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FOOD . Historians of religion and cultural anthropologists face an extraordinarily difficult task when they attempt to analyze food customs on a worldwide basis. Dietary laws, food taboos, and the religious and social environments that have molded them are as varied as humanity itself.

Although there are no universal food customs or food taboos, such things are part of daily life in every society. Societies of every sort have restricted what their members may eat, specified the circumstances in which certain types of nourishment may be taken, and made use of food in religious ritual. Rules and practices regarding food constitute languages that express the values a culture teaches regarding nature, God, the sources of social authority, and the purposes or goals of life. In different religious systems, the same foodsmilk, oil, blood, wheat, or rice, for examplemay cleanse or defile, signify death or rebirth, give nourishment to gods or convey the power of gods to worshipers, depending on the contexts in which these foods are used.

Food Taboos

Because food is a universal human need, the act of making some foods taboo is particularly revelatory of the values that distinguish one culture from another.


No religion has such a complex set of food taboos as Judaism. Jewish dietary law begins with the Torah (also known as the Pentateuch, including the biblical books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy ), which according to Orthodox Jews was given to Moses on Sinai; modern scholars date the final version of the Torah to the Babylonian exile, after 486 bce. Since Roman times, rabbis have greatly expanded the food taboos of the Jews through commentary designed to show how the laws of the Torah may be kept.

Oldest among Jewish food taboos is the prohibition on eating blood, which forms part of the covenant between God and Noah in Genesis 9. From this prohibition grew the practice of kosher butchering, which emphasizes killing the animal with a quick cut of the neck and draining its blood. Jews also salt and boil meat to remove blood, broil organ meats in which the blood collects, and cook meat very thoroughly to eliminate blood. The taboo on blood and the laws of butchering mean that no animal killed by hunting can be eaten by an observant Jew.

Elaborating on a law repeated three times in the Torah, "Thou shalt not boil a kid in its mother's milk" (Exod. 23:19, 34:26; Deut. 14:21), the rabbis developed rules to prevent contact of meat and milk. Observant Jews not only abstain from cheeseburgers and avoid milk for some time after eating meat but also maintain two sets of dishes, pots, and utensils for meat and dairy meals. Restaurants observing kashrut (kosher) law limit themselves to serving either meat or dairy meals. Fish and vegetable oil fall into an intermediate class, known as pareve, that can be consumed with either milk or meat.

The Jewish taboo on pork has become famous because the pig is so popular as a source of protein in Europe and Asia, but Jews also abstain from a long list of animals found in Leviticus 11 and further defined by the rabbis. Only animals that have hooves (not claws) but also part the hoof (like cows and sheep, unlike horses) and chew the cud (ruminants, capable of eating grass) can be eaten. These restrictions eliminate such common food animals as rabbits, dogs, bears, horses, and camels as well as pigs, which divide the hoof but do not chew the cud. Predatory birds and swarming insects are also forbidden. Among sea creatures, only fish with fins and scales can be eaten; clams, lobsters, eels, squid, scallops, shark, sturgeon (with their caviar), porpoise, and whale are all forbidden, and swordfish are an object of dispute, since they are scaled only as juveniles.

During the eight days of Passover, the spring holiday commemorating the deliverance of ancient Israel from slavery in Egypt, Jews observe a taboo on leaven, which is ordinarily ubiquitous in bread and other products containing wheat. The observance of Passover can lead to a Jewish family owning a third and fourth set of dishes and pots for meat and dairy during Passover, or even a third kitchen, in order to avoid leaven. Not all prepared foods that are certified by rabbinical boards as kosher are also kosher for Passover, because some kosher foods may have been prepared with or in the presence of leaven. Even wine, which might have been thought to be exempt from laws regarding blood, milk, meat, forbidden animals, and leaven, must be certified as kosher or kosher for Passover depending on rabbinical supervision of the conditions of manufacture.

It should be noted that today, only about 10 percent of Jews keep the kosher laws strictly. Among Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jews, and among the large numbers unaffiliated with a synagogue, there was a strong movement away from keeping kosher during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Recently, a return to modified practice, sometimes called "kosher style," has gained ground among liberal Jews. Jewish food taboos have undoubtedly had one effect announced in the Torah: they have fostered solidarity among Jews by separating Jews from others, making "a distinction between the clean and the unclean" (Lev. 11:47) so that Israel may be "holy" (related to the word for "separate") as its God is holy.

Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism

Although the earliest Sanskrit scriptures indicate that the Aryan ancestors of modern Indians ate beef and sacrificed horses, Hinduism quickly (by about 1000 bce) developed a taboo on meat for the three upper castes (the Brahmin or priestly, Kshatriya or warrior, and Vaisya or merchant). The cow became particularly sacred, so that only the outcaste or untouchable could work with leather or eat beef, but chicken and fish were also avoided by those who wished to maintain purity. Another powerful taboo involves saliva; a cook must not taste food during preparation because of the danger that saliva will come in contact with the food. Caste differences entailed general taboos on eating food prepared by someone of a lower caste, so that a demand arose for Brahmins willing to serve as cooks. Unlike in Judaism, where food taboos created solidarity among adherents of the religion, in Hinduism these taboos have emphasized difference. The purpose of abstaining from meat and avoiding impurity for Hindus is to avoid collecting karma, the attachment to the world that causes reincarnation after death. The same motive causes many Hindus to abstain from alcohol, although there is no absolute rule in the tradition against it, and ancient texts describe the ritual use of an intoxicating substance called soma, the identity of which is uncertain. Some traditions depict the Hindu god Śiva drinking a mixture of yogurt and cannabis indica, an Asian variety of marijuana.

During the sixth century bce, the movements of Jainism and Buddhism gained adherents in India among those who sought freedom from castes and rituals and a more direct means of escape from reincarnation. Following their teacher Mahāvīra, Jains abstain both from meat and from plants that must be killed to be consumed. Their ideal diet consists of fruit that ripens on the tree and grains that dry of themselves; they avoid root vegetables that must be destroyed in the harvest.

Mahāvīra arose from the warrior caste to reject Brahmin rules, and so did Siddhārtha Gautama, who became known as the Buddha (the one who awoke). Not as strict as the Jains, Buddhists sought a middle way between indulgence and asceticism. The Buddha advised the monks whom he sent to spread his teaching not to allow anyone to kill an animal especially for them, but to eat if the animal had already been killed. In Buddhism the karma that binds humans to the wheel of rebirth has nothing to do with divine will, material pollution, or with the influence of matter on spirit, but depends entirely on attitude and can be dispelled by awareness. Buddhists have commonly counted the profession of a butcher as a forbidden means of livelihood, like that of gambler or prostitute, because a butcher causes suffering to sentient beings; yet Buddhism has adapted to many cultures in which meat eating is allowed. Some of the most traditional Buddhists, such as the Theravādan monks of Thailand, who go into the street to beg each day at dawn and eat nothing at all after noon, are not vegetarian. The Chan monks of China have normally followed a vegetarian diet themselves but only recently have begun to preach the virtues of vegetarianism to the laity. Tibet, where Buddhism has dominated for more than a thousand years, has never become vegetarian, although some of its religious leaders have. In Japan, the traditional diet of rice and seafood remained despite Buddhism, although the influence of Buddhist ideals of compassion helped to keep meat eating from gaining much favor until modern times. Although the Buddha forbade intoxication, Buddhists have disagreed as to whether this meant abstinence from all alcohol; with the exception of the Theravādan monks of South Asia (Sri Lanka, Burma [Myanmar], Thailand, Vietnam), most Buddhist cultures have not prohibited alcoholic drinks.


The New Testament shows that early followers of Jesus struggled with questions of how far to continue Jewish food taboos and whether to compromise with Roman rituals of offering food to their ancestors and their gods. Although Mark 7:19 says that Jesus "declared all foods clean," it seems evident from the story of Peter and the Roman centurion Cornelius in Acts 10 that the disciples of Jesus had not begun to eat nonkosher food or to share meals with non-Jews even after taking up their mission of preaching the gospel. An argument between Peter and Paul mentioned in Paul's letter to the Galatians shows that the question of food taboos seemed very urgent two decades after the crucifixion. Acts 15 recalls a letter sent by agreement of the apostles to all non-Jewish Christians, telling them to abstain from blood, from anything strangled rather than butchered quickly, and from food consecrated to Roman ancestors or gods. In the Book of Revelation, Christians who have decided to eat at the same table where Roman food offerings were made are consigned to the pit of sulfur created for Satan and his angels. After the Roman Empire became Christian in the fourth century ce, this issue disappeareduntil recently, that is, when it has demanded a decision by Christians who have friends or relatives who practice Chinese, Wiccan, Yoruba, or other traditions involving the offering of food to spirits. Except for the Coptic Christians of Egypt, who continue to follow some Jewish laws, and the mild restrictions on meat observed by Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians during Lent and Advent, most Christians now observe no food taboos, and Christianity remains remarkable for its lack of such rules. In the nineteenth century, Adventists in the United States rediscovered the prohibition of Acts 15 on blood and went beyond it to vegetarianism; many Christians, especially Protestant evangelicals, Mormons, and Christian Scientists, adopted a taboo on alcohol; but most Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant Christians remained free, in theory, to eat and to drink anything.


The Qurʾān, the book of revelations to Prophet Muammad, explicitly forbids eating animals that have died of themselves, blood, pork, and food over which the name of a god other than Allah has been invoked (sūrah 2:173). Islamic slaughtering rules resemble those of Judaism with regard to cutting the neck and drawing the blood, but many Muslims also refuse any meat not killed by a Muslim, since only then can they be assured that an invocation of Allāh has accompanied the slaughter. Though abstinence from alcohol does not appear in the Qurʾān, the traditions (or adīth ) connecting such abstinence to the prophet Muammad are so strong that most Muslims believe that their religion forbids all alcohol, even if (as in Muslim countries like Morocco or Turkey) there are public places in which Muslims drink. Many Muslims avoid mozzarella cheese because of the rennet, sometimes derived from the stomachs of pigs, involved in its manufacture.

Chinese traditions

It is part of the genius of China to make use of everything edible, if not as food then as medicine. However, Daoist wisdom does teach the avoidance of some combinations of foods because Daoist cosmology has led people to think that the combinations would be poisonous. Such combinations include garlic and honey, crab and persimmon, dog meat and green beans, and mackerel and plums.

Indigenous (or primal) traditions

Religions that remain limited to particular ethnic groups and places do not tend to develop general food taboos, such as the Jewish ban on pork or the Hindu reverence for the cow, which apply in all times and all places. Food taboos in these religions focus on specific times during which certain foods may not be eaten or specific people who may not eat certain foods. Even cannibalism, the strongest candidate for a universal food taboo, may be allowed or even encouraged or required at certain times; among the Hua of New Guinea, funerals involve children eating the parent of the same sex to recycle the limited supply of life force, or nu. Before death, Hua adults transmit nu to children by rubbing them with spit or other bodily secretions.

