Foodways refers to the social, cultural, and economic practices associated with food.
The term is used to explore what, why, and how we eat, along with the conditions surrounding these. Although seemingly trivial, foodways are a window into the cultures of different people across regions and historical periods.
Studying foodways give us insights into the power dynamics (of gender, class, race, etc.) both inside and outside homes. It also allows us to see how our culinary habits are intertwined with our regional history, ancient stories, family folklore, folk culture, etc.
In today’s world, like everything else, food has also been reshaped by globalization, causing shifts and movements in traditional foodways.
Definition of Foodways
Jay Anderson defined foodways as:
“the whole interrelated system of food conceptualization and evaluation, procurement, preservation, preparation, consumption and nutrition shared by all the members of a particular society.” (1971)
He adds that the concept includes the historical and regional differences associated with food.
Foodways also highlight the importance of food events (like barbecues), food preparation (making of namkeens during Diwali in India), and artistic expressions associated with food (literary references to food).
Origins of the Concept
The term “foodways” was coined by John W. Bennett and his fellow graduate students at the University of Chicago in 1942.
A few decades earlier, the US Department of Agriculture had been studying the food habits of the rural poor to improve them.
In such a context, Bennett and his fellow students went to study the food habits of people living in southern Illinois, along the banks of the Mississippi River. They found that almost all the people depended on white bread, pork, and potatoes.
This was quite perplexing for the researchers; they couldn’t understand why the inhabitants wouldn’t opt for more nutritious and abundantly available food like fish. They concluded that people are not entirely rational in their food habits.
Instead, they’re “conditioned by the preferences and prejudices of his neighbors, selecting only those foods sanctioned by the ‘culture’” (Bennett, 1942).
They derived “foodways” from the term “folkways”, which refers to the traditional ways of a particular community.
Foodways, just like folkways, are established by use—not by reason. So, Bennett and his companions concluded that the government’s attempts to suggest new nutritional/economical food habits were unlikely to succeed.
Another definition of foodways comes from Harris, Lyon, and McLaughlin, who emphasize the communicative and meaning-laden aspects of food:
“Everything about eating including what we consume, how we acquire it, who prepares it, and who’s at the table – is a form of communication rich with meaning. Our attitudes, practices, and rituals around food are a window onto our most basic beliefs about the world and ourselves.” (2005)
Examples of Foodways
- The Red Egg Tradition: Many Christian Greeks gift a red-dyed egg to friends and family during Easter, which links back to an ancient story. It is believed that, after the resurrection of Christ, Mary Magdalene went to Pilate to tell him about it. Pilate said he would believe such a story if the egg in Mary’s hand turned blood red, and according to the legend, the egg immediately did. Hence, this tradition of gifting red eggs was born.
- Wheat: Wheat is an example of a food that carries an almost universal meaning. Food carries different meanings for different people, which are often quite peculiar. However, one exception to this wheat. In almost every culture around the world, the beautiful golden crops of wheat represent the time of harvest, abundance, and joy (Thursby, 2008). And rightly so, for there are innumerable ways of preparing it.
- The Witches’ Caldron in Macbeth: In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the three witches prepare a “gruel thick and slab” in a cauldron. “Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn, and caldron bubble”, they chant, and their cauldron’s poisoned ingredients “Like a hell-broth boil and bubble”. Here, the caldron and the witches foreshadow the dark events awaiting Macbeth and his kingdom. Like Shakespeare, several writers throughout the ages have used food to reflect the cultural practices of their times.
- Trump and Fast Food: During his tenure, Donald Trump promoted fast food in various ways, and even offered it to guests visiting the White House. Trump’s love for fast food has been widely known, and he even starred in a McDonald’s commercial. Although his offering of hamburgers to guests was criticized by many (as it went against traditional state dinners), his administration portrayed it as the “quintessentially American” cuisine—a reflection of Trump’s populist politics (Bock, 2021).
- Globalization of Food: Due to globalization, now food from all around the world is available everywhere. The spread of fast-food outlets like McDonald’s and KFC has created a certain homogeneity around the globe. Such fast-food outlets, however, also create familiarity by customizing their products according to local preferences. For example, in India, McDonald’s offers McAloo Tikki, while in Japan, they offer fresh sushi.
