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The Role of Food in Culture

RWC tutor Leslie Garcia explores some of the parts food plays in culture.

The role of food in our culture cannot be overstated, as its purpose goes beyond fueling our bodies and tasting good. It brings people together in times of need and provides a sense of cultural identity. Ingredients and recipes become associated with regions and countries. For example, dishes with tomatoes are often associated with Italy or when people think of avocados they think of Mexico. Of course, these places are not the only ones who use these ingredients, but over time certain foods have become a part of their national identity. This can occur for a number of reasons, like the introduction of an ingredient to a region, historical events like famines, or the acceptance of a recipe into popular society.

Many religions incorporate food into rituals and practices. In some religions, certain food is sacred and thus should only be consumed in a sacred setting. In Catholicism, an important part of the service is the consumption of bread and wine as these foods symbolize Christ’s sacrifice. Other religions view the resistance of food to be an act of faith and self-control as is the case in the Islamic practice of Ramadan, which includes fasting as part of the ritual. Religion can also restrict what foods a person is allowed to eat. In some religions this is a short-term practice like the Catholic lent, while for others it is a lifetime commitment like in Hindu, where beef is prohibited due to cows being considered sacred to the people of that religion.

The way we behave during mealtimes says a lot about what our cultural values are. What is considered polite or impolite table manners varies from culture to culture, as well as family to family. The utensils used can either be forks, chopsticks, or even just fingers. And you will find that foods from those nations and cultures are designed to be consumed with specific utensils or lack thereof depending on the food. For example, spaghetti is meant to be eaten with a fork and you have to use the fork in a specific way, while fufu is considered a finger food. It goes even as far as who sits where and who eats first. Food not only keeps us alive, but it also impacts how our lives are lived.

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