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eating To survive, humans must ingest food — must eat ideally from an abundant, varied diet, several times per day. Perhaps due to this fact — the basic necessity of eating to human survival — the rituals and habits surrounding it have flourished across cultures and throughout history. Why do individuals, societies and particular classes or ethnic groups eat specific foods? Why do eating rituals develop and change over time? Historians, economists, and anthropologists debate the relative importance of various influences, but tend to agree that a combination of factors motivate eating habits. It is neither strictly cultural influences nor economic conditions that determine eating behaviour but the interplay of both. Variables such as survival strategies, agricultural patterns, industrial development, gender, and familial structures, and the symbolic perceptions of particular foods and foodways, interact to determine eating patterns. Though it is clearly a physiological function linked to vitality, cultural and social expectations have had a profound influence upon the act of eating. As Roland Barthes has stated, ‘food is but a system of communication, a body of images, a protocol of usages, situations and behaviors’.

Social meanings

In subsistence or peasant societies, economic realities may severely constrain food types and amounts, often leading to malnutrition and disease. In pre-industrial Europe, for example, while the upper classes enjoyed a varied diet including substantial amounts of meat, the masses ate an undiversified diet, primarily of cereals. Lacking meat (most consumed only about 2 oz per week), they suffered from diseases associated with a lack of protein. Similar conditions persist in Third World countries as well as among the poor in the most affluent of societies. Yet even where material circumstances limit dietary intake, food and eating customs contain social meaning. The great feasts of medieval Europe, while infrequent occurrences, settled status conflicts in feudal society, while gender relations were clearly marked by female responsibility for preparing food in African–American slave communities.

In regard to the symbolic meanings given to food and eating, folk and religious customs, class stratification, gender definitions, and ideas about health have had the most significant impact. In most cultures, religious beliefs have included specifications about food and eating. Prehistoric peoples, faced with erratic food supplies, devised elaborate ceremonies hoping to sway the Gods to provide bountiful foodstuffs. All of the major religious faiths contain food regulations. For example, Hindus, guided by their belief in reincarnation, avoid killing animals and thus do not eat meat. Class stratification is also at work as those in the highest castes follow the strictest vegetarian diet. Principles of ‘right action’ also encourage Buddhists to avoid killing animals, while Islam and Judaism both proscribe pork or blood. Moslems also undertake the mandatory fast of Ramadam. Christian practices vary by faith and denomination. Catholicism includes a prohibition of meat on Fridays as well as abstaining from meat, fish, and dairy products on certain fast days. Seventh-Day Adventists follow a vegetarian diet, while Mormons are expected to avoid tobacco, alcohol, and hot drinks.

Eating rituals have acted to differentiate the classes from one another. In what people eat as well as when and how, their class status emerges. Since prosperity permits the most elaborate food purchases as well as the furnishings of meal times (crockery, china, silver, linen, decorations, etc.), minute differentiations can signal economic and social standing. In the economic uncertainties of nineteenth-century America, the newly-middle class proved their status by acquiring the coveted accoutrements of a fine dining room and then entertaining, while in the early twentieth century, slenderness and its attendant dieting distanced middle-class women from their ‘robust’ working-class sisters. In the twentieth century, food knowledge as well as dining out at the finest restaurants demonstrated social status.

Eating the right thing in the right manner has also served to define masculinity and femininity. In modern Western cultures, prior to the late twentieth century, that has tended to mean dainty or polite eating for women and hearty eating for men. Once fat became disdained for both sexes, correct, healthful food choices came to dominate.


Ideas about healthy nourishment, particularly with the development of food science in the nineteenth century, spawned new eating behaviours. In the last 100 years, ‘healthful’ eating has meant a turning away from heavy, simple, protein-rich diets to ones dominated by fruits, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates. At the same time, Westerners tend to consume more and more ‘unhealthy’ but commercially viable, ‘fast’ foods. As a result, a constant tension exists between what one wants to eat and what one ‘should eat’.

Though eating patterns have differed widely by region and culture, some broad historical patterns can be outlined. Until about 12 000 years ago, humans sustained their diet by food gathering which included hunting. Small, isolated populations moved from place to place, foraging for plants, animals, and eventually fish. Though they had little control over their food supply, anthropological evidence suggests that they practised food sharing. Food production emerged in different sites between 9000 and 12 000 years ago as humans began to control their food supply through animal husbandry and domestication of plants. Some argue that this marked the ‘rise of civilization’. Malnutrition decreased and populations increased, resulting in more sedentary living and leisure, the rise of cities, complex political organization, and more aggressive societies.

The four major early civilizations (Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley, and the Huang He Valley) intensified animal husbandry, tool and weapon development, and pastoralism. Ancient Greece (2000 bc), considered the birthplace of modern civilization, actually emerged with food habits about 1000 years behind those of earlier civilizations. Until about the fifth century bc, the Greek diet consisted of cereals, breads, olives, fish, root vegetables, some fruit, and wine. In the Hellenistic period, food rituals began to signify class difference. The wealthy enjoyed a wide variety of imported foods, while the poor existed on a simple, bland diet. The same can be said for Ancient Rome during the Republic (509 bc–27 bc). The upper classes imbibed wine (diluted to reduce salt content) and dined on plentiful meat, fish, figs, and fruits, while the poor ate porridge, bread, olive oil, and water. The Roman Empire (27 bc–ad 476), with its vast territory, produced or imported almost every type of food we know today. Wealthy Romans were known for their opulent dinner parties and gargantuan appetites. With so many food pleasures to chose from, it was as though they could not be satiated. Though the Romans emulated all things Greek, it is said that ‘they became gluttons, rather than gourmets’.

During the Middle Ages — known as the Years of Famine — food and eating, like most other activities, became severely restricted due to crop failures, disease, and war. Still, eating habits reflected the strict hierarchy of the feudal system. Serfs produced their own wine, ate wild game, raised pigs and chickens, and eked out seasonal vegetables. In contrast, feudal lords enjoyed plentiful meat and a wide variety of imported foods, including spices from the Mid-east. The Renaissance brought more trade and exploration and — again, for the most affluent — an increasingly abundant diet.

The economic and cultural contact ushered in by the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century travels and immigration to the ‘New World’ highlighted the different values held by those in the East and West with regard to land, food production, and eating. Amidst much death, war, and disease, there was also sharing of skills and resources, especially in the mid-Atlantic region.

By the eighteenth century, people's relationship to food was increasingly infused with moral meaning. Embedded in religious language of self-control, eating behaviour began to signify one's moral standing. In the nineteenth century, the new science of dietetics began to elaborate basic nutritional standards. Much of the research, conducted on soldiers and workers in order to determine the minimum nourishment necessary to maintain health, emphasized models of efficiency. The body became just one more machine. To keep running smoothly, it needed the right balance of food, which acted as ‘fuel’.

Margaret A. Lowe


McIntosh, E. N. (1995). American food habits in historical perspective. Praeger, Connecticut.
Minnell, S. (1985). All manners of food. Blackwell, New York.

See also food.