About Rice and Beans: Following recent discussions on food here on Anthropology in Practice, this week I’ll feature a four part series that that explores the ways immigrant groups in Corona, NY are involved in creating generic versions of their cultures to support themselves. Today’s article looks at the relationship women have with the food in their homes. Also in this series:
- Rice and Beans: How Does Culture Become Generic?
- Rice and Beans: What Is the Difference between Public and Private Culture?
Mexican female laundry cart food vendors are marketing an essence of their culture. Food is a primary means by which people connect to their heritage. It originates in the home, the most sacred of the private spaces. In selling home-cooked food, female laundry cart vendors of Corona are offering a very personal substance in the public market.
In all societies, food and women have played significant roles in the household. The predominant role of women in feeding and food prep is well documented. It has become a major component of female identity and an important source of female connections to and influence over others. Thus, feeding and food become sources of female identity and as well sources of authority and power. In the act of feeding, one nourishes, comforts, and sustains. Within the private sphere, food is a powerful channel for communication and a means to establish connections, create obligations, and exert influence. Food becomes a medium by which culture is circulated. It conveys a status: the preparer is granted the authority necessary to handle and distribute the product.
Food originates in the household. Women everywhere feed their husbands and children in return for love, favors, good behavior, and the power that comes from being needed. In transforming food from raw nature to edible product, humans convey messages by manipulating food combinations, cooking mode, color, texture, taste, and form. The symbolic power of food enables prohibitions and taboos to signify social boundaries, religious integrity, status, and gender differences. Thus women’s daily control of food preparation and presentation gives them much influence. Giving food defines the nature and extent of female power. It connects women to close relatives through an intense emotional channel; women become identified with the food they offer, determining what and how much the family will eat. She controls the behaviors at the table, which are a microcosm of behaviors and values expected by society-at-large. In many cultures, food is also offered to visitors. Whether the visitors are of the same cultural heritage or not, the food offered represents the host, and by extension, the host’s culture.
This power is possible because food is a cultural substance—it is an essential component of culture. Immigrants have long used food as a means to connect to each other, their culture, and their homeland, as the example regarding Trinidadians and Solo brand drinks. Food carries with it culture and reminds people of their ethnic identity. As a primary element of the household, food is imbued with all the powers accorded to the household to establish social connections—and also to maintain the “good life” of the polis. Because it resides in the household and therefore exists as a cultural substance, it can serve as a potential catalyst for changing cultural identity.
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Levi-Strauss, Claude (1983) The View from Afar. Chicago: University Press. Matt, Susan (2007) "A Hunger for Home: Homesickness and Food in a Global Consumer Society,” Journal of American Culture 30(1): 1 – 19.
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