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Food Rituals That Enhance Our Enjoyment of Food

Food Rituals That Enhance Our Enjoyment of Food


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You watch as your friend takes an Oreo from the trademark blue-and-white package, pulls it apart, and licks all the cream filling off the cookie. Only when the dark cookie halves are completely filling–free will he finally dunk them into a glass of milk and savor each slowly.

“What in the world is he doing?” you think to yourself. “Why doesn’t he just eat it already?”

How someone eats an Oreo is one example of a food ritual, a cultural phenomenon that can amplify the flavor and overall enjoyment of what you’re eating. Food rituals are unique to every person and every generation, and like any other aspect of our culture, they grow, evolve, and become a core part of who we are.

Why Food Rituals Matter

While different methods of dissecting an Oreo may seem insignificant, research shows certain rituals actually enhance our enjoyment of cooking and eating by making food seem more flavorful.

In one study, two groups of participants were told to eat the same chocolate bar. One group was told to break the bar in half, wrapper and all, and then open one half at a time and eat it. The other group relaxed for a while, then ate the bar however they pleased. The group that followed the two-step ritual rated the chocolate as more flavorful than the other group, even saying they’d be willing to pay an average of 25 cents more for it.

Another experiment tested whether a systematic movement ritual could make baby carrots more appealing. The result: Systematic gestures that made participants feel like they were partaking in a ritual, rather than random movements, made them anticipate the carrots and enjoy them more.

While these experiments might sound contrived, the truth is that rituals exist in all forms — from the extreme crust-cutters to the simple habits our parents taught us. Rituals mean more to some than others, but all of them drive our behaviors more than we realize.

People of similar backgrounds, generations, and locations share many food rituals. For example, people like me who grew up in the city are used to walking while eating our pizza slices, so we instinctually fold ours in half to avoid making a mess. This is different from someone who eats pizza at home or cuts it into squares. There is no wrong or right way to eat pizza, but each method is a ritual that enhances individual enjoyment.

Wining and Dining

When eating out, we engage in rituals from the moment we set a napkin in our laps. For instance, when a waiter pops a bottle of wine, we expect to inspect the cork, sniff, let the glass breathe, and take a sip. While this is a functional ritual at its core, it’s also an experiential one that can make a mediocre bottle of wine taste exceptional.

When we’re not out on the town, other rituals heighten our sense of anticipation and make us perceive food as tastier than it actually is. To some generations, this meant listening to their breakfast cereal snap, crackle, and pop. To others, it was finding the perfect first chip in a bag of Lay’s. To a Millennial, it might be ordering a “triple-shot, non-fat vanilla latte, no whip” or just “the usual.” Statements of personalization and anticipation like these lend a sense of commodity and ownership to our choices.

Millennials Have Their Own Dining Preferences

Years ago, beans didn’t come in cans. Soaking them was a ritual every household understood and performed on a regular basis. Now, this is rare.

Many young people don’t understand why their parents tap on a melon to pick one that is perfectly ripe. Everything in the produce aisle is already packaged. These food rituals are becoming a lost art.

Every generation has its rituals, but Millennials in particular have strong opinions about the ways they should and shouldn’t consume food. But, like any other generation, they’re far from homogenous. The Boston Consulting Group divides Millennials into three main subgroups: Gadget Gurus, Clean and Green Millennials, and Hip-ennials.

No matter their segment, Millennials tend to like to eat what they want, when they want it. They snack more than they consume full meals, and they eat at odd hours. Their ritual is the antithesis of ritual; they want fast, casual takeout at any time of day. They like to try new, exotic foods and have options. And they want to know where their food comes from.

But just because Millennials don’t soak their beans or pick out produce like their parents doesn’t mean they’re disconnected from their food. For them, going to the farmer’s market or getting a late-night Taco Bell fix is just as much of a food ritual.

You may not understand why your friend licks the icing off his Oreos, or even why a sandwich tastes better crustless. But understanding the “why” isn’t important — it’s about understanding that rituals exist and appreciating them as qualities that make each person’s and each generation’s food experience unique.

For nearly 30 years, Doug Austin has been studying the “art of observation” and filtering out the human truths. Whether digging for key customer/consumer insights or preparing the next national retail promotion, it’s all about the ability to “hear and see” what others may not and asking the hard questions that get us to the possibilities. Austin is the SVP of Growth & Innovation and leads product and brand innovation sessions for Marlin Network.


The 10 Foods and Rituals That Keep Me Happy During Winter

Now that we’re well into the new year, I’m full of optimism, as well as a few pairs of ill-fitting pants. While many food magazines and blogs are still promoting eating light, I’ve turned my thoughts toward eating happy.

Here are the 10 foods and rituals that keep my spirits up in the winter.

Having grown up in Southern California, the winters of Portland, Oregon, have been — how can I put this exactly? — VERY DIFFICULT. It’s dark, wet, gray, gloomy, and sad. It’s perfect weather for watching old movies and delving into projects, but it can also be very depressing. A permanent twilight sets in and all times of day feel like early evening. (No wonder they filmed the Twilight series up here in the Northwest!)

Over the years, I’ve amassed an arsenal of food ideas that I focus on for the gray winter months. I know Portland is a cakewalk compared to dots on the globe that experience real, harsh, impossibly cold weather, but for me, after a lifetime of hiking in tank tops over Christmas break, it’s quite an adjustment. Here’s a list of what’s worked for me.