- Halal Food: In many Islamic countries and families, only halal food (which follows Islamic dietary laws) is consumed. It forbids pork, alcohol, etc., and has to be prepared in a specific way (killing the animal through a cut to the jugular vein, carotid artery, and windpipe). Today, an entire halal food industry has emerged that provides certifications and standards to assure their customers of quality. This is an example of how foodways are linked closely to religion.
- Tea Ceremonies in Japan: In Japan, there are elaborate and ritualized tea ceremonies. These usually involve the consumption of powdered green tea known as matcha. There are specific etiquettes for guests entering the room, serving the tea, and interacting during the ceremony. The tea ceremonies are linked to Zen Buddhism, and they also reflect the significance of mindfulness and aesthetics in Japanese culture.
- Italy’s Slow Food Movement: Slow Food emphasizes the importance of local food and traditional cooking; it also promotes sustainable and ethical food production. Originating in Italy in the 1980s, it grew as a response to the globalization of fast food and industrial agriculture. It has led to the creation of local food networks (such as farmers’ markets) and also inspired similar movements across the world.
- Recipes & Cookbooks: Recipes, ranging from those passed on verbally through generations to those written in cookbooks, are a significant part of foodways in every culture. They include the ingredients, cooking techniques, and the number of servings for each cuisine, while also reflecting cultural traditions. Cookbooks often have brief tips or notes written in the margins, which become part of the family folklore (Thursby).
- Soul Food: Soul food is an ethnic cuisine traditionally made by African-Americans in the Southern United States. It originated with foods that the Southern plantation owners gave to their black slaves, and therefore reflects the history of African Americans. From the beginning, it was influenced by the practices of Western Africans and Native Americans, and today, it has become a mainstream American cuisine.
Why Study Foodways?
Although seemingly trivial, studying foodways gives us deep insights into the history, tradition, and cultural lives of people.
As food is essential for survival, an abundance of texts has been written about it throughout human history—from remnants in burial grounds, through literary pieces about food practices and their meanings, to contemporary cookbooks.
Food carries different meanings for different people, and studying foodways provides us with access to these meanings. Food plays a key role in the identity formation of individuals, families, and cultures. So, we associate curry dishes with India, fine chocolate with Switzerland, etc.
A society’s food is often determined by its region, and people establish different culinary beliefs/practices based on their local food; therefore, foodways also give us an understanding of regional differences.
As mentioned earlier, verbal recipes and cookbooks (with their scribbled notes) become carriers of family tradition and folklore. Food can evoke nostalgia for past times (or distant homes) and often serves a comforting role.
Ethnic cuisines bear marks of cultural history (as in the case of soul food), and yet, also evolve with time, keeping up with the latest cooking technologies. Food is also linked deeply with social power dynamics, having “embedded meanings of social status, inclusion and exclusion, boundaries, and negotiations of boundaries.” (Thursby, 2008).
Finally, in today’s interconnected world, there has been a globalization of food as well, allowing us to taste delicacies from everywhere. Studying foodways allows us to understand the implications of this modern phenomenon, including its problems (like homogenization), and responses (the slow food movement).
Foodways refers to all human practices associated with food.
It includes social, cultural, and economic factors that shape our culinary habits. Moreover, food is deeply intertwined with the politics of inclusion and exclusion. All in all, studying foodways gives us a window into the lives of different groups of people across ages and regions.
Anderson, J. (1971). The Food of China. Geographical Review.
Bennett, John; Smith, Harvey L. & Passin, Herbert (October 1942). “Food and Culture in Southern Illinois–A Preliminary Report”. American Sociological Review. 7: 645.
Bock, Sheila (2021). “Fast food and the white house: Performing foodways, class, and American identity”. Western Folklore. Western States Folklore Society.
Harris, Patricia; Lyon, David; McLaughlin, Sue (2005). The Meaning of Food. The Globe Pequot Press.
Thursby, Jacqueline S. (2008). Foodways and Folklore: A Handbook. Greenwood Press.