Food in Symbol, Myth, and Ritual

In some religious traditions, a particular food may stand for the whole identity of the group. The Hopi of southwestern North America say that their first act upon emerging into this world was to choose the short blue corn that expresses the hard but enduring life of their people. Since the purpose of Hopi ritual is to continue a cycle in which cloudlike ancestors (called katsinas ) come from the mountains to nourish corn, which feeds the Hopi who eventually die and return to the mountains, the Hopi have sometimes said that "We are corn." Similarly, the Lakota of the northern Plains sometimes describe themselves as the descendants of "buffalo people" who emerged from under the Black Hills and gradually became human, never losing their kinship with the primary animal they hunted. This identification of food and people is not necessarily limited to small nations. Each year in Japan, the first planting of rice by the emperor, who is the living embodiment of Ninigo-no-mikoto, the god of the mature rice plant, is photographed for newspapers. When a bad harvest and World Trade Organization pressure caused the Japanese government to lower barriers against imported rice in 1993, the action caused a reaction that went beyond economics to the spiritual, and imported rice is still considered inferior and unclean by many Japanese.

Myths often associate death with the gift of food. The inhabitants of Ceram, an island in the Indonesian archipelago, tell the story of a quasi-divine young girl whose body produced tubers after it was cut up and buried. Among the Iroquois of northern New York, one variant of the creation story describes a girl who fell from the sky, then died and produced beans from her fingers and toes, squash from her stomach, corn from her breasts, and tobacco from her forehead. In Tongan mythology, Eel was condemned to death for allegedly causing the pregnancy of a virgin who shared his Samoan bathing pool. Villagers who planted Eel's severed head, as he had requested, testified that the coconut tree first appeared on that spot. Another Polynesian myth affirms that the breadfruit tree emerged from the plot where a woman buried the head of her husband.

As religions develop more philosophical perspectives, they distance themselves from myth, but food retains symbolic meanings and important roles in ritual and in healing.


The story of Eden implicates a fruit in the beginning of death and of agricultural work (through the curse on Adam). According to Genesis, people were vegetarians in Eden but became carnivorous in the aftermath of the Flood; the offering of blood to God in the Temple remained as testimony that animal life still belonged to the creator. Jewish practice included a sacrificial lamb at Passover until the Temple was destroyed by the Romans. Even now, elements of the Passover include a bone to stand for the lamb and other elements such as an egg, salt water, and green herbs that point to a festival of rebirth with foods appropriate to the spring. Foods celebrated in Jewish stories include the manna, said to resemble coriander seed, that fell from heaven each day to feed Israel during its wandering in the wilderness and the cakes brought by ravens to feed the prophet Elijah when he fled into the desert from the wrath of Jezebel. According to Orthodox Jews, the coming of the Messiah will include the return of manna from heaven and a great banquet.

Daily Jewish practice includes a ritual blessing over bread and wine performed at home. On the Sabbath, it is a mitzvah (religious duty or good deed) to drink wine and to eat meat. Synagogue services now also commonly include a blessing and sharing of bread and wine. Holidays involve symbolic foods such as the matzoh (unleavened bread) of Passover and the round loaves of bread and apples with honey that are eaten to promote continuity and good fortune at the New Year.

Hinduism and Buddhism

Temple worship among Hindus involves large quantities of food because every statue of a god must be fed three times a day and bathed, not only in water but also in substances such as milk, sesame oil, coconut water, grain, and clarified butter. The bathing of a god with milk, oil, and colorful spices can make a striking visual impression. The primary duty of most temple priests is not to instruct but to perform this washing and feeding with correct prayer; people come to observe and to offer their own prayers as these ceremonies proceed, or they visit the gods at other times and make food offerings of their own. Food offerings include rice, curds, clarified butter, oil, many kinds of vegetables and fruits, almonds and other nuts, betel leaves, and combinations of spices including turmeric, salt, and pepper. Among Vaisnavites (worshipers of Viu and his avatars, such as Ka and Rāma), food offered to the gods is commonly shared by all worshippers under the name of prasāda, which may be taken home from the temple and eaten. Śaivites (worshipers of Śiva and his wife Parvati) consume only what has washed the linga and yoni statues that are his primary symbols, leaving the food offerings to the priests. On festivals (which often entail fasting), Hindus may bring large quantities of prasāda home and subsist on it for some days.

At home and in other areas outside the temples, Hindus hire Brahmin priests to perform fire sacrifices that also involve food. At a wedding or at the brahmacharya ritual that marks a son's beginning study of the scriptures, the priest will offer clarified butter, rice, and other foods in a fire while chanting appropriate prayers. In the temple, offerings of food enable worshipers to seek protection and favor from the gods, but in fire sacrifices, the food becomes fuel in the same economy of energy that created the gods and the universe itself; this cosmic energy is released by the fire and directed by the priest to the purpose for which he performs the ritual.

Although Buddhists do not hire priests for Brahmin rituals or bathe the Buddha's statues in food, they continue to leave offerings of fruit before these images. Food offered to the Buddha is not eaten by devotees but thrown away in compassion to animals or (in some cases, if there are large amounts) given to beggars. The tradition that the Buddha himself lived and taught as a beggar remains important in the Theravādan tradition that prevails in South Asia, where Thai monks usually receive food or flowers, not money, in the begging bowls they bring to the streets each morning.

Both Hindus and Buddhists sometimes use violations of food taboos as spiritual practices. For example, the sannyasi, or renunciates, of India always eat leftover (or symbolically leftover) food, violating the Hindu taboo on saliva; some yogis go so far to teach and to experience the reality of reincarnation as to eat their own excrement. Hindu ritual purification may entail eating a mixture of the cow's five products, which are milk, ghee (clarified butter), curds, urine, and dung. Tibetan Buddhists may remind themselves of emptiness and insubstantiality by drinking from cups made of the skulls of monks. Among those who practice the Tantric traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism, eating meat and drinking alcohol sometimes form part of secret rituals meant to teach that all things eventually contribute to deliverance.


Building upon the blessing of bread and wine from Jewish mealtime, Sabbath, and Passover rituals, Christians have often made the sharing of bread and wine during Communion (or Eucharist) into the center of their ritual lives. During the Middle Ages, Roman Catholic theology defined this ritual meal as the miracle of transubstantiation, during which bread and wine are miraculously transformed into the actual body and blood of Jesus of Nazareth, who is the incarnation of God; Thomas Aquinas taught that the substance of Christ's body is then concealed under the appearance of bread and wine by another miracle in order to prevent disgust among the communicants. Although Protestants later rejected this doctrine, it still prevails among Catholics. One famous convert to Catholicism, the English writer Evelyn Waugh, was said to have converted because only Catholics offered the opportunity to "eat God."

Few symbolic foods are used by Christians today, but the Easter egg and its chocolate and candy variants are widely recognized; as in the Passover meal, the egg indicates the primordial roots of Easter in spring festivals of rebirth. Ethnic groups like the Italians, many of whom seek a meal of twelve types of seafood on Christmas Eve, often associate particular foods with Christian holidays. Some Protestants in the United States have substituted grape juice, which was invented for this purpose by a Methodist named Welch, for sacramental wine in many churches. Meanwhile, Protestants have made a virtual sacrament of coffee, with after-worship coffee hours following services at most churches. The coffeepot has become the unofficial symbol of Alcoholics Anonymous, a nondenominational spiritual group that grew from the Protestant ethos.

Chinese traditions

Daoist cosmology, and the traditional Chinese wisdom that precedes formal Daoism, sees all foods (and all things in the world) as composites of yin (dark, moist, soft, bland, feminine) and yang (bright, dry, hard, spicy, masculine), which in turn express the basic force of qi (breath, spirit) that inheres in all things. For Chinese tradition, every meal has symbolic and medical aspects, and every food establishes a direct and definable connection between the eater and the forces that move the stars. A typical Chinese menu seeks to balance yin and yang, cooling and heating properties, and so to have many ingredients offered in small portions over many courses. Folk traditions associate many symbolic foods, such as round cakes called mooncakes at the New Year, with holidays. Daily ancestor worship, the central practice of Chinese religion, involves offering food by placing it before tablets containing the names of ancestors, sometimes accompanied by pictures. Failure to perform this duty, which can only be done by the eldest son, will result in ancestors becoming hungry ghosts who cause disharmony in the home. For about three thousand years before 1911, the emperor of China offered animal sacrifice to the imperial ancestor and to the heavenly beings at least three times a year, on the Altar of Heaven at the capital; this ritual, which was also performed at times of crisis, was held to keep both the natural world and the nation in harmony.


Islam stands out among religions by involving no food or drink in its ordinary services of worship. Eating plays an important ritual and social role in the fasting month of Ramadān, when each day ends at sunset with an iftar meal that breaks the fast; these meals traditionally begin with figs, following the example of the Prophet. In Muslim countries like Egypt, iftar meals stretch into the night and create a festive atmosphere during the month. One of the main holidays of Islam, the ʿĪd al-Aā during the month of pilgrimage to Mecca, involves the sharing of food because each Muslim household is obligated to sacrifice a goat, sheep, ram, cow, or camel and distribute one-third of the meat to the poor. In the United States, where many Muslims and others do not enjoy eating goat, it has sometimes been difficult to arrange for this meat to be used. The Muslim vision of Paradise involves both food and drink: the Qurʾān often pictures those in Paradise enjoying "fountains" and "fruits, any that they may select," with "flesh of fowls, any that they may desire" (Sūrah 56:1821).

Yoruba (Vodou, Santeria, Condomble) traditions

The West African religion of the Yoruba and Fon peoples, native to such modern nations as Nigeria, Cameroon, Benin, and Dahomey, has spread through slavery and immigration throughout the Americas, becoming known as vodou in Haiti and Louisiana, as Santería in Cuba, and as Condomble in Brazil, bringing its own symbolic and ritual uses of food while integrating Christian elements into its African heritage. Here food is offered to the gods so that they descend into the community performing the ritual, taking possession of some participants and inducing trance, while communicating with and healing others. Each deity has favored foods and drinks and animals of sacrifice. For example, Elegba, the god of the crossroads who is invoked to begin any service, favors palm oil, fruits, nuts, roasted corn, and yams; he is drawn to the sacrifice of roosters and male goats; Oya, goddess of storms and cemeteries, enjoys red wine and purple grapes, eggplant and rice and beans; hens and female goats are sacrificed to her. Shango, companion of Oya, is a former human, a deified ruler of the Yoruba who has become the god of lightning and retribution; he is called upon with plantains, green bananas, and bitter kola nuts, and enjoys rum; rams and red roosters are sacrificed to him. The list of orishas (or loa, divinities) runs to the dozens, each with a set of preferences in food, drink, and sacrificial animal.

