There are many rituals and practices that surround people’s experiences. Rituals, patterns, traditions, are attached to nearly everything we do, even food. The study of rituals around food, farming, cooking, and eating have been the subject of anthropological studies, cultural studies, and part of the feeling of identity within current cultures. I think it’s an interesting exercise to think about the rituals around food and eating we have in our current lives, since it’s an important aspect of studying ancient peoples and cultures, it can certainly be helpful in studying living people.
During our week 2 potluck, before everyone started eating, a couple people spoke about different ways they wanted to appreciate, acknowledge, or think about food while they were eating. One spoke about taking a moment to be silent and think about the origin of the food, how it would nourish, and how important it was to acknowledge. Another thought that eating while having our seminar discussion itself would add an important dimension to our experiential learning.
Each of us has memories and traditions associated with food and how to eat, and these experiences influence the ways we want to experience eating and food.
During week three potluck and tasting time, I noticed several aspects of behavior. Those who were putting together spice packs and coating the salmon with salt and sugar mixes were grouped together, debating and discussing and becoming a hub of activity. The lights in the classroom weren’t as bright as they were the rest of the day, but I don’t actually remember whether that was because a different amount of outside light was coming out, whether someone had turned down the lights, or if it just seemed that way. The couple of people who were putting the final touches on the potluck lunch had candles by their station, and were playing music. There were a few scragglers, myself included, who weren’t participating in either of these activities.
For me, this was a time for me to be quiet and rest. I’m not used to being around classmates for an entire day. Usually my lunch break allows me to be somewhere else, or with particular people or in a different place. For me, this has been a very vital part of staying focused, being able to pay attention, and not be overwhelmed by social interaction. This break time is not a time that I am relaxed, exactly, but it is a time that I have always been able to shut down, and not think about anything important. It allowed me to be able to charge in time to go to seminars and second half of day activities and being to function. With this program, I don’t have that mid day time that I can shut down that part of my mind that must be alert around other’s, and I’ve had to adjust my approach to the day so I can stay focused. So on this day, it was helpful to be able to just sit and watch what others were doing. To eat my own food and not think about anything in particular. For this piece, the observations I jotted down while I was resting my mind were helpful and productive.
Food rituals can be formal, informal, personal, spiritual, traditional, or new. They can have multiple aspects of these at once. A formal meal could be something with extended family, a black tie fundraiser, or a practice of religion or spirituality. A personal, casual meal can recharge your body and relax your mind. Memories can be strongly tied with food, or the smells and tastes of food.
The parts of the rituals around food can be the food itself, how it tastes, how it smells; the preparation of the food, with someone else, alone, using a specific teapot for a particular tea; the preparation of how you eat, the utensils, table, couch, movie, music, silence good dishes, plastic tupperware, do you take a moment before you eat to recognize the food and the effort; the time of the meal, holidays, time of day, related to a particular action like harvest; the clean up after a meal can be a separate or included ritual also, who cleans the dishes, who puts away the food and how; and the lack of eating or meals can have significance as well. Fasting and breaking fast are important aspects of many different cultures.
These aspects of food and performance and eating are important to note, even if noting them doesn’t have any impact on your practices in the long run. Because it might teach you something, it might teach someone else someone, it might help you recognize a part of a self care routine, or a part of something that stressed you out, or disconnects you from community.
We spoke during seminar about the way that potlucks can’t be a go to activity anymore, because of so many dietary restrictions and issues. Part of this is probably purely for reasons of preference, what people will or won’t eat, but it’s also for health and medical reasons.
It’s curious to consider the different parts of our use of technology or cultural shifts and how they might have impacted the ability for people to participate in putlucks. When I was little, I enjoyed potlucks, but there was always a large section of food I couldn’t eat, and usually I couldn’t tell which foods I couldn’t eat. I had to trust my mom to find out from the people that made the food which dishes were vegetarian, and we had to trust that they really knew what that meant. So many people are unaware or misinformed about different types of diets and allergies. I have always been frustrated and amused by the conversations that go a little like this; “you’re a vegetarian? Oh cool, so am I!” (pause) “well but I don’t count fish/chicken/shellfish because (reason), so I eat those sometimes. But otherwise I’m totally a vegetarian.” Those conversations are frustrating because they spread misinformation about what being vegetarian means, or at least what it has always meant to me, and then suddenly people will say they understand what it means and still cook fish/chicken/etc because someone else they knew was a vegetarian but still ate that.
Which can be a very unpleasant experience, because if you don’t know what’s in your food and eat it, and you’ve been vegetarian long enough, you can’t digest meat. So upset stomach and unpleasant night’s ahead! Me and my mom has always been careful enough with my food that that hasn’t happened to me, but it’s happened to my parents a lot. For my dad, when a friend painstaking prepared a meal, checking constantly about what could be in it or not lead to a very painful day or two because they didn’t realize that chicken broth wasn’t vegetarian, and when my dad eats meat it sets off his arthritis and leaves him in pain.
I don’t know when these kinds of health issues, and allergies, started to become so prevalent in our world, because there aren’t any studies that have been done it that I’m aware of. But they haven’t always been so widespread, and because it seems so new, the rituals around food haven’t changed to account for them, and those who have different diets or allergies must be extremely vigilant around the food they eat and how it’s been prepared, they have to question the rituals other’s go through to prepare food, which becomes a ritual (or a practice) in itself.
For me personally, it is hard to constantly turn down people’s offers to cook or share food. I feel bad because I cannot partake in something that someone spent time and effort in preparing. To have to interrogate anyone offering food about what’s in it and how it was prepared, because them reassuringly saying that it’s ‘all natural’ really doesn’t mean anything to me. My allergies are to natural substances that are usually considered healthy. I have the interesting experience that I can eat (in general) either expensive, organic vegan/vegetarian dishes, or the cheapest, processed food, but the middle ground is where most of my allergies lie. There is one tomato sauce I can eat, that you can get only at the dollar store. I can eat it because it’s made cheaply enough to not have olive or canola or sunflower oil in it, and it’s in a glass jar rather than a can. So to determine whether I can eat something someone else has prepared I have to know if they regularly cook meat in the dishes they used to prepare the food, I have to know if they used canned foods, I have to know if they used cooking spray or oil, and then what kind. I have to interrogate the entire chain of production to make sure it won’t make me sick. So many things that I am allergic to get into people’s food without their conscious awareness of it happening.
The preparation of the kale we harvested week 3 is a good example of this. I picked some kale leaves from the field with my own hands. At that point I can eat them, sure. When we massaged them, the person sitting next to me commented that they smelled and felt oily. They were still considered by most in the class as ‘just kale’. But only moments later it was noted that the leaves has been drizzled in olive oil. Still ‘just kale’? By most people’s perspective, the oil added in this step unbeknownst to the room was inconsequential, a nothing. But that inconsequential step would mean a migraine for up to several days if ingested, to me.
So instead of performing that interrogation ritual, it’s easier to perform the apologetic refusal ritual.
My conclusions from these observations and notes is that it’s very important to consider what rituals each of us go through around food, eating, and preparation and why we do each of those things. Which parts are important and meaningful, which are autopilot or habit and why? In addition, it would be interesting to know more about the variables and factors in how people’s ability to participate in things like potlucks has changed over the last decades.