1. Citrus

I like to explore the vast array of different citrus fruits carried by my local co-op. The flavors are so bright and fresh, perfect to cut through richer dishes I crave this time of year. A Sicilian salad of sliced grapefruit, orange, red onion, and flat-leaf parsley is a great starter to any meal.

2. Tea

I just spent $34 on five different loose-leaf teas (vanilla roiboos, jasmine, creme de la Earl Gray, Assam, and Nilgiri). This will last us a few months and brings me so much comfort throughout the day that the cost breakdown is actually not that crazy. Having several different varieties is key to my enjoyment, as is cutting off the caffeinated types at about 3 o’clock. Other than that, get your sip on.

3. Grains

I like to take the time to try a few new grains during the winter. Having done this the past few years, I’ve added a multitude of fabulous and nutritious grains to my repertoire. Things like wheat berries, farro, and buckwheat groats are all staples for breakfast porridge or savory salads at lunch and dinnertime. They are a superb source for complex carbohydrates, so they really keep me going and keep me happy. Happy + grains = beating the winter blues!

4. Chocolate

In the same vein as the tea and grain exploration, I enjoy splurging on a fancy chocolate bar or truffle about once per week. It keeps my sweet tooth in check, while exploring new combinations, varieties, and flavor profiles. Smoked sea salt and toasted almond, extra dark and dotted with cacao nibs have all excited my palate and inspired me. Having one (or two) small chunks broken off a bar each winter day, or popping one perfect truffle into my mouth, sends me straight to my happy place. No talking, checking email, TV, reading, or doing anything else while savoring the chocolate. I also never chew — just let that puppy melt. Amazing. I’m excited as I type this for what chocolate I’ll try today!


Keeping Family Traditions With Food

However, for the moment, below are more tips that will help you pass on your traditions with each new generation.

One of the best ways to express yourself and the customs you live by, is through the collection of your recipes. Whether its the egg nog that you make for your family as everyone helps to decorate the Christmas tree, the red velvet cake you serve on your wedding anniversary, and roasted turkey that your family looks forward to on every New Years Day dinner are each food traditions that you have been known and loved for. You may want to write these special recipes down and put them in your recipe file box. In addition, you can make a copy and set up a file box for each of your children to give as a family memento. This makes a gift that could last a lifetime.

Another great way to pass on your family food traditions is to cook with your children and grandchildren. This is an excellent way to help them build skills and know they way around the kitchen. It is interesting, that if you ever asked adults why they do not know how to cook, chances are, they will tell you it is because nobody after attempted to teach them.

The vital element that helps to give family gatherings a special meaning is the food. But over time, some of its magic might be lost, unless you make it a habit to prepare new dishes every now and then. New food traditions do not have to take the place of the old ones, but they could enhance them.

Just changing your method of serving traditional dishes may be a way to liven up the holidays. For instance, you can use bright red paper plates instead of the traditional white china dishes to add some cheer to your for one holiday. Or, you could replace your traditional apple pie dessert for chocolate mint ice cream over brownies. You may also enjoy serving sparkling apple cider, to add making a toast to your family traditions. In case you may have someone that really looks forward to the usual traditional dish, you can have a little of it prepared on the side, as well. You may discover, though, that most people like a change and will enjoy the family holiday more because of it.

Cooking is a delightful way to help connect you closer to your family. What makes it more special is the time you spend cooking together, sharing meals, and enjoying your family traditions while you celebrate the holiday. To find out more information on how to cook and to be able to learn cooking skills that you can teach to your children, you can easily a visit a cooking website, and pick up your copy of an ebook on everything you ever wanted to know about cooking.


Make Your Own Healthy Starters

iStock.com/Prostock-Studio

Today, most high-fat commercial and popular appetizers are contributing to obesity and disease. But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy healthy starters. With our busy and sometimes chaotic lives, many of us want to save time, enjoy snacks that don’t require a sit-down place setting, and whet our appetites with a first course.

Fortunately, there are many healthy, plant-based alternatives to mozzarella sticks, Buffalo wings, and nacho bowls that don’t require lots of time — or expensive and hard-to-find ingredients. You can create delicious and light plant-based appetizers and small-plate meals with just whole food ingredients. Spanish tapas, in particular, can provide great inspiration for veggie appetizers like sauteed mushrooms in garlic, olives with roasted red peppers, and sweet potato bites with guacamole.

Focus your appetizer creativity on ingredients like vegetables, legumes, and nuts and seeds. And include classic spice blends from different cultures. You can avoid excess oil by water sauteing or using an air fryer. And to save time and money, you can also buy in bulk and prep ahead of time, especially if you’re planning an outdoor gathering with healthy finger foods and small starters.


Culture and Food and Ritual, Oh My!

Students plan a menu for a religious ceremony in accordance with food rituals.

Geography, Human Geography, Religion, Social Studies, World History

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1.  Activate previous student knowledge about Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

Ask students to share what they know about each of the three major religions that call Jerusalem home. Pre-teach the following vocabulary: Passover, seder, kosher, leaven, matzo, Easter, Maundy Thursday, Ramadan, suhoor, iftar, halal, Eid al-Fitr. Review the term “culture” with students, and ask how the vocabulary they just learned fits into the culture of each religious group.

2.  Students analyze photos of food rituals in small groups.

Break students into six groups. Display one photo at a time from the Food Rituals Photo Gallery, and have students discuss and analyze the photo with their group. Have groups discuss what they think is going on in each picture. Ask students to think about who is seated, what items are on the table, and at what point in the meal they believe the people are. Have each group share their observations with the class before displaying the next photo.