Food and Sacrifice

There is a vast body of literature on the origins and meaning of sacrifice and the role it has played in human history. With relation to food, farmers have often sacrificed the first fruits of the harvest, while shepherds have sacrificed the firstborn of each female in their flocks. Ancient Israelite tradition continued these sacrifices and added the substitution of a sacrifice or monetary gift for a firstborn son. Animals sacrificed at the Jerusalem Temple included bullocks, rams, lambs, pigeons, and doves; other foods included cooked and uncooked dough, prepared with oil and salt, and wine poured like blood at the foot of the altar.

After the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, Jews gave up on sacrifice, but the Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus, faced with the need to understand the crucifixion, gradually transmuted the traditional blessings of bread and wine into a sacrificial meal. Not only were the bread and wine understood as transubstantiated into the body and blood of Jesus, and hence of God, but the act of offering the bread and wine was held to have the effects of a sacrifice, releasing power that could gain favor for the living and shorten the punishment of souls in purgatory. Although the most dramatic examples of purely sacrificial worshipfor example, the priests who did nothing but offer the sacrifice of the Mass in privatehave been eliminated by reformers, Roman Catholics today still buy Mass Cards and give money so that Jesus may again be offered to God the Father, under the appearances of bread and wine, for the intentions of those who make the donations.

The most prevalent form of food sacrifice is the offering of food to ancestors, which takes place daily at millions of home altars in China, Korea, and Japan, under the influence of Confucian and Shintō traditions. Practitioners of the Yoruba and other African traditions also give food and drink to ancestors, as the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians did in their time. The Shintō priests of Japan offer food sacrificesclean, fresh whole foods, fish, and fruits and riceto the kami, or divinities who are said to inhabit eight million places in the islands of Japan. Regular worship takes place at striking waterfalls, impressive rocks, and dignified trees where the kami are believed to dwell; along with presentations of food, petitions from local people are read to the kami. At the center of the Shintō system are offerings of rice planted by the emperor to Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun and ancestor of the imperial house.

Fasting and Dieting

One of the most universal of religious practices, fasting can be done for reasons that range from repentance for sins to the cultivation of mystical experience. For Muslims, fasting during the month of Ramaān stands as the fourth among five pillars of Islam. Muslims may not eat, drink, smoke, or engage in sex between sunrise and sunset during the month of Ramaān; those who are sick or traveling are supposed to fast an equal number of days at another time. The fast commemorates the month in which the first revelations of the Qurʾān were given to Muammad; Muslims often teach that the hunger and thirst of this month makes them more sensitive to the needs of the poor and more aware of their dependence on God.

Jews undertake two briefer, but more intense fasts, also abstaining from drink and sex as well as from food: from sunset to the next sunset on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, which completes the New Year's holiday in the fall, and during the summer on Tisha B'Av, to commemorate the destruction of the Temple. Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians fast for forty days called Lent, between Ash Wednesday and Easter, every spring; among Catholics, the rules of this fast have been relaxed in recent years. Lent involves no periods of complete denial of food and drink, but only abstinence from meat on certain days and a commitment to eat less every day. Among the devout, there is a tradition of voluntarily giving up a favorite food or drink, both to repent for sin and to provide money for charity. A celebration called Mardi Gras (French for "fat Tuesday") or Carnival often precedes the beginning of Lent, especially in Latin countries.

In many religions, monks and nuns and ascetics use restricted diets as a means to heighten awareness in prayer or meditation and to lessen the passions of the body. Under the Christian Rule of St. Benedict, each monk was allowed one pound of bread per day and a pint of wine, but meat was not recommended except for the sick. Monks in Thailand do not eat after noon, in imitation of the Buddha.

Many holidays that involve fasting from grain and beans for periods of two or three days punctuate the Hindu calendar. On those days, Hindus may subsist on milk and fruits that have become prasāda by being offering at a temple. In the twentieth century, Mahatma Gandhi added a political dimension to the Hindu tradition of fasting by his hunger strikes, which Gandhi employed both in order to convince the British to set India free and to convince the people of India to stop a religious war between Hindus and Muslims. Going beyond politics to spirituality, Gandhi taught that people should always eat according to a standard of "meagerness," keeping a perpetual fast in which they took food as medicine, in the interests of promoting clear thinking. Calling a "full" meal "a crime against God and man," Gandhi urged his followers not to allow food to make them sensual.

Late in the twentieth century, the rise of industrialized food production and marketing led to an epidemic of obesity, especially in the United States, which led in turn to a proliferation of diet plans and programs. Many of these programs take on spiritual connotations. Compulsions to diet, in the forms of anorexia and bulimia, have killed many young women and attracted attention from historians of culture. A historian of Christianity, Caroline Walker Bynum, pointed out that medieval ascetics like Catherine of Siena, though she may have killed herself with fasting, did so in order to gain power and control, while modern anorexics are driven by social pressure to their unhealthy behavior.

Theoretical Perspectives

In an attempt to make sense out of the array of food customs that have been documented in both ancient and modern societies at all stages of their development, scholars have traveled many different roads seeking common elements that would justify the organization of food customs into intelligible categories. For example, writers since Moses Maimonides (d. 1204) have suggested that hygiene motivated the Jewish food taboos. Maimonides said that pork contained too much moisture and so caused indigestion and denounced the filthiness of pigs; moderns have pointed to the danger of trichinosis from undercooked pork. The facts that parasitic diseases were not recognized until the nineteenth century and that permitted foods may also bear disease work against this perspective, though the experience of consequences as a factor in food taboos also forms part of an evolutionary perspective that could have some validity.

On the other hand, China developed a system of food wisdom even more elaborate than that of the Jews, and just as concerned with health and with spiritual well-being, without any taboos at all. As anthropologist Marvin Harris has said, the Jewish law could have completely eliminated trichinosis by outlawing undercooked pork. Clearly, the social structure and circumstances of each society need to be considered in understanding how the world's religions regulate food.

In Purity and Danger (1966), Mary Douglas focused on spiritual pollution as a common element in food taboos. Following the perspective of Émile Durkheim, Douglas argued that religions provide their adherents with a sense of identity. Identity is constructed through patterns of social behavior, such as those involved in the production, preparation, and consumption of food. Cleanliness, in this context, becomes an attribute of anything that strengthens group identity by contributing to the order of the universe. Applying this perspective to Judaism, Douglas saw the law of Moses as dividing the world into three types of creatures: those whose natural environment is either land, sea, or sky (see Lev. 12 and the creation story of Genesis). Creatures that seem "mixed," such as flightless birds or animals that live in the sea without fins (or with legs, like lobsters and crabs), are taboo.

Following this reasoning, pork becomes "unclean" because it violates another category, that dividing Israel from its neighbors. Douglas noted the command to be holy that surrounded the passages on food in the Torah, and she observed that the root meaning of the Hebrew kadosh, translated "holiness," is "to set apart or to cut off." According to the Torah, holiness is an attribute of God, and God wants Israel to be holy; therefore, Israelites must not eat the pork (or many other foods) that their Canaanite and Egyptian neighbors ate. The prohibition of pork would then be one of many laws, such as those prohibiting intermarriage with Canaanites or prohibiting any image of Israel's God, that were meant to keep the identity of Israel cleanly defined, or "holy." Though this argument has some force, it remains true that Israel borrowed many things, such as the architecture of the Temple and the words of many Psalms, from Canaanite models. The modern sense of ancient Israel's uniqueness may reveal as much about the work of later rabbis and the need of Christians to find heroic origins for their own religion as it does about the reasons for ancient Israelite law.

Observing that Muslims also do not eat pork, though they do eat camels and other animals prohibited by the Torah, Marvin Harris offered an evolutionary perspective on this law, contending that religions tend to promote behaviors that help their followers to survive. At first this would seem paradoxical with regard to a pork taboo, because the pig is a very efficient source of protein, converting food to meat much more quickly than other animals. However, Harris noted, in arid climates the pig becomes very expensive with regard to water; he finds that the Christian-Muslim divide in the Balkans corresponds to a divide between heavily forested land, friendly to pigs, and dry regions. Harris used the same reasoning to explain why the Aryans, who ate cattle before entering the dry Indian subcontinent, came to revere "mother cow" and to use her only for plowing and hauling and for milk as Hinduism developed.

Psychoanalytic explanations for food customs have begun from the infantmother bond in nursing and the instinctual relations that this may establish between eating and sex. Many cultures, from the Lele of West Africa to modern Orthodox Jews, have forbidden women from cooking during menstruation; the Bemba of central Africa keep children from eating food prepared by those who have not purified themselves by a ritual after sex. Perhaps the command of the Torah not to boil a kid in its mother's milk arose in order to forbid a kind of culinary incest that Canaanites practiced to promote fertility. Japanese menus still offer a "mother-child udon," or bowl of noodles that contains both chicken and egg, and the title still makes some diners cringe.

Seeking a psychological root for food rules in the realms of cognition and linguistics, Claude Lévi-Strauss proposed that all thought and language begins with binary oppositions such as self/other, human/animal, and nature/culture. In the domain of food, objects are classified according to the binary of cooked/rotten, between which the midpoint is raw. Lévi-Strauss classified the processes of food preparation, beginning with roasting, boiling, and smoking, along the continuum between cooked and rotten. He concluded that roasted food remained most similar to the raw and therefore was understood as possessing the most natural strength and prestige, while boiled food stood closer to rotten, weaker but more civilized, because boiling required a pot rather than a spit, and also more closely associated with rebirth (as in the cauldron of immortality that appears in many cultures). Lévi-Strauss thought that processes like frying, baking, and smoking, with variation depending on oils and spices, could be located along the same continuum between cooked and rotten in every civilization.

Abandoning the quest for universal systems, such functional anthropologists as A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, Bronislaw Malinowski, and Franz Boas have emphasized that every social group must be understood on its own terms, and that food forms part of a system that both expresses and reinforces the roles people play in helping the group to function. For example, they would say, women who contribute large dowries and exercise authority tend to eat with men of the same social status and to eat the same foods, while women in polygamous families who exercise no authority eat with the children and eat different foods. From this perspective, taboos on menstruating women preparing food arise from the definition of women by their availability for sex and for childbirth. Taboos on specific foods may reflect the low status (or the status as enemies) of people who possess that food.

Anthropologists have also observed symbolic uses of food that seem suitable to societies at various levels of social and technological development. Research has revealed, for example, that hunter-gatherer societies have much in common, whether they live in desert regions, the Arctic, India, or Africa. According to Joseph Campbell, one of the earliest analysts of world mythologies, hunter-gatherers tend to address prayer and sacrifice to a cosmic force (or a god) that stands apart, acting as master of the game animals. Campbell went on to say that when a group takes up agriculture, rituals and myths appear in which the cosmic force or god dwells within the object sacrificed, so that the sacrifice brings forth its own effects. The development of large communities with formal political authority brings another stage, at which large festivals and more serious sacrifice (often demanding human victims) begins to be seen as necessary to renew the supply of food each year. The human sacrifices of ancient China before the Shang dynasty, of ancient Rome in the arenas, and of the Incas and Aztecs in America lend some plausibility to this view.

