July 16, 2008

Sociology: It's What's For Dinner

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

What did you have for dinner last night? Was it sociologically meaningful? 

Actually, all food is sociologically relevant in some way. It is a part of culture, tied to customs, religion, and ethnicity. clip_image002What we eat, how we eat, and when we eat are intertwined with sociological issues like these.

Here are a few specific examples: what we eat may reflect our status, where we eat our income, and with whom we eat our family situation.

We have social rituals surrounding our meals too. Typically at a restaurant we use silverware when appropriate (I learned how embarrassing violating this could be when I first tried eating deep-dish pizza with my hands).

Eating off our own plates is another such ritual usually followed, and we usually avoid eating from strangers’ plates. Believe it or not, I saw this rule breached several years ago when having brunch. I was with a large group of mostly family members and of few of their friends whom I had never met. I hadn’t finished my toast because it was a little burnt and left the mostly-eaten crusts on the plate. 

The man next to me was a significantly older friend of a cousin, and I couldn’t believe it when he asked if I was finished and ate my scraps! It’s not as if this man couldn’t afford a meal himself; although we barely spoke, I knew he was a high-profile attorney, famous for multi-million dollar settlements. Perhaps his status—older, male, wealthy— made him feel like he was entitled. I don’t really know why he did it, but I still think it was sort of gross.clip_image006

Eating also can stratify us; eating at a five-star restaurant is out of reach for most of us, but many people regardless of income might enjoy going to a diner now and then. The affluent thus have more dining choices and can much more easily “invade” some working class spaces than the other way around.clip_image008

Material culture accompanies eating and has sociological importance as well. “Picking out China patterns” is a well-worn phrase indicating that people are planning to get married. Wedding registry lists are mostly filled with eating accoutrements: in addition to fine China, silver and everyday tableware, candle holders, crystal glasses, and serving platters are all pricey gifts to set the table for meals on special occasions.

clip_image010When my grandmother passed away last year, family members sorted through her everyday items, the things too mundane to be listed in her will or given away before she died. My sisters each got a serving platter, my mother her crystal highball glasses. I wanted just one thing: her Black & Decker Handy Chopper. 

You are probably wondering why I would want this when a brand new one is less than fifteen dollars. And as a proud hostess for decades, my grandmother had lots of crystal serving bowls, silver platters, and other objects d’art, but still I wanted the chopper. 

My grandma used to make her famous tuna salad in that chopper. It was one of her many specialties that would often be our first meal at her home when we arrived from out of town. She would have it laid out perfectly on a bed of lettuce with sliced tomatoes making for a colorful garnish. On hot summer days when we would swim in her building’s pool she would wave us in from her seventh floor balcony, the signal that lunch was ready. We’d eat cold tuna sandwiches outside on the patio in our wet bathing suits, waiting until we could go back down to the pool.

I had tried on many occasions to replicate her recipe. Tuna never tasted as good when I made it myself at home. “You have to have a good chopper,” she would tell me, and ask what sort of chopper I used. I would show her my hands, since I manually chopped the ingredients. “You have to have a good chopper,” she repeated, shaking her head.

Now I do have a good chopper. It arrived in its original box, yellowed and taped together with disintegrating scotch tape. It needed a good cleaning, as my grandma’s eyesight had failed in the last of her 96 years. I knew all of the ingredients by heart: chopped sweet onion, white albacore tuna, hard boiled egg, and a spoonful of mayonnaise. When the chopper blended them all together I heard that familiar grinding sound, one I usually heard from a distance because until the end she made the tuna salad by herself without assistance. As if by magic, it tasted exactly as if my grandma was in my kitchen that day.clip_image012

Sometimes a meal is more than a meal. It can evoke family traditions, reflect our ethnic heritage, or reveal our economic circumstances. Our family always had plenty to eat, but for families that don’t, food takes on different meanings.

For others, like my grandmother who emigrated from another country as a child, it can be a way to maintain a family’s traditions and culture in a new place. But the foods that I remember most--the tuna, her delicious Jell-O molds, fresh cornbread with actual pieces of corn, reflect her desire to be fully American. Above all, she loved apple pie. “It’s fruit, it’s good for you,” she would say with a wink.

Her definition of good might not match the FDA Pyramid, but food obviously does more than provide our bodies nutrients. It is, literally, who we are.


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I think this article highlights the importance of family in our live. Often times the chase for material gains is the only focus, which would invalidate or minimize the value of a family heirloom. The simple pleasure of a favorite meal seems to havebeen forget in the hustle of every day life

Recall the famous texts of Norbert Elias on how to behave on the table. Also the distinctive status of the food analyzed by Pierre Bourdieu in La Distinction.

Several months ago the French sociologist Jean-Claude Kaufmann, a specialist in studies of daily life, he published a book on how to behave in different families on the table. The result was an interesting analysis, supported in and ethnographic observation and photography, on the dynamics of operation of seven different French families during the meal and the roles that each individual member assumes a lifetime in this ceremonial act.

In my blog of sociology did a translation of an interview. Unfortunately I only have the version of the Castilian.


i think this article is very true. and i know that everyone can relate to it any race and age. i myself am Mex / American and having read this article it as made me look back to being an infant and eating my grandmothers traditional foods and it has shown me that having been raised with a particular choice of food genre has a major effect on your life as you older. as you mature your want or craving of food will be based on what you were raised i love spanish food because it was what i was raised on and it has nothing to do with race but as for tradition. meaning if you were a latino raised on french food as you grow french food will be your food of choice when given the opportunity. and going to french restaurants reflects what people think f you and so on its all sociology we eat it eveyr day!

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