3. Define “food ritual” and discuss students’ personal food rituals.

Have a class discussion about the similarities and differences between the observations made by groups with the same pictures. Ask: Did different groups make different observations about the same photo? If so, why? Encourage a variety of responses. Explain that each photo depicts a family’s religious celebration. Many celebrations, both religious and non-religious, involve food rituals. Ask: What food rituals do you observe and do they have any special meaning? If students struggle to provide responses, suggest thinking about times in their lives that mark an event, such as birthdays, different times of day (breakfast, lunch, dinner), holidays, etc.

4.  Groups research religious food rituals.

Direct students’ attention back to the Food Ritual photos, and reveal the religious celebration featured in each. Explain that each group will plan a menu with at least five items for a religious ceremony celebrated by one of the religions featured in the photos. Assign each group a religion. The two Christianity groups will plan a meal for Easter, the two Judaism groups for Passover, and the two Islam groups for Eid al-Fitr to mark the end of Ramadan. Prompt students to identify the components of the meal, including beverages, main dishes, and desserts.

Have students research their assigned celebration and associated religion using the provided web resources. Ask students to specifically find and record the following:

  • The significance of the celebration to that religion
  • Foods commonly associated with the celebration and why
  • Any general food customs or beliefs of that religion

Students may decide to assign individuals within their groups specific research tasks, or to tackle the information hunt all together. Have students record their research.

5. Groups plan a menu for their assigned religious ceremony based on their research.

Based on their research, have each group plan a menu for their designated religious ceremony. In planning their menus, students should consider the overall and specific food rituals of their assigned groups. For example, the Judaism group should plan a kosher meal with specific foods, such as matzo.

After groups have created their menus, combine the two groups assigned to each religion into one large group (i.e., the two groups that researched and created an Easter menu should become one large Christianity group). Have each new, large group come to consensus on a menu for their celebration. The two original groups should share their menus with each other, and work together to make sure all rituals are accounted for.

6. Students share their menus, and discuss similarities and differences between food rituals.

Make a large chart (3 rows, 2 columns) on the board, labeling each row in the first column as “Christianity,” “Islam,” or “Judaism.”

Have each large group share their new menu with the class and talk about the religious beliefs associated with that celebration. For example, students in the Islam group should talk about basic beliefs of Muslims, the festival Ramadan and its importance, and how it relates to their food eaten at Eid al-Fitr. Ask a student volunteer to record the information each group reports in the second column of the chart, in the corresponding religion’s row. Continue until all groups have shared and the chart is complete. 

7.  Compare and contrast food rituals.

Distribute the 3-Circle Venn Diagram handout. Explain that students will be comparing their personal food rituals to the food rituals of two religions of their choosing. Have students label one circle with the words “My Food Rituals,” and the remaining two circles with the two religions they choose to compare their personal rituals to: either “Christian,” “Muslim,” or “Jewish.” Ask students to write all of the things they find similar in the space where the circles intersect. Anything that does not fit in the “similar” section should be noted in the appropriate circle. Allow the students to work with one another as they complete their handouts.

Informal Assessment

Collect the 3-Circle Venn Diagrams and check them for completion. This exercise is not a test, but rather a way for students to organize all of the information they have learned. Use the provided Three-Circle Venn Diagram Answer Key to evaluate if students correctly discern similarities and differences between the two religions they chose to include. 

Extending the Learning

Most events can be tied to food in some way. Host an event that looks at food and how it plays a part in many cultures. If resources are available, find recipes for each type of bread used in the celebrations researched and have students bake each type. Try the following recipes:

Subjects & Disciplines

Learning Objectives

  • explain the food rituals behind ceremonies of three major world religions
  • make connections between their own food rituals and those of three major world religions
  • organize information into categories, and discern similarities and differences between food rituals among three major religious groups

Teaching Approach

Teaching Methods

Skills Summary

This activity targets the following skills:

  • 21st Century Student Outcomes
    • Information, Media, and Technology Skills
      • Information, Communications, and Technology Literacy
      • Communication and Collaboration
      • Social and Cross-Cultural Skills
      • Global Awareness
      • Analyzing
      • Understanding
      • Answering Geographic Questions
      • Organizing Geographic Information

      Connections to National Standards, Principles, and Practices

      National Council for Social Studies Curriculum Standards

        : Culture : People, Places, and Environments : Individual Development and Identity : Individuals, Groups, and Institutions : Global Connections

      National Geography Standards

        : The characteristics, distribution, and complexity of Earth's cultural mosaics : How culture and experience influence people's perceptions of places and regions

      Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy

      ISTE Standards for Students (ISTE Standards*S)

        : Communication and Collaboration : Research and Information Fluency : Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Decision Making

      What You&rsquoll Need

      Materials You Provide

      Resources Provided

      The resources are also available at the top of the page.

      Required Technology

      Physical Space

      Grouping

      Background Information

      In the Christian religion, Easter is one of the most holy holidays, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Many Christian denominations (Catholics, Orthodox, some Anglicans) do not eat meat on Fridays during Lent. Families from around the world have food rituals involving Easter. In America, many families have an Easter ham or turkey and hard-boiled colored eggs. This is also a major tradition in eastern Christianity, where eggs are colored dark red and decorated. In nations of central and Eastern Europe, some foods are prepared on the last days of Holy Week and are blessed by a priest on Holy Saturday or Easter Sunday. Common Christian Easter foods are lamb, breads, hot cross buns, meats, and sausages.