Food in the Recent History of Religions

Since the worldwide distribution of foods that began with Columbus after 1492, and especially since the emergence of the empirical science of chemistry around 1650, a revolution has taken place with regard to the values placed upon food, at least in the Western world. Before then, both life and digestion were thought of as processes that resembled cooking, and the foods considered best were those that had cooked longest, with the most complex sets of ingredients, so that they could balance the humors of the body. The blancmange and the puddings of England and France, served with cooked drinks and spiced wines, the moles and sauces of Latin America, and the samosas and curries of India survive from those days. But after the seventeenth century, fermentation became the model of life, and high value was placed on fresh and roasted foods that could spoil quickly. Roasted meats, salads, fruits, and clear or sparkling wines came to dominate the tables of the West.

The goal of diet wisdom shifted from maintaining balance to returning to nature. Sometimes food became the means to a spiritual goal, expressed in terms of returning to nature or even regaining the innocence of Eden. Especially in the United States and in England, partisans of "diet reform," a program that advocated whole-grain flour, a minimum of cooking, and often vegetarianism, attempted to engage the conscience of the Christian world. Religious leaders like Sylvester Graham, a former minister and inventor of Graham flour, and John Harvey Kellogg, physician and inventor of the corn flake, profoundly influenced eating habits. Whole denominations, such as Kellogg's Seventh-day Adventists, emerged to embrace vegetarianism. Pledges against all use of alcohol prevailed among the Methodists, Baptists, Mormons, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and even some Roman Catholics of the United States, until the nation passed a constitutional amendment prohibiting alcohol in 1919. The failure of Prohibition did not end the connection between diet and righteousness for American Christians. As Daniel Sack has documented, the menus of church suppers shifted from steak, brandy, and cigars in the 1890s to a mixture of ethnic foods in the 1950s to tofu and sprouts in the 1970s and then to starvation dinners, dramatizing the problem of world hunger, in the 1990s.

Food and Social Justice

In the twentieth century, many Christians, especially in the United States and England, began to see food as a primary field of social action and ethical responsibility. The Salvation Army, the Catholic Worker movement, the Universal House of Prayer, and many individual churches made soup kitchens and pantries for the poor into the center of their mission. Such organizations as CARE, Oxfam, and Bread for the Worlda specifically Christian lobbying group, incorporated in Washington to influence U.S. policytried to ameliorate the unequal distribution of food in the world. Theorists including Arthur Simon of Bread for the World and Francis Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, argued that meat consumption stole grain from the starving and pointed out the inequities of a world market in which such food-exporting countries as the Philippines sent fruit to the United States while their own people starved. Several boycotts of food engaged religious groups and had clear effects: a boycott of California grapes in the 1960s helped to organize farmworkers; a boycott of Nestlé products in the 1980s modified the company's policy of promoting infant formula to women who could not get clean water; a boycott of Campbell's soup led to the company negotiating with its workers. Concern for animal rights led to a new kind of vegetarianism, in which people abstained from meat not because they were fasting or avoiding bad karma, but because industrial farm conditions seemed inhumane or because animals were seen as sentient beings whose right to live equaled that of a human.


The profusion of meat, potatoes, tomatoes, and corn from the Americas added new whole foods to the world's diet. Industrialization and modern transportation, refrigeration and freezing, petrochemical fertilizers, and hydrogenated fats and genetically modified crops have made vast resources available to the rich and the middle classes of all nations, while the world market in food has sometimes exacerbated inequities and hunger. Millions who once lived in stable, subsistence economies now work in industry for more money but run the risk of famine.

Resistance against and adaptation to globalization have sometimes taken religious forms. In 2003, U.S. military actions in the Muslim world sparked both a boycott of American products and the development of substitutes, such as Qibla Cola and Mecca Cola. Globalizing corporations have also shown a willingness to adapt to religious preferences: in India, McDonald's offered an extensive vegetarian menu, including the Maharaja Mac and eggless mayonnaise, prepared in separate kitchen areas by staff wearing green aprons. Even the nonvegetarian section served no beef but only chicken burgers and curry. Meanwhile in Israel, at the start of the twenty-first century, all 110 McDonald's guaranteed kosher beef, while seven were actually kosher restaurants, serving no dairy and closing on the Sabbath. Seventy-one McDonald's were operating in Saudi Arabia in the early twenty-first century, including two in Mecca, observing Muslim food laws. Both Detroit, Michigan, and Sydney, Australia, had alāl McDonald's, where potatoes are fried without animal fat and all meat is slaughtered by Muslim butchers. Increasing numbers of immigrants and people exploring their heritage in every part of the world have given evidence that food customs often provide the most enduring forms of religious practice.

See Also

Agriculture; Beverages; Bread; Cannibalism; Fasting; Kashrut; Leaven; Sacrifice; Salt; Taboo.


Anderson, E. N. The Food of China. New Haven, Conn., 1988. A comprehensive treatment of the cosmological theories and the history linking Chinese religions and food.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast. Berkeley, Calif., 1985. Explores the meaning of abstinence from food among medieval women mystics.

Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God, vol. 1, Primitive Mythology. New York, 1959. Food myths of planters and hunters are discussed in this important work.

Counihan, Carole, and Penny Van Esterik, eds, Food and Culture: A Reader. New York, 1997. Perspectives on food from Anna Freud and Margaret Mead to recent analyses of anorexia and globalization.

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York, 1966. An excellent study of how food customs mirror the patterning of a society. Douglas's approach applies equally to secular and to religious life, ancient and modern.

Eliade, Mircea. Patterns in Comparative Religion. New York, 1958. Chapter 8 of this classic deals with "Vegetation: Rites and Symbols of Regeneration" and chapter 9 with "Agriculture and Fertility Cults."

Engs, Ruth Clifford. Clean Living Movements: American Cycles of Health Reform. Westport, Conn., 2000. Provides background on the religions of health that have shaped American attitudes toward food.

Fernandez-Armento, Felipe. Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food. New York, 2002. Readable, Western-oriented story of food in history.

Goody, Jack. Cooking, Cuisine and Class: A Study in Comparative Sociology. Cambridge, U.K., 1982. Begins with a summary of the advances made by anthropologists and sociologists in their study of food customs. Compares differences in African and Eurasian cuisine as reflections of their different social structures.

Greenberg, Blu. How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household. New York, 1985. Intelligent, inside account of running a kosher kitchen.

Harris, Marvin. Good to Eat: Riddles of Food and Culture. London, 1985. Food customs explained from a Darwinian, evolutionary perspective.

Khare, R. S., ed. The Eternal Food: Gastronomic Ideas and Experiences of Hindus and Buddhists. Albany, N.Y., 1992. Excellent selection of articles on the practical uses of food in worship and in diet advice by Hindus and Buddhists.

Lappe, Francis Moore. Diet for a Small Planet. New York, 1971; updated editions, 1991 and 2002. Classic statement of the modern vegetarian movement.

Laudan, Rachel. "Birth of the Modern Diet." Scientific American 283, no. 2 (August 2000): 7681. Connects advances in chemistry with wisdom regarding health and food.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. "The Culinary Triangle." In The Origin of Table Manners: Introduction to a Science of Mythology, vol. 3. New York, 1968. Seeks the structure of a universal grammar behind cooking techniques across cultures.

Meigs, Anna. Food, Sex, and Pollution: A New Guinea Religion. Piscataway, N.J., 1984.

Sack, Daniel. Whitebread Protestants: Food and Religion in American Culture. New York, 2001. An amusing and insightful account of the evolution of communion elements and church suppers in the United States.

James E. Latham (1987)

Peter Gardella (2005)


views updated May 23 2018


I WORLD PROBLEMSNevin S. Scrimshaw





Low per capita food production and high rates of population growth in underdeveloped areas cause food shortages in many less developed countries, particularly in tropical and semitropical regions. Even though 60 to 80 per cent of the people in these countries are engaged in farming, their productivity is so low that it does not meet the needs of the population. By contrast, in some industrialized countries less than 8 per cent of the population is engaged in an agricultural industry that produces vast surpluses. Although these surpluses help to meet the needs of many other parts of the world, malnutrition is widespread and persistent in the underdeveloped areas and is responsible for much of the high mortality in these areas, whether by itself or in combination with infections of various types.

Factors limiting adequate food production are primarily social and economic rather than physical. The lack of knowledge and the illiteracy of the rural population complicate attempts to increase food production as well as to control population in underdeveloped countries. Long-standing customs, limited agricultural training activities, and inadequate storage and distribution facilities help to perpetuate low agricultural production in these areas. Lack of the tools of scientific agriculture and scarcity of money or credit for their purchase are major additional factors. Moreover, this inadequacy of the food supply is part of a vicious circle that keeps productivity low: malnourished populations are more vulnerable to disease and less capable of sustained work than are well-nourished populations.

Continued increases in food production can be anticipated in most of the less developed countries although in many areas they will not be large enough to maintain adequate per capita food supplies. The additional food necessary to give at least a subsistence ration to most persons is likely to continue to come from the food surpluses of the industrialized countries and to be augmented by the exploitation of new protein sources.

The over-all world food supply is failing to keep pace with population growth but is not yet limiting the world’s explosive population increase (Food and Agriculture Organization . . . 1966).

Food and history . The replacement of exclusive dependence upon hunting, fishing, and gathering by the beginnings of agriculture was the first great step in human development. The rate and scope of social evolution have depended to a major extent on the development of more effective means of obtaining food. In primitive cultures, man’s struggle for food consumes most of his time, thought, and energy. The creation of a surplus of food over and above what is needed to live leads to successive refinements in the subdivision of labor, which in turn make possible social and technical advances and thus the production of even greater quantities of food.

For millennia the food supply was a major factor limiting the growth of human populations and determining their density in any particular area. It is only in the last century that improvements in agricultural production have become sufficiently widespread to remove food as the limiting factor in most population growth. In combination with improved control and prevention of infectious and other diseases, an exponential increase in numbers of people has been the result.

Pressure for good agricultural land for the production of food has been a major factor in the turbulent warfare of the historical record. Crop failures have resulted in population losses through death and emigration, which have impoverished and impeded the social and economic development of populations and even whole countries. For example, Ireland has never recovered from the high losses from starvation and emigration as a direct consequence of the potato famine of the 1840s; the political history of the United States and Canada has perhaps been equally changed by hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants. Another example of the importance of food problems is found in the major political and economic consequences of the failure of agricultural production in the communist countries.

Contemporary problems

Paradoxically, the principal nutrition problem of the industrialized countries today is one of overeating, with a consequent increase in obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and hypertension. [See OBESITY.]

