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Teaching Food, Culture, and Socialization

May 8, 2013
Humboldt State University, my home institution.

Humboldt State University, my home institution.

I teach at a small state university in a rural area of northern California. It’s a fantastic environment, and we’re blessed with an abundance of local CSAs and a great farmers’ market that serves as the heart of the community from spring until late fall.

Teaching at a state school means that I have a broad range of students. Some are relatively privileged, coming from families which can afford to pay for their studies—albeit with increasing difficulty. Others, though, come from poor families and poor neighborhoods more than 12 hours way by car. Some are able to attend school without having to work. Others work 40+ hours per week while attempting to make their way through school. Some are well prepared for college-level studies and perform at a high level with relatively little assistance. Others struggle.

But in spite of these differences (or perhaps because of them) the question food and socialization always generates interesting discussion in my food politics class. Food is interesting because while we all require subsistence to live, the cultural and social meaning we attribute to food far exceeds its nutritional content. Food is deeply implicated in cultural patterns and as a marker of social identity and status.

In the United States, food is a marker of regional cultures. Southern food is distinct from Northeastern food. California has its own “cuisine.” The Southwest is often defined by the influence of Mexican and Mexican-American cuisine. Mapping these foods is often a fun way to think about the regional cultures that define the United States.

Food is also a key marker of social class around the world  and even in the United States. Studies demonstrate that the higher your social class, for example, the less white bread you eat.

Food is a facilitator of community. There is a reason why we come together to eat. Eating together builds community, and communities are often defined by particular foods. Families often have traditional foods consumed on particular holidays or for particular reasons. Food connects us.

Finally, food can be an important marker of social identity and, sometimes, of political values. Veganism and vegetarianism, for example, often reflect particular normative choices.

Getting students to think about the social significance of food can be a powerful way to start a conversation capable of illustrating differences and building a common sense of community in the classroom. It’s a great icebreaker on the first day of class!

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