      Kosher designates which foods may be consumed and how they must be prepared according to Jewish dietary law (kashrut).  The main rules are:

      • No pork, rabbit, eagle, owl, catfish, sturgeon, shellfish, most insects (locusts may be kosher!), reptiles. Other meat and fowl must be slaughtered by authorized personnel who follow certain procedures (slitting the throat of the animal and draining the blood). Meat may not be consumed, for example, if the animal was strangled, killed in hunting, or found dead. 
      • Meat and dairy products may not be consumed at the same meal.
      • If a kosher food is combined with a non-kosher food, it becomes non-kosher.

      In the Jewish tradition, Passover is one of the most holy holidays, commemorating the Jews’ exodus from Egypt and bondage. It consists of a seven-day ritual. The first night of Passover is marked by a home ceremony called the seder, and is a time that parents teach their children about their deliverance from Egypt. The seder meal usually consists of cakes of matzo, a roasted egg, and shankbone a dish of saltwater lettuce or horseradish and haroset (a paste made from almonds, apples, and wine). All of these items symbolize different beliefs commemorated by the Jews. Common Passover foods also include lamb, unleavened bread, honey, nuts, fruit, bitter herbs, and wine.

      Halal (which means “permissible” in Arabic) designates which foods may be consumed according to Islamic law, and in the case of meats, how animals must be slaughtered. The main rules are:

      • No pork or pork by-products, blood or blood by-products, alcohol, carnivorous animals, birds of prey, land animals without external ears.
      • Other meat and fowl must be slaughtered following certain procedures (slitting the throat of the animal and draining the blood). Meat may not be consumed, for example, if the animal was strangled, killed in hunting, or found dead.  

      Ramadan is one of the most holy holidays celebrated by Muslims, and is celebrated throughout the ninth month of the Muslim calendar year. Ramadan is considered holy because it is the month that the Qu'ran, the Muslim holy book, was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, adn that the gates of Heaven are open and the gates of Hell are closed during this month. During Ramadan, healthy adults must abstain from food and drink during daylight hours. Meals are eaten before sunrise and after sunset. Just after sunset the fast is broken at iftar (traditionally by eating three dates, followed by a bountiful meal). Fresh fruits, vegetables, and halal meats are eaten. Eid al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan. Common foods include lamb, vegetable dishes, rice dishes, kebabs, dates, fruit, and nuts. Ramadan is a very spiritual event, during which one evaluates and purifies all aspects of his or her life. 



      Our ingenious, intuitive ancestors discovered fermentation as a means to preserve food. Prior to refrigeration, fermentation prevented spoilage, extended shelf-life, and retained nutrients in food during long, cold winters. But over time, we’ve come to learn that fermented or cultured foods are also good for us, thanks to beneficial microorganisms known as probiotics. By eating an assortment of fermented foods, you can promote the growth of a wide range of beneficial bacteria that may help improve digestion, fight infection, and even enhance your immune function. Luckily, the Mediterranean diet is rich with these ancient, gut-friendly foods.

      When you think about fermented or cultured food in the Mediterranean, Lactobacillus-containing yogurt may immediately spring to mind. Yogurt is milk that has been fermented with live starter cultures. “Greek” (strained) yogurt has been all the rage in recent years, but another form of yogurt popular in the Mediterranean is labneh, in which excess liquid, whey, is strained until it forms a thick cheese-like consistency. Yogurt mixed with cucumber, garlic and salt forms the basis of tzatziki, a popular condiment found all over Greece. Kishk is a Lebanese ferment of yogurt mixed with bulgur wheat in Greece, the mixture is referred to as trahana. Kishk and trahana are traditionally dried after fermentation and then used to flavor stews and soup.

      Cheese is another important fermented milk product enjoyed in moderate amounts on the Mediterranean diet. Almost all traditional cheeses are made from milk, natural cultures, and not much more, but they take on many diverse flavors. A sprinkling of feta cheese from Greece can add a briny flavor to Mediterranean dishes, while Parmigiano-Reggiano from Italy can impart a richness and umami flavor to your cooking.

      Did you know there are fermented breads? Bread baking using a ‘wild’ yeast sourdough starter is an integral part of the fermentation process and adds a complex sour flavor to bread. When dough is given the chance to slowly ferment, hard-to-digest gluten is broken down into a more easily digestible form. Starting a sourdough culture requires nothing more than mixing flour and water in a bowl and leaving it on the counter to ferment, capturing the wild yeast that naturally exist in the air. Maintaining a sourdough requires regular “feedings” with flour and water.

      Vegetables have long been part of the fermentation process. Vegetables ferment best with a simple brine of salt dissolved in water. Over time, the salt draws out water from the vegetables and serves as a protection against the growth of undesirable microorganisms, while promoting the growth of desirable strains like Lactobacilli. While we may immediately think of cucumber pickles or sauerkraut, just about any vegetable can be fermented. Olives and capers are considered some of the earliest vegetable ferments in the Mediterranean. Olives and capers are cured prior to eating due to their extremely bitter taste.

      Keep in mind that not all pickled foods are fermented. Pickled products that have been preserved in some type of acid (e.g., lemon, wine, or vinegar) do not offer the probiotic benefits of those that are naturally fermented.

      Preserving fish has also been an important practice of Mediterranean culture. Garum was a fish sauce made from preserved fish, used as a condiment in the cuisines of ancient Greece, Rome, and Byzantium. It is believed to have resembled the fermented anchovy sauce colatura di alici that’s still produced today in Campania, Italy. Salt-curing anchovies, bottarga (fish roe) and lakerda (bonito steaks) is another widely used means of preserving fish.