In contrast, nutritional difficulties in underdeveloped countries are similar to those experienced in the industrialized countries 50 to 100 years ago. Children under five years of age and, to a lesser extent, pregnant and nursing mothers are most affected.

Common deficiencies . The most common severe nutritional deficiencies are those of protein and vitamin A. The best indicator of the prevalence of protein deficiency (“kwashiorkor”) is the mortality rate for children one to five years of age, which is commonly 20 to 50 times higher in underdeveloped countries than in areas like western Europe, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. Infant mortality rates (deaths of children under one year of age) are two to four times higher in most less developed countries than in those that are industrialized. Early weaning with improper substitutes and inadequate supplementation of breast milk are important factors in high mortality rates for infants who survive the dangerous first months of life.

Vitamin A deficiency is also most common among preschool children; it causes severe eye lesions which often result in blindness. In Indonesia and other countries of southeast Asia, deaths from secondary infection are particularly common in children with vitamin A deficiency. This deficiency could be readily prevented by the green and yellow vegetables that are, or could be, widely available in most countries.

Another common problem—marasmus, or partial starvation—is seen most often among infants who have been prematurely weaned and fed watery gruels that are deficient in both calories and protein. A form of acute thiamine deficiency (infantile beriberi) is a cause of death among nursing infants in some southeast Asian countries, where a polished rice diet results in thiamine (vitamin BO deficiency in mothers. Beriberi also still occurs among many adults in these areas. Pellagra, caused by inadequate niacin and tryptophan intake, is seen in those populations of Africa that subsist on maize as the principal staple, but it is seldom seen in the maize-eating populations of Latin America, where additional niacin is provided by both beans and coffee.

Women experiencing repeated cycles of pregnancy and lactation are likely to develop iron deficiency anemia, loss of bone calcium, and reduced lean body mass. Malnutrition in other adults is less common, except in times of famine, although individuals unable to obtain work, or too old or sick to work, may be seriously undernourished because they cannot afford to buy adequate food. Alcoholism is a common cause of malnutrition in both underdeveloped and industrialized countries because money is spent on alcohol rather than on proper food.

The cost of malnutrition . The cost of malnutrition to less developed areas is exceedingly high; it includes the waste of resources in rearing infants who die before they can become useful citizens and the reduced working capacity of malnourished adults. From a quarter to a third or more of the children die before they reach school age, largely from infections that would not be fatal to a well-nourished child or from clinical malnutrition precipitated by a prior episode of acute infectious disease (Scrimshaw 1966). Nearly all children among the less privileged populations of underdeveloped countries show retarded growth and development at the time they reach school age; and although they are rarely seriously malnourished during school years, they do not make up for the deficit acquired during preschool years. Recent evidence suggests that the retardation in physical development in infancy is paralleled by impaired mental development, which is probably permanent. This means that the future development of a country is compromised by serious malnutrition in young children. Moreover, attempts to provide adequate medical care are complicated and made more costly by both the greater amount and the longer duration of illness of both malnourished children and adults.

An unfortunate aspect of malnutrition in adults is that the workers so adapt themselves to malnutrition by reduced vitality and activity that they scarcely realize they are underfed. The final result is lethargy, lack of drive, and loss of initiative. For both industrial and farm workers it leads to absenteeism because of sickness and to higher accident rates because of early fatigue. In general, the countries of the world with the lowest per capita consumption of food are also those where the efficiency of the workers is lowest.

Reasons for malnutrition

Although for the world as a whole the long-term trend of per capita food production has been upward, there has been a decline in per capita food production in communist Asia and in India, as well as in many parts of Latin America and southeast Asia (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 1963). If the high population growth rates in the less developed countries increase as projected, still more of these countries will soon be unable to maintain present levels of per capita food production. It is important to recognize that increased food needs will continue to arise not only from a growing population but also from greater per capita income. As people in the less developed countries improve their financial status, much of the increase is spent for food. In some countries where food production has not kept pace, this situation has led to a substantial rise in imports of food, and in others the effect of growth in income has been balanced by rising food prices. Either result has serious economic and political consequences.

Using food shipments from regions of high per capita productivity to meet part of the food needs of the increased numbers of people in the less developed countries is not a satisfactory solution, because it involves considerable problems of transporting and financing, which are further complicated by political issues. Ideally, adequate food production should be achieved in each area, unless foreign exchange is available for food purchases from cash crop or industrial exports.

Physical waste . Unfortunately, the largest loss of food to insects and rodents occurs in those countries with the greatest food shortages. For example, in some of the grain storage bins of India, the loss to rodents alone is over 30 per cent. Conservative official estimates of total such preventable food losses in India indicate that they are greater than the present large annual food deficit and constitute at least 25 per cent of the total grain production; if such losses were prevented, India would have food for export.

In tropical regions of the food-short countries, mold causes additional spoilage. In the case of peanuts, an important source of protein in Africa and India, one type of mold (Aspergillus ftavus) produces a substance called “aflatoxin,” which even in trace amounts is highly carcinogenic for experimental animals. This mold also grows freely on cereal grains, sweet potatoes, and legumes, and even slightly moldy food is likely to be unfit for human consumption. Lack of refrigeration also results in spoilage of fruits and vegetables, which are a glut on the market when in season and unavailable or prohibitively expensive the rest of the time.

The great majority of the malnourished populations of the world depends on either a cereal staple such as rice, wheat, or corn, or starchy roots such as manioc or potatoes. The former are more nutritious, but the latter produce more calories per acre, require less labor, and are somewhat easier to store without serious loss.

Cultural waste . It is a mistake to conclude that the malnutrition of less developed areas is solely due to inadequate food production, lack of storage facilities, or even lack of purchasing power. Ignorance of the nutritional needs of young children and lack of understanding of the relationship between food and health are of equal or greater importance. The failure to give any food supplement to breast-fed infants before 9 to 12 months of age in many countries; the use of rice-water, barley-water, cornstarch or even sugar-water as a weaning food; and the variety of taboos surrounding the giving of eggs to young children are examples of common practices which lead to malnutrition and death of children under five years of age, even among families whose older children and adults do not suffer from malnutrition. In underdeveloped countries, one often sees a critically malnourished child with a woman who is wearing new clothes and jewelry and who is totally unaware of the true reason her child is dying.

The various erroneous beliefs surrounding the proper feeding of children with infections are often the most important factors in the chain of multiple causation leading to acute nutritional disease. For example, in both south India and Central America children with measles are given water in which a small amount of cereal and various local herbs has been cooked—a diet grossly deficient in protein and calories. Such beliefs also cause the family to spend money for charms, ceremonies, and useless proprietary medicines.

In underdeveloped areas the seemingly irrational beliefs regarding food may be quite elaborate. Particularly common is the practice of classifying foods and prohibiting certain combinations. In Peru, for instance, foods are “hot, cold, heavy, or light.” A complex of beliefs indicates when and to whom a given class of foods can be fed. Certain classes of food are considered appropriate or inappropriate, without relation to their nutritive value, at times such as pregnancy or during one or another illness. Few societies recognize the true relationship of foods to health.

Improving production and conservation

The yield increases of the industrialized countries are due to chemicals, mechanization, good seeds and animal breeds, and their effective use. Chemicals and machinery could achieve miracles in the less developed areas, but they require greater capital investment and know-how than are presently available. Selective breeding of plants and animals could also be extremely effective: types of both have been developed which are much more productive and sometimes also more resistant to disease. For example, virus-resisting potatoes, rust-resistant wheat, hybrid corn and, most recently, high lysine corn and gossypol-free cottonseed are part of the “miracle” of food production in the industrialized countries, along with greatly improved breeds of poultry, cattle, sheep, and swine.

Some of these superior varieties can be introduced directly into less developed countries, but most require additional research for their adaptation to different environmental conditions. Agricultural research and its application through agricultural extension have been a major factor in high yields in the developed countries. Production of most improved varieties requires considerable knowledge of scientific agriculture as well as much initial capital investment, and the education of government officials is also an important factor. Poorly informed administrative and policy officials often block the efforts of extension workers and farmers by ill-considered taxes or import controls, unwise emphasis on cash crops, neglect of agricultural research, indifference or hostility to producer cooperatives, and failure to provide for rural credit.

Limiting physical waste . Solution of the food problems of less developed areas will require extensive improvements in the conservation and handling of food as well as in its production. Of first importance is reducing preventable food losses through the use of insecticides and rodenticides, construction of rat-proof and dry storage facilities, fumigation of grain, and improved distribution by using protective packaging materials and more rapid transportation. Controlled atmosphere and cold storage facilities are useful for some seasonal and highly perishable crops, and refrigeration is essential for the proper conservation of meat, poultry, and fish.

Smoking and salting are simple and effective means of preserving meat and fish for adult consumption, but in general they do not provide food that is suitable as major protein sources for infants and young children. Sun-drying is widely used for many foods, but this has serious limitations in a hot, moist climate, especially when proper storage conditions are unavailable. Using artificial heat is more costly and involves the same problems of storage and packaging. Thermal processing or canning represents a big economic step because it requires scalable containers as well as higher temperatures. In industrialized countries spray-drying has been extensively employed for milk and a variety of other products that are fluid before processing. Obviously, the handling of frozen foods in tropical underdeveloped countries in the early stages of industrial development poses problems that preclude the widespread application of freezing as a method of food storage. Freeze-drying seems too expensive to apply to food staples, but the shelf life of certain types of food may be extended by low doses of ionizing radiation. Chemical preservatives and other additives that have been important in the efficient utilization of the food supply in modern nations are also needed in underdeveloped countries. Examples are antioxidants to slow down the process by which fats become rancid and propionates to inhibit molds.

New food sources . Nutritional requirements can be satisfied by an adequate source of calories and sufficient quantities of each of the essential amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals in any utilizable form, whether natural or synthetic. There are many compelling reasons why most nutrients will continue to be supplied largely from plants and animals for a long time to come, but new and exotic sources of food are being explored.

Oilseed meals, such as cottonseed flour, can serve as valuable new sources of proteins provided that they are carefully processed. Furthermore, much nutritional benefit can be derived from the enrichment of certain foods. For example, the quality of most protein-containing foods of vegetable origin can be improved by combining them with foods of complementary essential amino acid content or by adding the missing amino acids in synthetic form. Other examples include the enrichment of salt with potassium iodide for the prevention of goiter, a measure which has proved as practical and effective in Guatemala and Colombia as in the United States and Switzerland; the prevention of beriberi and pellagra by the addition of B-complex vitamins to cereal products; the enrichment of margarine and skim milk with vitamins A and D so that they are nutritionally acceptable substitutes for butter and whole milk, respectively, and the addition of the amino acid lysine to wheat and wheat flour.

