sit down,’ says Love,’and taste my Meat.’ / So I did sit and Eat” (quoted in Starn 1990: 78). In many cultures, particularly those with food scarcity, food gifts may be an important path to sexual liaisons (Holmberg 1969: 126; Siskind 1973).

In all cultures there are associations between eating, intercourse, and reproduction. These activities share certain biopsychological attributes—particularly their contributions to life and growth, their passing in and out of the body, and their mingling of discrete individuals—that endow them with metaphorical and symbolic identity. Food and sex are analogous instinctive needs (Freud 1962: 1), and there is a lifelong connection between oral pleasure and sexual pleasure (Freud 1962: 43). Eating together connotes intimacy, often sexual intimacy or kinship (Freud 1918: 175; Siskind 1973: 9). Hence, both eating and copulation could be seen as effecting social merging.

Precisely because eating and intercourse both involve intimacy, they can be dangerous when carried out with the wrong person or under the wrong conditions. Hence, food consumption and sexual activity are surrounded with rules and taboos that regulate them and also reinforce beliefs about gender basic to the social order (see especially Meigs 1984). Food and sex both have associated etiquette about their appropriate times, places, and persons; often people with whom one can eat are those with whom one can have sex and vice versa (see, for example, Tambiah 1969). Among the Trobriand Islanders, a man and woman announce their marriage by eating yams together in public; before this they must never share a meal (Weiner 1988: 77).

Maleness and femaleness in all cultures are associated with specific foods, and rules exist to control their consumption (see Frese 1991 and Brumberg 1988: 176-8). For example, the Hua of New Guinea have elaborate conceptions about koroko and hakeri’a foods. The former are cold, wet, soft, fertile, fast-growing foods associated with females; the latter are hot, dry, hard, infertile, and slow-growing foods associated with males. Women can become more like men by consuming hakeri’a foods, which, it is believed, help minimize menstrual flow. Men, on the other hand, proclaim publicly that female foods and substances are “not only disgusting but also dangerous to the development and maintenance of masculinity.” Secretly, however, they eat foods associated with females to gain vitality and power (Meigs 1984).

In general, the association between food and sex is deeper, more extensive, and more intimate for women than it is for men (see, for example, Bynum 1987: xiv). In all cultures, women’s primary responsibilities involve food provisioning and the bearing and rearing of children (D’Andrade 1974; Moore 1988). Although these activities are undertaken with widely ranging amounts of autonomy, prestige, and control, they are nonetheless universally linked to womanhood. Women are food to the fetus and infant: The breasts can be sources of both sexual pleasure and food. As Mead noted, for women but not for men, both food and sex involve a posture of inception: “[T]he girl finds that the reinterpretation of impregnation and conception and birth fits easily into her early experience with the intake of food” (1967: 143). Where women are valued, their parallel experiences of eating, intercourse, and birth are likely to be positive, but where women are devalued, these activities can be a source of shame and subordination.

In the United States, for example, female college students report that they feel ashamed to eat in front of men with whom they have a romantic involvement (Counihan 1992).They fear fat with obsession and terror (Orbach 1978; Millman 1980; Chernin 1981), and report that men denigrate and gain power over them by saying they eat too much or are too fat (Millman 1980; Counihan 1992). In gender-stratified cultures as diverse as England (Charles and Kerr 1988), Italy (Counihan 1988), and Andean Ecuador (Weismantel 1988), men control women by claiming the authority to judge the meal the latter have cooked for them.

The power relations around food mirror the power of the sexes in general. Whereas men gain power in some cultures by controlling money, and hence food purchasing power (Charles and Kerr 1988), women exert considerable power in all cultures by their control of food preparation and consumption. Adams (1990) argues that patriarchal power in Western society is embodied in the practice of eating meat, which involves the linking of women and animals and their objectification and subordination. Women can rebel through vegetarianism, which from this perspective is a political statement: a rejection of patriarchal power and values, an expression of feminism, and a claiming of female power over self and nature.

Among the Zumbaguan Indians of Andean Ecuador, the senior female is in charge of preparing and serving meals (Weismantel 1988: 28-9). This gives her the ability to determine hierarchies by the order in which she serves people and the contents of the plate she gives them (Weismantel 1988: 182). A woman can even punish an errant husband who finally returns from a drinking spree by serving him massive quantities of rich food that the husband, by force of etiquette, eats, with extremely unpleasant physical results.

In Western societies, for at least eight centuries, some women have used food in symbolic ways as a path to power.10 Today, modern anorexics starve themselves, sometimes to death, to achieve physical and spiritual perfection. Their behavior is strikingly similar to that of medieval holy women in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, although the cultural contexts of their behaviors are rather different (Bell 1985; Bynum 1987; Brumberg 1988; Counihan 1989). Medieval holy women fasted for religious and spiritual perfection (that is, holiness): They used eating or fasting as a path to reach God and to circumvent patriarchal, familial, religious, and civil authority. Some women achieved sainthood by virtue of the spirituality they revealed, primarily through fasting and other food-centered behaviors, such as multiplying food in miracles, exuding holy oils or milk from their own bodies, and giving food to the poor (Bynum 1987). Contemporary anorexics attempt to achieve perfection through self-control and thinness. They receive pitying recognition from family, friends, and medical professionals, and may die unless they find a path to the self-esteem, sense of control, and autonomy they so desperately seek through fasting (Bruch 1973, 1978; Lawrence 1984; Brumberg 1988).

Between men and women, food is a means of differentiation, as well as a channel of connection. By claiming different roles in regard to food and distinct attributes through identification with specific foods, men and women define their masculinity and femininity, their similarities and differences. They use food and food metaphors to achieve the most intimate union, as witnessed through language that equates eating with sexual relations and through practices that equate the exchange of food—whether with candlelight dinners in four-star restaurants or with baked taro on Trobriand verandas (Weiner 1988)—with sexual intimacy.


Food, although essential to biological survival, takes on myriad meanings and roles in contributing to “the social construction of reality” (Berger and Luckmann 1966). As humans construct their relationship to nature through their foodways, they simultaneously define themselves and their social world (Berger and Luckmann 1966: 180-3).Through the production, distribution, and consumption of food, they act out their most important relationships: with their family, with their own and the opposite sex, with the community, with the dead, with the gods, and with the cosmos. Food orders the world and expresses multiplex meanings about the nature of reality. The social and cultural uses of food are many and they provide much insight into the human condition.