How Food Shapes Culture and Culture Shapes Food

1 Applied Food Studies- PM_20160930_Grain_048

My section of the course prioritizes socio-cultural anthropology, the largest branch of anthropology. Socio-cultural anthropology focuses on the diversity of human behavior in present times.

So, why do humans care so much about their food? After all, food is just fuel, right? But, unlike animals who eat to live, many humans live to eat. We use food in rituals, to mark celebrations, to define who we are (and who we are not). But why is this the case? How did food come to play such a critical role in human life? This course shows how our food habits have made us human; separating us from other animals. It also discusses how humans’ relationships to food are continuing to change as societies advance and develop new technologies, take on new social and environmental challenges, and evolving tastes and trends.

We delve into different aspects of food and human culture, starting with pre-history and the lives of the first humans over three million years ago and eventually moving to current issues in America and around the globe.

The course begins by giving the students an understanding anthropology and laying the groundwork for why the study of human culture is meaningful to many fields, including the culinary industry. Students role-play cross-cultural scenarios to encourage thinking beyond their immediate experience to consider how attitudes, beliefs, practices, and values can vary from culture to culture and society to society.

We then move on to cover several thematic issues: agriculture and human development; cooking and the rise of civilizations; food exchange, and the food chain; family and kinship; race and ethnicity; caste and class; gender; and commensality and gastro-politics. Students dive into a series of hands-on activities to enhance their understanding of theoretical concepts. For instance, while studying the rise of agriculture and technological change around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, students are tasked with grinding ancient grains by hand. They search for rocks they think would be good grinding stones, and then they toil for about an hour, after which most have made enough flour for a small cracker. Students quickly come to appreciate how agriculture and technology shifted our ability to obtain and process food and why civilizations were able to form.

The course ends with students applying all these concepts together in a final project. They form teams and create what they consider the “perfect” food-based culture. Over the years, students have come up with some rather inventive civilizations, among them: a matriarchal fruit-based society in the Amazon jungle that worships Carmen Miranda; a futuristic robot society powered by beer; and a futuristic society regulated by social media and “likes.” The list goes on. Students leave this course with an appreciation of food’s role in human culture, and how food will continue to shape the human experience.

By Dr. Willa Zhen , CIA professor of liberal arts.