In a number of underdeveloped areas where milk cannot be depended upon to furnish needed protein, vegetable mixtures that were developed to serve this purpose are proving to be commercially successful and are bringing about important nutritional improvements. Furthermore, the world catch of marine fish has increased enormously in recent years, and processes have been developed for the production of a low-cost fish protein concentrate. In the meantime, fresh, canned, and smoked fish are compensating for the protein inadequacy of the diet in Japan and a number of other countries. Attempts to use algae, green leaves, and even grass as sources of protein have met with little success because of poor palatability and excessive costs, but this could be changed by technological developments. Other possible protein sources are food yeast, which can be grown with several inexpensive carbohydrates, such as molasses and sulfite liquor of the paper industry. Other microorganisms can be produced by using petroleum by-products or natural gas as their source of energy.

Synthetic foods. Palatable synthetic foods simulating bacon, hamburger, ham, chicken, fish, and scallops have already been developed from soy protein isolate. Protein fibers are spun like nylon and reconstituted into textured foods that can be flavored in any desired manner. At present these are as expensive as the foods they simulate, but as the number of mouths to feed increases and costs of the process are brought down they are likely to prove useful. The nutritional needs of the body can already be reduced to chemically known substances that can be synthesized or extracted from natural products. To meet the demands of an enormously increased world population, the eventual use of wholly synthetic foods seems likely. Ironically, most of the efforts to achieve this are being stimulated by the nutritional requirements of man in space rather than by terrestrial food problems.

Social science research . Much of the malnutrition in the world today, particularly among young children, can be prevented by changes in feeding practices. Increased production and purchasing power will not alone automatically eliminate malnutrition; too often the additional money is spent on soft drinks, alcohol, or other consumer items that will not improve inadequate diets. Nutritional education must be a major part of efforts to eliminate malnutrition.

There is much that the social scientist can contribute to solving world food problems. Persons responsible for nutrition and health education need to understand the reasons for food practices and beliefs, yet these have too often been neglected by social scientists even when studying a culture in detail. Even less research has been done on the most appropriate and effective means of inculcating food habits in various cultures (See Mead 1943; 1964).

An exception was the introduction in Guatemala of the low-cost protein-rich vegetable mixture, In-caparina, which benefited from preliminary field studies by anthropologists. The success of this product is attributable in large part to its introduction as a variant on the traditional atole rather than as a new food product. It will not always be possible to use this technique, for new foods often will have no local counterpart. The guidance of social scientists who have made advance studies will be particularly needed for the introduction of products that have never before been used for human feeding, such as fish protein concentrate or bacterial protein.

There is also need to study changes in food habits or attempts to impose new foods, for their impact on other aspects of culture. Gifts of unfamiliar surplus foods may simply be unused or they can upset patterns of life that are oriented about indigenous staples. Authoritarian methods of forcing nutritional standards on a child or a community may endanger cooperation in other important matters.

A major obstacle to introducing agricultural techniques is the lack of local technological knowledge and competence. Agricultural extension agents and teachers often attempt to induce change blindly without understanding the existing beliefs and traditions that they are trying to alter. Similarly, although technology is making rapid progress in devising practical techniques for family planning, motivating people to make use of them remains a problem. In order to make such programs more effective, there is an urgent need for studies of the ways in which the desired changes can be achieved.

The agricultural revolution

The world is now in the midst of a revolution in food production, conservation, and distribution that is as far-reaching in its effects on societies as the original development of agriculture; it is comparable in significance to the industrial revolution, with which it is closely allied. Farm production in the industrialized countries has risen spectacularly within a few decades, simultaneously with a sharp reduction in the numbers of persons engaged in farming and the actual amount of land under cultivation. This has meant food for greatly increased numbers of people. Equally important, the workers no longer needed in agriculture are freed for the production of consumer goods and services to an extent beyond any previously seen in history. It is this freedom which has made possible modern economic and social development.

With the need for farm labor decreasing, the cities of the industrialized countries have received the increase in population. Nevertheless, food production in these countries is rising despite the diminishing farm population, thus providing enough food for the growing urban markets. In many of the less developed countries, population is outgrowing available land, and people from the rural areas are migrating to the cities in ever larger numbers. However, in most such countries farming remains largely at subsistence levels, and transportation and storage facilities are inadequate to meet the demands of the cities for food distribution.

An efficient agriculture thus becomes a prime requisite of economic and social development. Subsistence agriculture adds nothing to the national economy; and until enough farm families contribute to meeting the food needs of urban families, the manpower and capital required for industrialization will not be available. Once food production rises sufficiently to provide a firm basis for economic and social development, the process tends to accelerate. Research results accumulate and are applied; capital is amassed and invested; machines are constructed and put to work. As the process continues, more and more people are available, educated, and trained for the complex tasks of a technically advanced society. Unless the health and intelligence of the people are such that they can make good use of modern knowledge and technology, no amount of investment in material things can ensure satisfactory social and economic development. A good food supply is needed to prevent excessive morbidity and mortality from disease as well as the poor learning and working capacity that result from malnutrition. At present, the growing per capita shortage of food in many countries will continue to thwart the ambitions and make a mockery of the goals of economic planners.


[Other relevant material may be found inAGRICULTURE; MORTALITY; POPULATION, article onPOPULATION GROWTH; TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE; and in the biography ofSAUER.]


ALTSCHUL, AARON M. 1965 Proteins: Their Chemistry and Politics. New York: Basic Books.

BROWN, LESTER R. 1963 Man, Land and Food: Looking Ahead at World Needs. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Foreign Agricultural Economic Report No. 11. Washington: Government Printing Office.

BROWN, LESTER R. 1965 Increasing World Food Output. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Foreign Agricultural Economic Report No. 25. Washington: Government Printing Office.

BURGESS, ANNE; and DEAN, REGINALD F. A. (editors) 1962 Malnutrition and Food Habits: Report of an International and Interprofessional Conference. New York: Macmillan.

CONFERENCE ON MEETING PROTEIN NEEDS OF INFANTS AND PRESCHOOL CHILDREN, WASHINGTON, D.C., 1960 1961 Progress in Meeting Protein Needs of Infants and Preschool Children: Proceedings. . . . National Research Council Publication No. 843. Washington: National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council.

FOOD AND AGRICULTURE ORGANIZATION OF THE UNITED NATIONS The State of Food and Agriculture. ⇒ Published since 1947. The authoritative annual review of developments in the world food and agricultural situation. See especially the 1966 volume.

FOOD AND AGRICULTURE ORGANIZATION OF THE UNITED NATIONS 1963 Third World Food Survey. Freedom From Hunger Campaign Basic Study No. 11. Rome: FAO.

JELLIFFE, D. B. 1955 Infant Nutrition in the Subtropics and Tropics. Monograph Series, No. 29. Geneva: World Health Organization.

MEAD, MARGARET 1943 The Problem of Changing Food Habits. Pages 20-31 in National Research Council, Committee on Food Habits, The Problem of Changing Food Habits: Report of the Committee on Food Habits; 1941-1943. National Research Council Bulletin No. 108. Washington: National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council.

MEAD, MARGARET 1964 Food Habits Research: Problems of the 1960’s. National Research Council Publication No. 1225. Washington: National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council.

RITCHIE, JEAN A. S. 1950 Teaching Better Nutrition: A Study of Approaches and Techniques. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Nutritional Studies, No. 6. Washington: Government Printing Office.

SCRIMSHAW, NEVIN S. 1966 The Effect of the Interaction of Nutrition and Infection on the Pre-school Child. In International Conference on Prevention of Malnutrition in the Pre-school Child, Washington, D.C., 1964, Pre-school Child Malnutrition: Primary Deterrent to Human Progress. National Research Council Publication No. 1282. Washington: National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council.


The consumption of food, like other biologically supportive activities, is an aspect of cultural behavior. In no society are people permitted to eat everything, everywhere, with everyone, and in all situations. Instead, the consumption of food is governed by rules and usages which cut across each other at different levels of symbolization. These symbolizations define the social contexts and groupings within which food—or a particular kind of food—is consumed, and prohibit or taboo the consumption of particular foods. An important dimension of the social contexts regulating the consumption of food is the principle that patterns of consumption and distribution must be examined as one. For example, there are some societies in which it is believed that a person will die if he eats food which he has grown himself, while in others it is felt that a person may eat only food which he himself has grown or acquired by purchase or other exchange. Between these two extremes are several other patterns.

In all societies the distribution and consumption of food is an expression of a variety of social relationships: those of social proximity and distance, religious-ritual fraternity and status, political superordination and subordination, bonds within and between families, and the like. The definition of food, its distribution, and its consumption always take place with reference to individuals as occupants of statuses and categories within institutionalized groupings.

In other words, food is used symbolically to represent only some social forms and personal feelings in a society, and these are usually among the important forms and personal feelings in the group’s life. Thus, by noting the specific and bounded social contexts—clan, village, in-law relationships, friendship, and the like—within which food is employed symbolically, it is often possible to infer which are the important groupings and relationships within the society. For example, a taboo on eating the totemic animals associated with one’s clan is indicative of the significance of clans in the organization of the society’s institutions; it is not the taboo per se which suggests the importance of clan relationships but the fact that some rule governing the consumption of food—in this case, forbidding it—is associated with the clan. Why clans usually prohibit their members from eating the animals associated with these groups is a separate question, and one about which there is still considerable uncertainty.

Among some Melanesian people the rule that a man must give part of the harvest of a crop to his sister, while his wife receives a similar prestation from her brother, provides a clue to the importance of certain matrilineal ties; in societies that have a caste system the rule that the members of different castes may not eat together indicates the importance of formal distance between castes as well as the caste organization itself. Correlatively, when food ceases to be employed as a vehicle for the expression of social sentiments within a grouping, e.g., in a clan, or when proscriptions concerning the consumption of food are attacked, it can be assumed that significant changes are taking place in the socioeconomic structure of that society.

The rules governing the distribution of food within a society reflect and reinforce prevailing ethical and moral orientations in that society. For example, when the government of the United States willingly distributes food supplies to poor people in other societies but not within American society itself, it appears that its dominant values implicitly tend to define poverty as an indication of moral failure, if not as sinful. Hence, the assumption often appears to be that if there were gratuitous distributions of food to poor Americans, such action would be construed as reward or even approval of such moral failure. But since it is characteristic that the criteria pertaining to the distribution of food within a social system differ entirely from those relating to other groupings or societies, American society can make prestations of food to people in other societies while refusing (or being unable) to do so within its own social boundaries.

Almost every society defines a few foods as acceptable for consumption under some circumstances but wholly unacceptable in others. For example, foods which are associated with amusement and relaxation are usually considered inappropriate to ritual or ceremonial occasions. In pluralistic and stratified societies, most foods which are grown indigenously are eaten by people in all groups; however, in almost all such societies, there are a few foods and drinks which are not universal or which will be consumed by members of different groups in different contexts or situations. Thus, for example, the same alcoholic beverages in a pluralistic society will be drunk under different conditions and in entirely different places by members of different groups. Such definitions both symbolize and reinforce the consciousness of separateness and distance existing between bounded groups in pluralistic and stratified societies.