      Lastly, we can’t talk about the fermented foods of the Mediterranean without mentioning wine – fermented grapes! Historically, wine has been an important part of religious rituals, social relationships, and celebrations in the Mediterranean. Sensible guidelines tell us that wine can be part of meal times and social gatherings in moderation, consumed by healthy adults to enhance the taste of food and to add to the enjoyment of everyday living. In addition to wine, mead (fermented honey), cider (fermented apple juice), and ginger beer are some of the oldest and, perhaps most enjoyed products of fermentation.

      Want biweekly Med Diet information and recipes in your Inbox? Sign up for our Fresh Fridays newsletter by clicking the Subscribe button at the bottom of this page!

      Join the Make Every Day Mediterranean Club Facebook group for additional information and support.


      Comments

      Since 1985 I have been a wellness consultant and have found many documentable benefits to this concept. This is something I have my clients slowly read before they eat:
      Conscious Eating
      ✔ Be conscious of the appearance and smell
      ✔ Give thanks and continue in Appreciation ❤
      ✔ Chew food throughly to insure proper digestion
      ✔ Tune in to the texture and flavor, BE Present
      ✔ Continue eating with gladness and appreciation
      ✔ Stay conscious of how fast you are eating
      Beach House Wellness 2018

      It has a huge effect on the outcome of a variety of health issues and can change the way people depend on food for emotional support. Thank you for this article!!

      APS regularly opens certain online articles for discussion on our website. Effective February 2021, you must be a logged-in APS member to post comments. By posting a comment, you agree to our Community Guidelines and the display of your profile information, including your name and affiliation. Comments will be moderated. For more information, please see our Community Guidelines.

      Please login with your APS account to comment.

      For more information about this research, please contact study author:
      Kathleen D. Vohs

      For a copy of the research article and access to other null research findings, please contact:
      - 202.293.9300


      Not All Rituals Are Created Equal

      Other rituals focus on how the food is arranged on the plate, or the order or pattern in which food is eaten, including eating in a circular pattern, eating finger foods with utensils, and eating one food group at a time. Some rituals include meticulous measurement, preparation or arrangement of food. For those who engage in binge eating, the ritual can start with obtaining the food, the speed of eating it and so forth.

      Some of these behaviors may sound familiar and many people either wonder if their eating behavior is a ritual. Others do not understand why these behaviors are classified as disordered. This is because these behaviors in themselves are not disordered. It is quite normal to “break” bread, and this is what may make it difficult to understand that tearing food can be problematic.

      The key concept is that these behaviors can be problematic. Food rituals become ritualistic and problematic when the absence of them causes anxiety. Many people have preferences for how they eat their food. The problem lies in what happens when we are deprived of doing so. For many with eating disorders, extreme anxiety can result, which leads to further eating disordered behavior such restriction, binging or purging.


      Colonization, Food, and the Practice of Eating

      The violence that accompanied the European colonization of the Indigenous people of Mesoamerica is a well-known fact. Historians have elaborated on the devastating effects such colonization had on Indigenous societies, cultures, and mortality. While the study of the conquest has generally focused on the social, political, and economic changes forced upon Indigenous populations, the matter of food—the very source of survival—is rarely considered. Yet, food was a principal tool of colonization. Arguably, one cannot properly understand colonization without taking into account the issue of food and eating.

      Imagine that you are a Spaniard, newly arrived on the coasts of a foreign land. Your survival depends on two things: security (protecting yourself from danger) and nourishment (food and other substances that are necessary for survival). In terms of the former, Europeans arrived on the coast of what is now referred to as “the Americas” fully equipped with the means to protect themselves. Atop horses, armed with advanced weaponry and a slew of European diseases, Spaniards engaged Indigenous populations in the most violent of ways. Nourishment, however, was another matter.

      When Spaniards arrived in Mesoamerica, they encountered the Maya, Aztecs and other prominent Indigenous groups. The land was rich, fertile, and filled with crops such as beans, pumpkins, chilies, avocados, elderberries, guavas, papayas, tomatoes, cocoa, cotton, tobacco, henequen, indigo, maguey, corn, and cassava. [1] Europeans encountered similar agricultural plantations throughout the region. However, to the colonists this food was substandard and unacceptable for the proper nourishment of European bodies. At the time of conquest, the European diet was principally composed of bread, olive oil, olives, “meat,” and wine. While this diet was somewhat sustained on the actual voyage from Europe to the Americas, upon arrival, Europeans found themselves devoid of the foods they considered necessary for survival. As Europeans began dying off in these “new” lands, the focus of concern shifted to food. In fact, Columbus himself was convinced that Spaniards were dying because they lacked “healthful European foods.” [2] Herein began the colonial discourse of “right foods” (superior European foods) vs. “wrong foods” (inferior Indigenous foods). The Spaniards considered that without the “right foods,” they would die or, even worse, in their minds, they would become like Indigenous people.

      The “Right Foods” vs. the “Wrong Foods”

      Europeans believed that food shaped the colonial body. In other words, the European constitution differed from that of Indigenous people because the Spanish diet differed from the Indigenous diet. Further, bodies could be altered by diets—thus the fear that by consuming “inferior” Indigenous foods, Spaniards would eventually become “like them.” Only proper European foods would maintain the superior nature of European bodies, and only these “right foods” would be able to protect colonizers from the challenges posed by the “new world” and its unfamiliar environments.

