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10 July 2010

Why Food Matters


After listening to my good friend Brendan and his family and friends put on an all-day, food-themed radio show last Saturday, I felt inspired to write a little piece about why food is so important. As many of you know, food has become a topic of great interest in recent years, both in popular culture and in academia. I've had the great benefit of studying under a few anthropologists who are very engaged in the study of food and food related issues - Dr. Jane Gibson at KU, Dr. Donald Stull at KU, and Dr. Michael Paolisso at UMD. All three study different issues and take different approaches to the study of food - Dr. Gibson focuses on local, small-scale food production, Dr. Stull on the meat packing industry and labor conditions in food production, Dr. Paolisso on the watermen of the Chesapeake Bay and their role in the Bay environment. They've all had a significant influence on my own development as an anthropologist and on my understanding of food, but here is why food is important to me...

Food is an entanglement - a knot of threads linking many different things together. In the most fundamental sense, food is one of the most direct points of contact between ourselves as individuals and the world outside of our skin. When we consume, we literally take the world into our selves, and in the process it is transformed and we are transformed by it. This is the power of the Eucharist - when we eat the host and drink the wine we take Christ into our bodies (literally or metaphorically, depending on your point of view) and, by so doing, we Christ becomes a part of us and we become Christ. But even devoid of the religious connotations, the transformation is powerful and meaningful. You are what you eat.

There is a magic, too, in the act of cooking and preparing food. An alchemical process which turns seemingly mundane objects into a work of art. The inedible becomes edible, the bland becomes flavorful.

Eating is a very social act. When we eat with others, our inhibitions are reduced and barriers are broken down. Relationships are built or strengthened when we share a meal. In some cultures, it is a sin to eat alone.

The way we produce our food is also very important. Whether we hunt and gather it, raise it, or cultivate it, our food has a tremendous influence on our collective way of life and our relationship to the environment. Rarely is food production an individual activity, societies are built upon the necessities of working together to produce and exchange food. Changes in the way we use food have brought about dramatic changes in our societies - the shift to agriculture gave rise to civilizations, the introduction of new crops and new growing techniques laid the groundwork for the European Renaissance, the use of fossil fuels and machinery in agriculture has driven the massive population growth of the last century.

Food production is also one of the most direct connection between our cultures and the environment. Throughout the history of human existence, we have altered our landscapes to promote the growth of edible plants and animals and to inhibit the development of less desirable species. Most recently, we've introduced all kinds of new organisms, which we've created by mixing and matching genes, into the environment - and the results of this experiment are still emerging.

Food is entanglement - it ties people together and it ties our selves and our cultures to the world around us. This is why we need, now more than ever, to understand our food and where it comes from.

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