For reasons which are not yet completely clear, the major transitional crises of the life cycle—the rites de passage —are marked in almost all societies by ritual or ceremonial distribution and consumption of food. One possible hypothesis to explain these nearly universal customs is that each of the three transitional crises (birth, marriage, death) initiates a significant alteration in socioeconomic relationships and reciprocities and that these are symbolically noted in displays, distributions, prestations, token exchanges, and consumption of food. An individual’s birth automatically establishes reciprocal rights and duties between him and others to whom he is related in a series of interlocking social networks; marriage in all societies is a transitional ceremony which establishes bonds and reciprocities between the kin groups of the marrying couple; an individual’s death terminates, and requires readjustments in, reciprocal economic relationships.

In addition to these ritual celebrations through distribution and consumption of food, as well as other forms of wealth (e.g., bride wealth), a great many societies celebrate historical or ceremonial events according to calendrical systems. These recurrent and fixed celebrations are usually governed by ritual consumptions of food, as in the American Thanksgiving feast or in the custom of many Americans to celebrate their Independence Day with family picnics. Calendrically regulated religious events are similarly celebrated.

One of the fundamental principles governing the organization of social relationships in all societies is the division of labor by sex; most societies also stipulate divisions of labor according to the additional criteria of age, status or ranking, group membership, and the like. Although the division of labor is most apparent in the production of food, it also plays a major role in the consumption of food. There is probably considerable, even systematic, overlap between rules governing the division of productive labor and those governing food consumption, of which kinship is undoubtedly of prime importance; thus far, little work has been done on this problem. A possible model for such an analysis would be a horticultural society in which the wife does most of the productive work, raising food which her husband then gives to his sister.

The distribution and consumption of food within the nuclear family also symbolize institutionalized relationships. For example, among the Tallensi of west Africa there are many expressions of the separateness of father and son and of the father’s absolute authority. One of these symbolizations is the rule that a son may not look into his father’s granary during the father’s lifetime. After the father’s death, his eldest surviving son is conducted ritually by his father’s brothers to peer into the deceased’s granary. This son thus acquires control over the distribution of the food stored in the granary, and this prerogative, among others, symbolizes and supports his control over the patrilocal extended family.

To cite another illustration, where it is the assigned task of the woman of a household to distribute the food within the nuclear family, e.g., by serving meals to members of the household, the manner in which she distributes the food may symbolize relationships to her husband and children at different stages of the family cycle (and to other members of the household, if present). Thus, status relationships within the family are sharply delineated by such rules as whether a woman eats with her husband or separately, when and whether a,man eats with his children, etc. Among the Manus of the Admiralty Islands, near New Guinea, the estrangement between husband and wife during the first few years of marriage, and the competitive relationship in which each stands in relation to the kin of the other, is symbolized in part by the shame they feel in eating together. The most competitive relationships among the Manus are between brothers-in-law and between sisters-in-law: these people may not eat together.

The special significance of food in the symbolization of kinship relationships generally can be seen in the fact that behavior with respect to food in the nuclear family often varies with the degree of segregation or division of role relationships; the latter is in turn dependent on the degree to which the nuclear family is connected to a wider nexus of kinship networks. Thus, one of the symbolizations of the greatly reduced segregation of role relationships between husband and wife in modern complex societies—attendant on the weakening of wider kinship matrices—has been the tendency to minimize and blur the division of labor with respect to the distribution of food within the family. In the lower social strata of Western societies, for example, men do not cook or otherwise participate in the distribution of food within the family; in these strata there is usually a strong connection between the nuclear family and wider kinship groupings and a marked degree of segregation in role relationships between husband and wife. In higher social strata in some Western societies, on the other hand, there are situations in which men do cook and participate in the distribution of food within the nuclear family; these situations tend to arise as segregation in role relationships between spouses becomes weakened as part of the attenuation of wider kinship relationships.

Most societies provide for separateness between nuclear families. One of the symbolizations of this separateness is in the confinement of the preparation and consumption of food to the social boundaries of the nuclear family. In most polygynous organizations, each wife has her own hearth or kitchen; she and her children eat separately, the husband either eating with each nuclear family serially or eating with his senior wife. While such arrangements are usually interpreted by anthropologists as being designed to maintain peace among co-wives, these patterns of consumption must also be understood as representations of the social-structural differentiations which most societies make between nuclear families. Among some Mexican Tarascan groups who possess a stem-family organization, in which a son continues to live with his father after marrying, the son’s wife and her mother-in-law share a common kitchen, and the two nuclear families eat jointly. When dissension occurs, or in anticipation of the son’s plans to found an independent household, his wife will sometimes establish her own kitchen, and the two families will eat separately. Among the Cheyenne Indians of North America, where men were forbidden to speak directly to their mothers-in-law, the men were required to provide all the meat by hunting; this was cooked in the mother-in-law’s lodge, but then her daughters carried the food to their respective tepees for eating. The hunting and gathering Tiwi of Northern Australia are one people who do not separate the component nuclear families of polygynous households into consumption units. Instead, each polygynous household cooks and eats as a unit. This is probably because each household head has many more wives, especially elderly ones, than he has children; hence, there are few component nuclear families in each household.

There are four patterns which govern the distribution of food, and hence the consumption of food; three of these are patterns of sharing. Although they have a tendency to shade off into one another, they are easily identifiable and clearly illustrate the basic principle that it is a characteristic of social systems to symbolize social relationships by means of different patterns of distributing and consuming food. These four patterns are (1) recurrent exchange and sharing of food; (2) mutual assistance and sharing in times of need; (3) narrowed and reluctant sharing; and (4) nonsharing.

(1) Recurrent exchange and sharing. There are several variations on this pattern of sharing; all, however, are associated with and symbolize a combination of factors which tend to give rise to maximal solidarity within the community: social affiliation based on consanguineal kinship; physical proximity between households; the prescription or careful control of residence by, among other fac- tors, rules of residence; the conduct of interper- sonal communication in stable and consistently functioning primary or face-to-face groupings. In brief, the combination of highly integrated kin groups, physical proximity, and sedentary life ap- pear to yield strong feelings of social proximity. Recurrent exchange and sharing of food is one of the symbolic representations of this solidary state.

Among most peoples characterized by this kind of social organization, there is a constant flow of gifts of food from household to household within the solidary grouping. Among other societies, whose cultures are suffused with religious ceremonial (e.g., the Hopi and Tallensi), the recurrent distribution of food, too, takes place in a religious ceremonial context. Among still others (e.g., the Kur-tatchi and the Papago), there are unelaborated but repeated donations, prestations, and exchanges of small token amounts of food among kinsmen.

Regardless of the variations on the theme, these recurrent and repetitive exchanges of food almost always take place within the sociological boundaries of the solidary community. Also, such recurrent exchanges of food are in addition to ceremonialized or ritualized feasts.

(2) Mutual assistance and sharing in times of need. The primary difference between type (1) and the social organization with which mutual as- sistance in times of need is associated is that in the latter the ties and alignments of kinship are not solidified into corporate kin groups. The bonds of kinship, qualitatively speaking, are equally strong in both social organizations, but in the present in- stance these ties are not elevated to the level of exclusive and solidary groupings. A degree of social and emotional solidarity arises in such a community from the strong and marked tendency to affiliate primarily with kinsmen, real or fictive. Usually the members of such a community are mostly kinsmen, and sometimes entirely kinsmen. An element of fissility, and a corresponding degree of social distance, is introduced into such a social organization by a variety of factors. First, physical mobility and change in community membership are usually permitted, thus resulting in the simultaneous presence of kinsmen and non-kinsmen within the group. Where nonkinsmen join the community, they are sometimes addressed and treated as kinsmen; preference for consanguineal ties is the mainspring of such relationships. But of equal, if not greater, significance is the fact that kinsmen have the right to sever relationships with their group and either establish or join an entirely independent one. While extreme personalization of relationships is the rule in this social organization, social cohesiveness and proximity are proportionately weakened by movement away from kinsmen and by the intrusion of nonkinsmen into the community. Among many peoples (e.g., the Andama-nese, Arunta, South African Bushmen, Plains Indian tribes) the exigencies of the food-producing environment, rather than tensions and quarrels, appear to have necessitated such adjustments on the social-structural level. In either event, the consequences, in terms of fission and social distance, are similar.

It is possible to observe a process of compromise in this social organization between forces which give rise to social proximity and those resulting in social distance. Any of these, when taken alone, is productive of either solidarity or fissility. For example, clanship among the Navajo or the peasants of Shantung province in pre-Republican China would, when taken separately, produce a high degree of social solidarity. Obversely, the isolation of the family—geographically, and hence emotionally, among the Navajo and almost entirely emotionally among Shantung peasants—gave rise to the emotional inbreeding of the family vis-à-vis the community. The simultaneity of factors making both for solidarity and for fissility produces a compromise between the two and places such peoples at this point along the continuum of social cohesiveness and solidarity rather than at the point of maximal or minimal solidarity. Mutual assistance in times of need is characteristic of such societies.

In nomadic hunting and gathering societies having this type of social organization, mutual assistance and sharing in times of need often take the form of the immediate dispensation of meat to almost all the households of the community as soon as an animal is captured or slain, especially to those who do not have meat. In sedentary societies, mutual assistance in times of need takes the form of aid rendered to kinsmen, real or fictive, when economic help is objectively required. There is, of course, mutual assistance in time of need in societies which practice recurrent exchange and sharing; however, as the present instance indicates, there are many societies in which there is mutual assistance without the elaboration of recurrent exchange.

This is not meant to imply that there are no feasts and exchanges whatever in this social organization; these are present, but they occur only on specific occasions, e.g., religious events and the life crises marked by rites de passage. Nor is the idea or concept of recurrent prestation unknown in such societies, but such exchange is almost always confined to gifts of goods, not food.

(3) Narrowed and reluctant sharing. By this is meant that whatever assistance is rendered to people is given very reluctantly and grudgingly. This pattern of food distribution is ordinarily associated with fragmented social systems in which the isolated nuclear family unit is the significant unit of association; socially, geographically, and emotionally isolated from all other family units, it constitutes neither a society nor a community. Nor do the several family units constitute a society, structurally or functionally, when they come together.

The primary characteristic of this social system is the presence of relatively great geographic distances between households and families and, concomitantly, clearly demarcated social boundaries. Physical space or distance in this social organization serves as a boundary-maintaining force only indirectly and incidentally; this is an important consideration, because even when the family units in such a social system unite for temporary amalgamations, they continue to maintain their great social distance from each other. Although the ties of kinship in this social organization may be highly formalized, there are rarely any functioning kin groups outside the family, and kinship ties become increasingly diffuse as the physical distance between kinsmen increases.