      In the minds of Europeans, food not only functioned to maintain the bodily superiority of Spaniards, it also played a role in the formation of social identity. For example, in Spain, elites generally consumed bread, “meat,” and wine. The poor in Spain, however, could not afford such luxuries and instead ate such things as barley, oats, rye, and vegetable stew. Even vegetables were classified based on social status for example, in some cases rooted vegetables were not considered suitable for elite consumption because they grew underground. Elites preferred to consume food that came from trees, elevated from the filth of the common world. Thus, food served as an indicator of class.

      In addition, at the time of conquest, Spain was facing internal divisions of its own. In an effort to expel Spanish Muslims, as well as Jewish people, from Spain, King Ferdinand V and Queen Isabella I relaunched what was known as the Reconquista, the re-conquest of Spain. As a strong Spanish identity formed around the idea of the Reconquista, food became a powerful symbol of Spanish culture. For instance, consider “pork”: Among Muslim, Jewish, and Catholic people, only Catholics could eat “pork,” since for Muslim and Jewish people, the consumption of “pork” was forbidden. During the re-conquest, as individuals were being forced to prove that they were pureblooded Spaniards, they would often be offered “pork” to eat. Any refusal to consume “pork” would be taken as a sign that such people were not true Catholic Spaniards and would subsequently be expelled from Spain, persecuted, or even killed.

      As the Spanish arrived in the “new world” and initiated the European colonization of the Americas, they also brought with them the notion of cultural and class based distinctions that were founded on the types of food people ate. For example, upon their arrival, the Spaniards determined that guinea pig “meat” was a fundamentally “Indian” food, thus anyone who consumed guinea pig was considered “Indian.” The same was true for other staple Indigenous foods, such as maize and beans. The Spanish considered such Indigenous fare “famine foods,” [3] fit for consumption only if all other “right foods” had been thoroughly exhausted.

      The symbolic nature of food was also seen in the imposition of religion, another destructive aspect of the conquest. The Eucharist, the holiest rite among Catholics, was composed of a wafer made of wheat, which signified the body of Christ, and wine, which signified the blood of Christ. Initially, before wheat was harvested in the Americas, it was difficult to obtain wheat from abroad, since much of it spoiled in transit. The wafers that were necessary for this rite could easily have been made from the native maize, but Spaniards believed that this inferior Indigenous plant could not be transformed into the literal body of Christ, as could European wheat. Similarly, only wine made from grapes was acceptable for the sacrament. Any potential substitute was considered blasphemy.

      If Spaniards and their culture were to survive in these foreign lands, they would need to have readily available sources of the “right food.” Often, as Spanish officials reported back to the crown on the suitability of newly conquered lands, the “lack of Spanish food” was mentioned. Frustrated with what the “new world” had to offer, Tomas Lopez Medel, a Spanish official, reported that, “…there was neither wheat, nor grapevines, nor any proper animal…” present in the new colonies. [4] Hearing this, the Crown commissioned a number of reports that were to elaborate on which European plants grew well in the colonized lands, as well as details as to where they grew best. It was soon determined that the most suitable arrangement would be for colonists to grow their own foods, and it was not long before Spaniards began to rearrange agriculture to meet their own needs. Although wheat, wine, and olives only thrived in certain regions of Latin America, the Spaniards considered this a success. Colonists were elated that their own foods were successfully growing in foreign lands, and while crops were important, the Europeans’ most significant success was with farmed animals, which thrived in ways that were unparalleled.

      The Arrival of Cows, Pigs, Goats, and Sheep

      A number of domesticated animals were present when Europeans arrived in what is now known as Latin America. Among them were dogs, llamas and alpacas, guinea pigs, turkeys, Muscovy ducks, and a type of chicken. In Mesoamerica, any “meat” and leather that was consumed or utilized usually came from wild game, and generally, there were no animals exploited for labor, with the exception of dogs, who were at times used for hauling.. Europeans considered this lack of proper animals for work and consumption unacceptable. Thus, the first contingent of horses, dogs, pigs, cows, sheep, and goats arrived with Columbus’ second voyage in 1493. [5] The arrival of these hoofed immigrants would fundamentally alter Indigenous ways of life forever.

      To begin, considering the domesticated animals who existed in Latin America prior to the conquest, these imported animals had little to no predators to deal with. These animals did not succumb to any new diseases, and food sources for these animals were vast. The Spanish literally left the animals to feed on any of the rich grasses, fruits, and other food they could find in these new lands. With a plethora of food and no real threats to their existence, these animals reproduced at astonishingly rapid rates. By the 17th century, herds of cows, pigs, sheep, and goats numbered in the hundreds of thousands and roamed throughout the entire continent. As a result, “meat” prices plummeted and the consumption of “meat” exponentially increased. In Spain, the consumption of “meat” was a luxury, but in the “new world,” the sheer availability of these animals made this luxury accessible to all. This point in time marked the commodification of these animals in the Americas, a natural consequence of which was an ever-expanding “meat” industry. In fact, at this time, “livestock” ranches were so well established and were producing such large quantities of domesticated-animal “meat” that almost everyone was consuming substantial amounts of animal protein. Eating “meat” was considered an economic benefit of keeping animals, but it wasn’t the only one. Records also show an increase in dairy consumption, as well as lard as a replacement for the traditional use of olive oil in colonial cooking. In addition, the demand for “hides” and “tallow” (often used for candles) was even greater than the demand for “meat.”

