“If food is treated as a code, the messages it encodes will be found in the pattern of social relations being expressed both within and outside a community. The decoded message is about hierarchy, inclusion and exclusion, boundaries, and transactions across the boundaries” Mary Douglas
“Since we must eat to live, let’s learn to do it intelligently and gracefully, and let’s try to understand its relationship to the other hungers of the world” M. F. K. Fisher
“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,’ said Piglet at last, ‘what’s the first thing you say to yourself?’ / ‘What’s for breakfast?’ said Pooh. / ‘What do you say, Piglet?’ / ‘I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?’ said Piglet. / Pooh nodded thoughtfully. / ‘It’s the same thing,’ he said.” A. A. Milne
“A wise bear always keeps a marmalade sandwich in his hat in case of emergency” Michael Bond
We all have a food story. It has come about through our experiences across time with food and eating and our sense of self and identity. The elemental nature of food and its connection with the our body, health and belonging create a relationship between food, eating and identity that is deep and often entangled with rules and control, fear, shame, guilt and trauma. Our food narrative is construed from childhood memories of meals and foods, and also, messages and stories about food and eating that permeate our environment and culture. When looking at our food narratives we might realise that they are complex and multi-layered. We might come to see that the creation and maintenance of these stories are found in the intersection of beliefs, feelings, emotions, personality, childhood, family, national identity, religion, health, economics, and so on. Therefore, shedding light on or changing our food narrative will most likely require sifting through some of these areas.
A food narrative might include or focus on questions like:
What is your food story? / What role does food play in your family and friends gatherings? What is your relationship with food preparation and eating? / What are the dynamics around the table? / How much do your particular culture and the media more broadly influence what you eat? / Are there recipes that are particularly significant to you and why? / How does food affect other aspects of your life? / What are some early and later significant memories involving food and / or mealtimes? / Are there any traumatic incidents related to food or eating? Do you regularly use food as a coping mechanism?
Our very personal food narrative is embedded within broader discourse and narratives related to food. At the moment there’s also a narrative being told about the world’s food system, and it varies according to the source or context it emanates from. There is a lot of talk around the topic of the sustainability of our current food systems. It concerns the anticipated growth of the world’s population in the near future, which will put substantial demands on the planet’s food supply. Inevitably, once we become aware of this global issue it too enters our food narrative either explicitly or implicitly, depending on our circumstances, sensitivity to global issues and other factors.
Food practices and narratives also connect people psychologically, socially, emotionally, historically. Family food stories repeated over time become long lasting food narratives and more collective food narratives repeated become cultural myths. Both need to be re-examined because they don’t necessarily reflect current truths or historical realities. Also, when we are more mindful and reflective of food and eating we may discover that we also carry a different implicit food narrative, and also, assign meaning to particular foods, mealtime rituals and cooking that we may not have been aware of previously. It is also interesting to explore the different food stories with people in our close relationships or the people we often eat with. For instance, my husband and I relate differently to food and our narratives around it have at times differed significantly, and this has become more explicit as I have embraced a more mindful and meditative approach to life. Food has widely been used as signs and social codes because it is a major part of our daily lives, not only for our survival, but also because it plays a great social role, is relevant to group membership and can be used as an identity marker.
Actually, there may be no area in our human life that is not influenced by food. Roland Barthes suggests that through food we understand our relationship to culture and that food informs our cultural identity, enables participation in a (regional or national) collective, informs gendered behaviour, and much more. The stories we associate with food and eating are also converted through behaviour and discourse into our cultural myths around food. These narratives also function as a rhetoric force used to persuade or influence others, which often occurs below conscious awareness. Because food narratives are woven into our daily practices they can easily become mechanisms that both inform and control our behaviours and choices. The rhetorical manipulation of food narratives occurs in many contexts and can serve as a device to influence people’s behaviour, consumption trends and choices.
In an essay I was reading about food and related narratives in the public space the writer proposes some basic questions that we can ask to discern messages communicated through food narratives.
What are the messages? / Who sends them? / Who is the recipient of these narratives? / What might the unstated agenda be?
Some additional questions we could ask might be:
What are the implicit messages? / What are the consequences of these messages in particular life arenas? or How might they be influencing our behaviours?
Once we engage more mindfully with food and eating and start to recognise our own personal food narratives, but also, those circulating in the broader societal environment, then as individuals we can become more aware of our implicit material to heal or change what is not serving us optimally at the moment, but also as consumers and citizens to increase our awareness of the politics of food narratives. It makes sense that since food occupies a large part of our existence it might be useful to reflect on it more critically. After all, food implies individual and cultural values, and food narratives are highly persuasive; therefore, not being reflective about this makes us vulnerable to manipulation. In the public domain food narratives work ideologically to maintain social structures and cultural systems. In a dissertation paper I was reading recently it is argued that food narratives are part of the cultural regimens that train citizens, nurture a sense of belonging and reinforce national concepts of identity and citizenry. For instance, when groups of people make similar connections to the same foods, they then have a shared food narrative. But when this is accomplished without the conscious participation of the citizens themselves, which practically means that consumers are not reflective about this process of persuasion then they are vulnerable to being manipulated. And we are all more susceptible to the covert persuasive potential of food narratives because generally food is a participatory, pleasurable, and mostly non-reflective practice. Food narratives can establish meaningful connections between voters and their regional or national identity. A certain cuisine or certain foods and dishes can help people define themselves, but this self-definition can also lead to the creation of insiders and outsiders.
As with all things engaging with food, cooking and eating in a more reflective or mindful manner can reveal a lot to us about our past, preferences, traumas, outdated or false beliefs, coping strategies, health, relationships, mealtime dynamics, the needs of our bodies for nourishment and self care, influences and messages we might not be aware of, the broader politics of food and how food narratives are used to persuade us in the public sphere. Our choice of food [when we actually have choice, because for millions of people access to any kind of food is the only priority] and ways we eat reveals a lot about us from our early years, background and culture to our social status and values. When food is shared with others it reveals qualities of the relationship we have with them. Edward Espe Brown says: “Over many years, I found that if I could relate with food with warmhearted compassion, eventually I could learn to treat people with love and respect, and I could touch my own wounds with tenderness.” More generally, leading a reflective life and seeking knowledge is important and it allows for more agency, self determination and freedom. Engaging with food more mindfully can nudge us towards healthier choices. It can additionally bring forward a sense of gratitude and a heightened awareness of the need to alleviate hunger for everyone on this planet.