Why Study Food?

LIZ WILLIAMS (originally published January 2013)

books wiki
Photo by Tom Murphy VII; via Wikimedia Commons.

I just spent four days attending the American Historical Association annual  meeting. I spent my time in sessions and panels about various food-related historical issues. And, I talked to many, many people about food  and food studies. I talked to public historians who are interested in sharing history in museums and other public venues. I discussed with interest the role of food in early immigrations in assimilating the next generations. I talked to others about whether the study of food has value.

Of course I think the study of food has value. So for me the question is asked more to illicit more reasons for me to enumerate in my next discussion. But it was interesting for me to hear one academic historian explain that he feels that other members of his faculty think little of his interest in the history of food. They say that what he studies doesn’t matter.

A few months ago, I discussed the consideration of food as art. Today I want to talk about the importance of studying food. Food studies is a cross-disciplinary program that includes nutrition, writing, marketing, history, anthropology, law, politics and policy, and almost anything that is related to food and drink. Eating is basic to everyone and people have always eaten. Studying something that everyone does and that everyone has always done, especially something that has cultural overtones and reflects geography and leaves artifacts, seems to me to be one of the most logical and obvious ways to tell the continuous study of people.

The fact that food was often grown and prepared by people of a lower class seems to have made it an unappetizing subject for study during some eras. The fact that food was prepared by women made it unimportant during other eras. And today, as we consider food something important and of artistic value, it is still a struggle to make people admit that food studies has the potential to get to the heart of who we are. What we eat becomes a part of us. Studying food and drink in its many parts, can tell us much.

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Photo by Jean-Jacques MILAN/Photographie – 30, via Wikimedia Commons.

If we had always thought that the collection of information of about food and drink was important, we might have had a thoughtful food policy in place today. If we could have studied the culture of food and been aware of how we were changing our culture, we might still be eating meals together as families around a table. We might be cooking food at home. We might not only treat food as a commodity. We might not eat to comfort ourselves, because we are seeking the comfort of the table.

I want to know how we changed when food became something that was not so scarce that the artistic nature of what we eat became more important than just stopping our hunger. And to answer all of these questions, we need to study food and drink. We need to do it openly with enthusiasm and not with embarrassment. Why does it matter?  It matters because it helps us define who we were and who we are in a more basic way than any other study.

Early religions offered food as an appeal to the gods. Animal sacrifice was often made in the form of a goat or lamb. After agriculture becomes the driver of civilization religious celebration revolves around wheat in the form of bread and grapes in the form of wine. These are cultivated products. Looking at the place of food and drink in religion tells us what we consider important. It is true in every arena. If we study food and drink and their actual and symbolic meanings in our culture, we learn who we are. And we do it as part of a continuous line of people and culture, connecting us with the past.

Food was studied by archeologists at prehistoric sites. The collection of food was openly studied by archeologists.  But that study ended when the times became historic. Then the study of government and religion and war left the study of food behind. So instead of learning more about food and culture, we seem to know less. Today more people are studying food. But we have large gaps caused by our prejudice against studying food. We carry those prejudices with us today, even if we don’t know why.

I have been told too many times that the study of food is trivial.  If you were hungry, food would not be trivial. It would be important. The study of food should be important too.

Image by David Lorenzana, via Wikimedia Commons

Image by David Lorenzana, via Wikimedia Commons


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