      The most devastating consequence of this new “meat” industry was that its extraordinary proliferation was accompanied by an equally extraordinary decline in Indigenous populations. Spaniards anxious to establish the “right foods” to ensure their own survival delineated large sections of lands for grazing, with no regard for the way the land was being used prior to their arrival. These vast herds often wandered onto Indigenous croplands, destroying their primary means of subsistence. The situation became so severe that in a letter to the Crown, a Spanish official wrote, “May your lordship realize that if cattle are allowed, the Indians will be destroyed…” [6] Initially, many Indigenous people in this region became malnourished, which consequently weakened their resistance to European diseases. Others literally starved to death as their agricultural plots were trampled, consumed by animals or appropriated for Spanish crops. In time, many Indigenous people, left with limited options, began to consume European foods.

      As devastating as this was, it is important to note that Indigenous populations in the “Americas” did not passively deal with this change. There are a number of clearly documented instances in which Indigenous people, during the process of colonization, specifically resisted European foods. For instance, in North America, the Pueblo people launched a revolt against the Spaniards in which Spanish food was a primary target. During this rebellion a Pueblo leader was said to have ordered the people to “…burn the seeds which the Spaniards sowed and to plant only maize and beans, which were the crops of their ancestors.” [7] Although resistance to European culture was not uncommon, in time, Indigenous people went on to adopt many European foods into their diet. Similarly, many colonists eventually went on to incorporate Indigenous foods into their daily eating.

      Food Acculturation in the “New World”

      Several factors contributed to the acculturation of food of both Indigenous people and Europeans in the “new world.”

      First, in the process of colonization, Europeanization was rewarded. Initially, conversion to Catholicism and the adoption of Spanish culture, customs, and beliefs was a forced matter. In time, the Spanish attempted other methods for converting Indigenous people to their way of life. For example, priests attempting to convert young Indigenous men to Catholicism would offer them “livestock” in return for their conversion. [8] Owning “livestock” was attractive: animals were a source of income, and consuming such animals was a sign of elevated status, by Spanish standards. Since food was an indicator of status and Indigenous people could enhance their status with colonists by taking on Spanish culture, many Indigenous people adopted Spanish practices, cuisine included, as a way of securing a higher status in colonial society. [9]

      Another important factor that shaped the adoption of European foods into Indigenous diets was related to the role of women in colonial society. An integral part of colonization was carried out through Iberian women who arrived shortly after their men settled in the “new world.” As Spanish settlers began the task of establishing structured colonies, the Crown was made aware of wanton behavior taking root in their new lands. Spanish men were said to be out at all hours of the night, frolicking with different women, displaying drunkenness and disorder in the streets of new Spain. The Crown determined that logically, this behavior was the consequence of men left to their own devices without their wives to maintain the structure of family and civility. Thus, the Crown demanded that Iberian women be sent to join their husbands in order to civilize society in the “new world.” As these women arrived, Spanish households were reunified and Iberian women began to solidify the role of the Spanish family in the colonies. This reunification of Spanish families paralleled the destruction of the Indigenous household, as many Indigenous women were forced into working as domestic workers, cooks, nannies, and wet-nurses in Spanish homes. Part of the role of these Indigenous women was to learn to cook European foods and reproduce colonial practices in the home Iberian women were present to make sure it was done properly. The presence of Spanish women was meant to provide an example of how a “civilized” woman looked and behaved, and much of this “civilization” took place in the kitchen. If Indigenous women were to reproduce Spanish cooking—the source of superior Spanish bodies—they would need to be instructed by a Spanish woman who could teach them how to make “civilized” food. Thus, many Indigenous women began reproducing Spanish cuisine as a result of their new role in the European household. However, there is also documentation of the introduction of Indigenous foods and cooking practices into European diets. This was a consequence not only of Indigenous women working in Spanish households, but also a result of mestizas who married Spanish men and began integrating aspects of their mixed heritage into these mixed households. For example, the use of the comal is markedly Indigenous, yet archeological records indicate that it was used in most Spanish households. Also, we see Indigenous variations in cooking with, for instance, the use of chili. Europeans accepted the use of chili in their food since it was similar to pepper. This similarity allowed for its widespread acceptance among Europeans. Alterations to Spanish diets were most common during times of famine, where famine meant a lack of Spanish foods. During these times, Indigenous cooks would prepare indigenous foods, which Spaniards would be forced to consume. For Indigenous people, Spanish cuisine was a principal reason that colonists were intent on acquiring the lands on which they produced their own food. Thus, for Indigenous people, the struggle was in maintaining their own cuisine while understanding that, for pragmatic reasons, they had to adopt new foods.

      Lastly, as noted above, the mere availability of food for consumption began to alter eating practices. The land that previously served to nourish indigenous communities was now organized to meet the need for raw materials necessary for export. Yet the Spanish crown was careful to control local Spanish authority so as to not allow any conquistador to acquire a disproportionate amount of power. In order to control this, the crown allowed some land to be preserved for subsistence cultivation of indigenous communities. On this land communities were allowed to collectively grow what they needed for their daily subsistence. However, this was not an altruistic move on behalf of the crown it was a calculated attempt to maintain their grasp on local power. As time went on, the crown suffered a series of economic shortages, and when such shortages economically affected the crown, they set their eyes on communal lands, which they then deemed should be used to meet the needs of international trade rather than those of the indigenous community. As European needs expanded, indigenous communal lands turned into large plantations, or haciendas, and their production was now directly tied to the demands of European markets. Slowly but surely these haciendas came under the private control of those profiting off international trade.

