Guillermo Jaim Etcheverry
Apart from the fact that eating is an inevitable physiological need, it is the result of a complex process in which diverse influences interweave, where cultural and economics are the most remarkable.
Jesús Contreras, Director of Food Observatory in Barcelona, Spain, and an expert in relations between food and culture states: “Eating is not only a biological, nutritional and medical activity, it is also a social, psychological, economic, symbolic, religious and cultural phenomenon; all in all it is an extraordinarily complex act”.
Patricia Aguirre, an Argentine anthropologist we have followed in this analysis, warns that the “human” way of eating has always consisted in doing it in the company of “others”. This means that it is an act of a cultural nature that gives a reason to our way of eating we consider being correct. Eating is to “know how to eat” and this is what we call gastronomy.
Nowadays, it is evident that the teaching to new generations of the eating habits typical of their society has been affected by the discredit in which this communication has been brought. This fact is also observed in other aspects of human activities such as education. This situation has brought about the loss of cultural controls that are the result of the generational transmission of “good eating”, meaning gastronomy. According to Aguirre, this has become what she denominates gastro- anomy. This is how a crisis in “food sharing” starts to develop, the learning experience to eat with others which gives food its real meaning. It seems that nowadays, those who can eat, eat the same everywhere in the planet, and quite often they do it in solitude. This is the result of the food industry’s powerful influence which, having homogenized food production is making us gradually lose the meaning of belonging to a culture. Today, it is possible to eat anything anywhere, no matter the local habits or the seasonal availability.
There lays the significance involved in the fact that each culture tries to preserve the rich legacy of previous generations regarding what has been built as the paradigm of good eating. It teaches the pleasure of sharing food with other people and preserving the “food sharing” that is essential to learn proper eating habits given we do not only eat food, but above all, we eat its meaning.
Aguirre further states that, regarding food, we went through three crucial crises. The first one is related to the way in which food is produced. The modern developments that allow its production in increasing quantities do so by risking the subsistence of the planet. This sustainability crisis is worsened by the crisis involved in food distribution, which is clearly imbalanced. In spite of the above mentioned advances and modern super production of nutrients, there are thousands of millions people who are starving. Finally, the way we consume food has also gone into crisis. That “food sharing” we mentioned earlier, gives real meaning to the act of eating, which is far more than just ingesting food.
It might be valuable to consider the present state of food around the world, incorporating this cultural dimension that is essential to understand the real scope of the process. Logically, the significant influence that food has in our health cannot be left aside in this analysis. Hypocrates, almost 2,500 years ago stated: “Let food be your medicine and let medicine be your food”. “We are what we eat” is an ancient saying we always repeat. This phrase was reused by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in his “Physiologie du Gout”, ou Meditations de Gastronomie Transcendante” he wrote in 1825: “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es”. This also involves the already mentioned cultural factors. But every day we are less aware of what we eat, because the food we consume is submitted to a series of industrial processes unknown by us which remove the natural condition of foods. According to Aguirre, they are “UEO’s” unidentified eatable objects, which are industrialized and conceived products manufactured for global distribution.
As a result of what the French sociologist Claude Fischler (author of L’Homnivore le gout la cuisine et le corps in 1990) has denominated “gastro-anomy”- one of the symptoms is the loss of space at the family table in which food and words characteristically join to create a suitable environment to transmit rules, symbols and values-the messages regarding the importance of good eating habits begin to lose importance. Consider the proposals made by traditional gastronomy and the ones made by medical professionals to persuade people to eat healthy (or what is considered healthy at different moments), the proposals made by economists who suggest to eat cheaply, the ones from food industry that emphasize speed and above all, the economic issues and finally, the concerns expressed by cooks about food flavors. These multiples points of view, conflicting most of the times, distort the social construction of taste.
There is no doubt that, as it happened with human beings transforming from hunters-gatherers into farmers and later into industrialists, the step from raw to well cook brought about a radical change in human culture. Richard Wrangham a North American scientist outlines: “Until today, every known human society has cooked. We have biologically adapted to cooked food. Cooking is a part of what we are and it has influenced us in many ways, in biological and anatomic spheres as well as in the social one. Cooking is the characteristic feature of the human diet and, as a matter of fact, of our lives. It is the development that underlies many transformations which has made humans so different from other species”.
That is why food establishes a challenge regarding education as families must set themselves the goal of teaching children and youngsters to eat properly. This is an attempt to prevent them from being colonized with resignation by fast food and foster in them a taste for a kind of food that guaranties the appropriate provision of nutrients, instead of the many foods on offer that do not assure a suitable balanced diet.
It is necessary to conclude that living also means one must develop a culinary identity. That is to say, incorporate it into the values and meanings that eating habits have for a specific culture. We must then, try to recover the gastronomic heritage of our society, appreciate the deep meaning represented by eating together, the family “food sharing”, and develop a cooking repertoire based in healthy products, meaning, preparing food that justifies belonging to us. Aguirre states, “Food is part of our identity. And in a world such as ours, where our identity waters simultaneously in local and global, eating habits can very well contribute to build not only that identity, but also the pleasure, belonging and security as it helps us to live a full life with others”.