Food Culture: What HOW You Eat Can Tell You About Culture

Do you eat your dinner at the dining table, or do you eat sitting crosslegged on the floor?

Do you share a communal dish of food, or does everyone have an individual plate?

What utensils do you use – a fork, spoon, and knife; chopsticks; your hands?

With whom do you eat? Family, friends, with only your own gender?

The answers to these questions are part of your food culture – and to a larger extent, your culture as a whole. 

On the surface, you see only the limbs of the baobab – the cultural norms – but the details of your food culture can tell you something deeper about the roots (i.e. your cultural values).

The Presentation: Food Plating

Another aspect of food culture is the amount of care put into food presentation.

One study delved into the differences between American, Italian, and Japanese food plating preferences.

Titled, “Looks Good Enough to Eat: How Food Plating Preferences Differ Across Cultures and Continents,” the study found that Japanese participants prefer more formally arranged plates, while Italians and Americans prefer more casually presented food.

The researchers concluded that this springs from the respective cultures’ individualist versus collectivist natures.

The Japanese are a collectivist culture, so formality and identical presentation may have roots in the Eastern collectivist tradition.

Italians and Americans are individualist Western cultures. Self-autonomy and informality, even in how one’s own plate is presented, may be rooted in this mindset.

The study also noted the fullness/emptiness of the plated food.

The Japanese and Americans’ plates were relatively empty, while the Italians preferred very full plates.

The researchers concluded that the preference for empty plates might be related to the Japanese and American ideal of open space.

How, When, Why, With Whom?

Food norms can tell you a lot about a culture, so when you’re trying to understand/learn a culture, consider these norms to understand the culture’s deeper values

Practice this with your favorite culture – or even your own.

Ask:

  • How often do you eat? How long do you take to eat? 

Many Mediterranean countries, for instance, spend hours dining each day, as sharing food is considered an important social event.

  • When do you eat?

The Spanish, for instance, eat dinner between 9 PM and midnight, and it’s a much lighter meal than lunch. This is historically linked to their afternoon siesta and being geographically located in the wrong time zone.

  • Why do you eat?

Some cultures tend to eat only for sustenance while others take more pleasure in eating.

  • With whom do you eat?

While eating is a family affair for most countries, for others this is not the case.

Answering these questions about food culture will help you understand that culture or learn something new. It will help you connect the dots between a culture’s norms and its values.

The Baobab Theory of Culture

Most folks who are interested in culture have heard about the Iceberg Theory.

The phrase was coined by Ernest Hemingway and applies to his style of writing – a.k.a. the theory of omission. But it also applies to culture.

The idea is that the deeper meaning of a story is below the surface. Or, in the theme of our blog, the deeper meaning of a culture…

Like an iceberg, that which we see of culture only makes up a small portion of the whole. What lies below is even more astounding and impactful.

But I’d like to expand on the Iceberg Theory and compare culture to a baobab.

The Baobab

We talked last week about the mythical baobab tree.

For the purpose of this theory, the baobab’s huge trunk and canopy will represent the visible part of culture.

Traditional clothing, food, art, architecture, language, gestures, appearance, behavior – this is all represented in the visible part of the baobab.

Behavior is often regulated by norms. Folkways, mores, taboos and laws are all represented above the surface.

The small branches at the edges of the canopy represent folkways, the most flexible of the norms. As the branches extend toward the trunk, they become thicker and more rigid. These are a society’s mores. They’re stricter and often based in deeper values.

And the trunk, itself? This represents a culture’s taboos and laws. Punishment for those who do not adhere to these two sets of norms is the most severe. Society members must comply, or they’ll be ostracized or imprisoned.

Know Before Traveling

While knowing the baobab – or the visible part of a culture – is only the beginning of full-on cross-cultural integration, this basic intro would probably be enough for brief travel to a foreign country or a short business trip.

For instance, if you’re traveling to Greece, it would be nice to know that their official working day ends during the early afternoon. Moreover, when formal events are held at work, they are often attended by only employees of the same rank.

Or if you’re on business in the UK, you’ll find that business culture there is quite direct. You’ll also find that the Brits are often on first-name basis with fellow colleagues and superiors. This may seem in stark contrast to the stereotypical image of their formality.

On the other hand, if business takes you to Portugal, you might be addressed very formally as “doutor” (doctor), whether you have a doctorate or not. Everyone with a university degree is honored with this title. You’ll also find that nepotism isn’t an issue in Portugal, as business and personal relationships are often intertwined.

Below the Surface

While all of these aspects are visible parts of the cultural baobab, this begs the question: what lies below the earth?

In the baobab’s case, an enormous network of roots spread into the soil as a culture’s underlying invisible values. We’ll talk about these roots next week.

The Baobab Tree: Grown from Greed & Envy

The first time you see a baobab in the wild African savannah, your jaw drops.

The baobab is unlike any tree you’ve seen elsewhere. Awe-inspiring and unique.

Growing up to 30 meters, this tree lives for thousands of years, and has a gigantic trunk, some of which stand 11 meters wide. For nine months, the baobab is leafless and appears lifeless.

But inside, it stores the lifeblood of mankind: water. In fact, it is known as the tree of life.”

The thick trunk that dropped your jaw is corky and fire-resistant. Perfectly created for the dry and parched desert. Other times, the baobab trunk is completely hollow. This is because spirits live inside the tree…or so they say.

Once rainy season hits, tiny leaves and sour fruits blossom from the top branches and grow to about the size of a coconut.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone can reach these fruits, as the baobab appears to grow upside down.

The Upside Down Tree

“The devil plucked up the baobab, thrust its branches into the earth and left its roots in the air.”

This is how one Arabian legend describes the baobab.

And it may be true.

If you see the baobab from a distance, the tree looks all wrong – the branches look like capillary roots and the trunk the tap-root.

Some legends suggest the baobab grows this way, because it was punished for its greed and envy. One of these legends reads:

“The baobab was among the first trees to appear on the land. Next came the slender, graceful palm tree. When the baobab saw the palm tree, it cried out that it wanted to be taller. Then the beautiful flame tree appeared with its red flower and the baobab was envious for flower blossoms. When the baobab saw the magnificent fig tree, it prayed for fruit as well. The gods became angry with the tree and pulled it up by its roots, then replanted it upside down to keep it quiet.”

Practical Use

As with most living things, local people use all aspects of the baobab.

From eating and applying the fruits and leaves for food and herbal remedies to mowing down the bark’s fibers for cloth and rope, every inch of the tree is practical. Every inch of the tree is used – for fishing and hunting tools, temporary shelters, water reserves, and wherever else your imagination may take you.

Many cultures who inhabit areas where baobab trees grow also consider the tree religiously and culturally significant.

Metaphorical Use

The baobab’s shape is remarkable. The roots stretch wider and deeper than you’d probably guess. And this wide deep spreading is a visual representation of culture.

Next week, the baobab will become useful once again when discussing our underlying theme – culture – in metaphorical terms.