      Food, the Legacy of Colonization, and Resistance

      Although currently we can recognize many Indigenous foods that are staples of Latin American diets, we must also acknowledge the legacy of colonization in this diet. The large-scale consumption of “meat,” which makes up such a significant part of modern Latin American diets, is entirely traceable to the conquest and the process of colonization, as is the cultural, social, and even gendered significance attached to such consumption. The expansion of the commodification of animals as an industry in Latin America is also rooted in the legacy of colonization. Through this commodification, dairy also became a huge industry in colonial Spain. Interestingly, the consumption of milk and other dairy products serve as a unique lens through which to consider the links between food and colonization.

      The practice of dairying was a product of the domestication of sheep, goats, cows, and pigs somewhere between 11,000-8,000 BCE. [10] People whose society was structured by a pastoral tradition were the first to practice dairying. These people were primarily Indo-European and are said to have pushed out to Northern Europe and as well as Pakistan, Scandinavia, and Spain. The practice of the consumption of milk—and to a large extent cheese, yogurt, and butter—has long been the tradition among these European people. In groups that were traditionally hunters and gatherers, however, there is little evidence for any type of dairying, given that they had no animals suitable for dairying, and that this practice required a more sedentary lifestyle. As Europeans colonized “the Americas,” they also brought with them the practice of dairying, a huge industry to this day. Yet Indigenous societies were based on the hunter-gatherer model. It is here that we see the most interesting piece of biological resistance to the process of food colonization: the bodily rejection of lactose among Indigenous populations. All data indicate high levels of lactose malabsorption [11] (LM) among groups that were traditionally hunter-gatherers. Populations from traditional zones of non-milking—namely, the Americas, Africa, Southeast and East Asia, and the Pacific—have a very high prevalence of LM. Among these groups, approximately 63-98% of all adults are not able to consume milk or lactose-rich dairy products without experiencing at least some level of physical discomfort. [12] Individuals of European decent, however, have a very low prevalence of lactose malabsorption. [13] Thus, there is a clear and well-established link between geography and the prevalence of LM. Descendants of zones of non-milking continue to have high prevalence of LM, especially among those who remain relatively unmixed or who have only interbred with other LM populations. Low prevalence of LM remains constant among those of northern European descent. Among individuals who are mixed between these populations, the level of mixture determines the prevalence of either low or high LM that is, the more European a person is, the lower the prevalence of LM. Although colonial diets and eating practices were integrated into traditional Indigenous consumption practices, dairy is a product that to this day remains physically intolerable for many.

      Food Is Power

      Colonization is a violent process that fundamentally alters the ways of life of the colonized. Food has always been a fundamental tool in the process of colonization. Through food, social and cultural norms are conveyed, and also violated. The Indigenous people of the Americas encountered a radically different food system with the arrival of the Spanish. The legacy of this system is very present in the food practices of modern Latin American people. Yet, we must never forget that the practice of colonization has always been a contested matter as groups have negotiated spaces within this process. Indigenous foods remain as present in contemporary Latin American diets as do European foods. Understanding the history of food and eating practices in different contexts can help us understand that the practice of eating is inherently complex. Food choices are influenced and constrained by cultural values and are an important part of the construction and maintenance of social identity. In that sense, food has never merely been about the simple act of pleasurable consumption—food is history, it is culturally transmitted, it is identity. Food is power.

      Written by Dr. Linda Alvarez for Food Empowerment Project

      [1] Armstrong, R., & Shenk, J. (1982). El Salvador, the face of revolution (2nd ed.). Boston: South End Press.

      [2] Earle, R. (2012). The Body of the Conquistador: Food, Race and the Colonial
      Experience in Spanish America, 1492-1700. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

      [3] Trigg, H. (2004). Food Choice and Social Identity in Early Colonial New Mexico.
      Journal of Southwest , 46 (2), 223-252.

      [4] Earle, R. (2012). The Body of the Conquistador: Food, Race and the Colonial Experience in Spanish America, 1492-1700. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

      [5] Crosby, A. W. Jr. (1972). The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

      [6] Earle, R. (2012). The Body of the Conquistador: Food, Race and the Colonial Experience in Spanish America, 1492-1700. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

      [7] Hackett, C. & C. Shelby. (1942). Revolt of the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico and Otermin’s Attempted Reconquest, 1680-1682. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

      [8] Gutierrez, R. A. (1991). When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

      [9] Trigg, H. (2004). Food Choice and Social Identity in Early Colonial New Mexico. Journal of Southwest , 46 (2), 223-252.

      [10] Vuorisalo, T., Arjamaa, O., Vasemägi, A., Taavitsainen, J. P., Tourunen, A., &
      Saloniemi, I. (2012). High lactose tolerance in North Europeans: a result of migration, not in situ milk consumption. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 55(2), 163-174.

      [11] Also known as lactose intolerance.

      [12] Simoons, F. J. (1978). The Geographic Hypothesis and Lactose Malabsorption: A weighing of the Evidence. Digestive Diseases, 23(11), 963-980.


      These corn chips are typically served on a large plate where toppings such as spicy strips of chicken or beef, cheddar cheese, salsa, spicy beans and relishes are grilled to melty perfection. Nachos are then served with fresh lime, smashed avocado, sour cream, chopped coriander and fresh chilli – and shared by a hungry crowd. Variations of this Mexican flavour explosion include loaded potato chips or even cauliflower – the toppings are endless, and the flavours are yummy.

      There is nothing quite like the age-old tradition of breaking bread – it’s a way to bring us together and exercises our sense of ubuntu. So, cheers to many more generations of community through food, it’s a fabulous family affair.



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