Cuisine as community: How food practices influence how we relate to one another

When it comes to food rituals, modern man has not changed very much from his caveman ancestors when it comes to eating in groups. After chasing down their protein choice of the day, he relaxed around a fire and shared his spoils with family and friends.

Our caveman might have gotten a little testy, though, if someone else took too big a piece of meat off of the communal fire spit. Protests may have erupted, clubs grabbed for power, and a pecking order for food consumption quickly established.

Well, perhaps we have not evolved as much one might think. Is there anyone who has not seen people push and shove their way toward a buffet as though it was their last meal?

In our modern world, where food is plentiful, there is no need for a pecking order, but passing food around the table family style can produce noisy results. Positive or negative comments on specific dishes may be given to the cook who may refute or accept the critique. If the recipients are enjoying the meal, conversation is encouraged as their pleasure level rises in satisfaction.

Perhaps the most significant change in American food rituals is that our families often do not eat together at all. This trend has been viewed by many as having a very negative impact on the American family unit. When do they really get a chance to talk, or share the events of their day, face-to-face?

When families do manage to get together for a meal, and if children are in the group, the ritual becomes one of encouragement as “I don’t like that” becomes a repetitive mantra. Mom tries to remember what “Dr. Phil” said about encouraging kids to try new food, or eat any food for that matter, that is not white, fried or sweet.

Dad may remember that kids use food drama as a form of control in their limited world where they control very little. He may be losing patience as the tone of his voice escalates to LOUD and resulting tears drip into the peas. If this same family had been eating buffet style, the kids would have picked what they wanted to eat and this food ritual controversy may have had a happier ending.

Mothers, in many cultures, use food to bond with their family, especially if they do not work outside the home. For these women food has come to represent love. The more of her food her loved ones eat, the more SHE feels loved. Italian mothers are well known for pushing food on family and friends with such passion that to refuse could be viewed as a personal insult. Other women use food to enhance their self esteem, and in some cases, to control their children.

Different cultures and religions use food rituals to keep followers bonded. In Christianity, Jesus used the ritual of transubstantiation (changing) of bread and wine into the body and blood that has become the sacred ritual of communion. Christ used two very basic food items in his lesson knowing that the ritual had instant meaning and would deeply bond his followers.

While the food ritual may be different in Judaism, Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism, the end result is the same. People sharing a belief also want to share food together in a symbolic way to enhance their spiritual experience.

Good food and the community of food preparation that elevates a social dining experience will always play an important role in how people relate to each other. In families, in business, and in social settings, food rituals inspire and continue to bond us together.