You Are What You Eat: How Our Food Culture Defines Us

Think about the first time someone shared food with you.

Maybe your best friend offered you his dessert at the school lunch table.

Maybe your neighbor had you and your family over for afternoon tea.

You probably felt more connected to that person, and it wasn’t just about the food. It was about the generosity of sharing and the ritual surrounding it.

Across many cultures, food traditions are ritualized and social.

So, it would stand that when you’re living in a foreign culture, joining in a meal with local friends can serve as a litmus test for how far you’ve come in your integration.

The Importance of Food

Just how important is food to culture?

If you’ve ever been to a cultural-based festival – like a Russian festival in America or an Italian festival in France – you’ll find that food is usually the festival’s focal point.

A culture’s cuisine and the traditions surrounding it (making the food, presenting the food, when and to whom it is served, etc.) are all integral to our cultural identity.

But we are not born with food culture etched into our DNA; it is learned.

Our Culinary Cultural Code is Written

University of Indiana Anthropology Professor Richard Wilk puts this learning process into perspective: 

“Your first relationship as a human being is about food. The first social experience we have is being put to the breast or bottle. The social act of eating, is part of how we become human, as much as speaking and taking care of ourselves. Learning to eat is learning to become human.” 

The type of foods we eat, our preferences, are all learned. They’re programmed into us during the early stages of primary socialization.

Food norms and behaviors are taught early on as a matter of survival. Parents strictly enforce what is to be eaten and what’s NOT to be, so that baby isn’t stuffing whatever he finds on the floor into his mouth.

And the things we are taught not to eat often later repulse us.

Eat This; Don’t Eat That

For instance, in Western culture, insects are for the birds.

As humans, we’re taught not to eat them.

If you are later offered a plate of Korean Beondegi, Japanese Inago, or some other fried insect dish, you’re likely to have a physiological response – and not a positive one.

SadiaK123 from Pixabay 

In fact, just looking at this picture, you might feel a little nauseous.

Culture is powerfully influential when it comes to food likes and dislikes. And the results are fairly permanent.

This is why, when you move to another culture as an expat, immigrant, or refugee, food preferences are often amongst the last cultural habits to go (if they go at all).

And these habits involve not just WHAT you eat but HOW you eat.

Next week, we’ll take a deeper dive into the how.