One of the material symbolizations of this social atomism or fission is the pattern of narrowed and reluctant sharing, as among the Kaska and Ojibwa Indians. Even when individuals in these societies are willing to extend aid, they are willing to do so only to a very limited number of people. The cultures of such peoples generally contain the ideal prescription of generosity and mutual assistance in times of need, but this ideal is rarely, if ever, achieved; in actual behavior, generosity and assistance are extremely restricted—qualitatively and in the number of persons toward whom such behavior is manifest. Another way of stating this is that behavior with respect to food in such societies approaches parsimoniousness but never quite achieves it, reflecting the atomization of social relationships beyond the nuclear family.

(4) Nonsharing. This is a general category; it has thus far not been possible to determine different types of nonsharing behavior with respect to food, as has been done in connection with patterns of sharing, because there are too few societies in the category of nonsharing from among which discrete types of nonsharing could be elicited.

Here “nonsharing” means the absence in a culture of enforceable prescriptions to share food with others, no matter how great their need; where non-sharing is found as the dominant pattern, the individuated accumulation of wealth is an end in itself, rather than a means to cooperative or competitive generosity. That is, people in many societies, as in the first two categories described above, amass food or other forms of wealth in order to be able to distribute it in socially prescribed forms of generosity, and there is often competition to be the most generous.

In societies characterized by nonsharing, there are rarely, if ever, any closed groups within the community in which membership, feeling of belonging, and reciprocity are fixed and inalienable. Few, if any, institutionally significant statuses are ascribed; authority, group cohesiveness, interfamil-ial support, and mutual assistance are almost always absent. Similarly, allegiances are expedient and frequently contractual. While considerations of kinship appear to play occasional roles in interpersonal associations, such considerations are decidedly secondary; instead, kinsmen and nonkinsmen alike enter into the economically competitive struggle, and personal profit and success emerge as predominant values. Power resides among those who are monetarily powerful rather than among those persons whose social dominance derives from ascribed high status or who have succeeded in other spheres of competitive activity.

Societies characterized by this system superficially resemble societies in which narrowed and reluctant sharing is found, in that the effective socioeconomic unit appears to be the independent nuclear family. The resemblance, however, is superficial. In societies in which nonsharing is the dominant pattern, the social isolation of the family does not derive from physical distance between family units. Instead, the principal isolating factor appears to be the search for individually accumulated wealth. Examples of societies characterized by non-sharing of food are the Alorese, the Marquesans, highland peasants in Jamaica, the Yakut of Siberia, and the Yurok Indians.

The comparative ethnographic data reveal with marked clarity that no matter how highly elaborated a pattern of recurrent exchange and sharing might be, to say nothing of other patterns, in no society is an individual expected to give up everything he possesses. In no society is true “selflessness” an expected or imposed value to which the individual must adhere. For example, among the Arapesh of New Guinea, who have elaborated recurrent exchange to an extreme and among whom a man does not eat food which he himself has grown, personal ownership and rights in property are clearly delineated with definite notions of “mine” and “yours.” The Kwoma, too, who believe that a man would die if he ate his own harvest, also specify individual ownership of the yield of the land, each person’s crop being put in a separate bin in a storehouse. The Copper Eskimo prescribe that even if only one seal is caught, it must be distributed equally throughout the community. However, it has been observed among them that during the winter, when each woman cooks indoors, she can hide the choicer portions of meat for her husband and herself until after visitors have left; in the summer, on the other hand, when most of the cooking is done out-of-doors and everyone can see what is in the pot, no concealment is possible. It can be suggested that the provision in all cultures for personal ownership and retention—no matter how great the pressures to share—is due, at least in part, to the need for material representations of individuation and personal separateness, i.e., self-awareness. As Hallowell noted in his paper “The Self and Its Behavioral Environment,” “It seems necessary to assume self-awareness as one of the prerequisite psychological conditions for the functioning of any human social order, no matter what linguistic and culture patterns prevail” ([1937-1954] 1955, p. 75).

At the same time that the social forces which make for extreme degrees of social proximity maximize predispositions to share food, factors making for social distance within a maximally solidary community will mitigate the predisposition to share. That is, it can be assumed that every society contains some forces, however few and small, which help to make for social distance. In a society in which extreme social proximity helps to produce a pattern of recurrent food sharing, those factors making for social distance in the same society will help to produce a proportionate reluctance to share.

For example, high social status, such as chieftainship, is determined in a variety of ways. It can be postulated that social distance is greater between persons of high and low ascribed statuses than between persons of high and low achieved statuses. Assuming some degree of reluctance in most people to share food with others, even in societies in which people appear strongly predisposed to share, it follows logically that reluctance to share would covary with ascribed high status even in societies in which there is strong social cohesive-ness and solidarity. In other words, it can be assumed that persons with ascribed high status in solidary communities will employ their social distance from the “masses” or “commoners” as a mechanism which enables them to amass and retain more for themselves; this is not necessarily conscious on their part. For example, among the Manuans of Samoa, who have an elaborate hierarchy of chieftainship, a high income is one of the few feudal privileges. Although chiefly wealth is kept in circulation by the requirement that chiefs be generous to commoners, the chiefs nevertheless generally have more food than anyone else. Among the Dahomeans, the economic organization was usually characterized by a surplus which eventually brought about the concentration of wealth in the hands of the hereditary leisure classes.

The evidence is conclusive that patterns in the consumption of food are almost always governed by cultural symbols and that the ways in which food is distributed and consumed reflect a society’s dominant modes of social relationships and groupings, especially those pertaining to kinship ties.




COHEN, YEHUDI A. 1961 Food and Its Vicissitudes: A Cross-cultural Study of Sharing and Nonsharing. Pages 312-350 in Yehudi A. Cohen, Social Structure and Personality: A Casebook. New York: Holt.

COHEN, YEHUDI A. 1964a The Establishment of Identity in a Social Nexus: The Special Case of Initiation Ceremonies and Their Relation to Value and Legal Systems. American Anthropologist New Series 66:529-552.

COHEN, YEHUDI A. 1964b The Transition From Childhood to Adolescence: Cross-cultural Studies of Initiation Ceremonies, Legal Systems, and Incest Taboos. Chicago: Aldine.

DURKHEIM, ÉMILE (1893) 1960 The Division of Labor in Society. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press. ⇒ First published as De la division du travail social.

FIRTH, RAYMOND W. (1939) 1965 Primitive Polynesian Economy. 2d ed. Hamden, Conn.: Shoe String Press.

HALLOWELL, A. IRVING (1937-1954) 1955 Culture and Experience. Philadelphia Anthropological Society, Publications, Vol. 4. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press. ⇒ A collection of essays by one of the most influential thinkers in American anthropology; in the classical anthropological tradition but with a strong orientation toward psychological conceptualizations of cultural processes. Included are many papers on the Ojibwa Indians.

MAUSS, MARCEL (1925) 1954 The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press. ⇒ First published as Essai sur le don: Forme et raison de I’echange dans les Sociêtês archa-iques.

MEAD, MARGARET (editor) 1937 Cooperation and Competition Among Primitive Peoples. New York: McGraw-Hill. ⇒ A paperback edition was published in 1961 by Beacon. Descriptions of social and economic life in thirteen primitive societies, and interpretive chapters by the editor. One of the milestones in comparative studies in anthropology.

RICHARDS, AUDREY I. (1932) 1948 Hunger and Work in a Savage Tribe: A Functional Study of Nutrition Among the Southern Bantu. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press. ⇒ A paperback edition was published in 1964 by World Publishing. A classic study of patterns of food consumption in one culture area, but with generalizations of wide applicability.

SAHLINS, MARSHALL D. 1965 On the Sociology of Primitive Exchange. Pages 139-236 in Conference on New Approaches in Social Anthropology, Jesus College, Cambridge, 1963, The Relevance of Models for Social Anthropology. New York: Praeger.


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The Biblical Period

Diet in Ereẓ Israel during the biblical period was dependent mostly on the food supply of the closed agricultural economy. Most agricultural produce came from permanent settlements, and some wild plants were gathered, while meat was mainly supplied by cattle and sheep-raising nomads. Grain constituted the bulk of agricultural produce consumed and most meat was mutton. The Bible, in speaking of the produce of Ereẓ Israel, mentions three types of food: dagan, tirosh, and yiẓhar (Deut. 7:13; ii Kings 18:32). Dagan ("corn" or "grain") represents the various agricultural crops, tirosh ("new wine")-wine, and yiẓhar-oil.

Food was made fit for eating by baking, boiling, frying, or roasting (see *Fire), or by a combination of these. Grain was prepared in two ways: roasting the kernels in order to break down their starches and soften them (Heb. kali, qali; "parched corn"; i Sam. 25:18; ii Sam. 17:28; Ruth 2:14), or grinding and baking the item (see also *Bread). Cooked food was a mixture of meat and vegetables which were combined while heating (Heb. marak; "broth"; Judg. 6:19, 20; Isa. 65:4). Stew (Heb. nazid; Gen. 25:29; ii Kings 4:38; et al.) was apparently a food cooked for a long time in water, most of which was boiled off. Fried foods, especially meat, were cooked in large quantities of boiling oil. Meat was also roasted over an open flame, which seared and softened it.

forbidden foods

The usual diet consisted of foods prepared from grain, wild and cultivated plants, and the meat of sheep, cattle, fowl, fish, and even certain insects. The Torah limited the meat a Jew could eat, both in terms of the animals permissible for eating, and the manner of their preparation (see also *Dietary Laws). Meat taken from a still living animal or from one found dead, and the drinking of blood were prohibited (see *Blood). Only animals specifically slaughtered for food or for use in the sacrificial service could be eaten. These animals had to have two characteristics: they chewed the cud and had cloven hoofs. An animal possessing neither or only one of these characteristics was forbidden. Some types of birds were permitted and the exceptions were specifically named (Lev. 11:13–19). The consumption of fish was limited to those possessing scales and fins. As to insects, only locusts (Heb. ʾarbeh) could be eaten.

the form of the meal

The Bible uses several terms to describe meals. ʾAruḥh (from the root ʾrḥ, "to lodge") appears to refer to the usual daily meal, as in "a regular allowance [ʾaruhah] was given him …" (ii Kings 25:30; Jer. 52:34). It may also indicate a more modest meal, as in "Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a fatted ox and hatred with it" (Prov. 15:17). Zevaḥ (from the root zbḥ, "to sacrifice") generally indicates a meat meal connected with the religious worship, or with some other festive occasion (i Sam. 20:29). Kerah was a festive meal with many participants (ii Kings 6:23). The verb s ʿd ("to support") is frequently used to indicate eating: "Come home with me, and refresh thyself" (i Kings 13:7). Leḥem ("*bread") frequently refers to food or to a meal in general. Meat meals were not usual: the kerah or zevaḥ, as noted above, was part of some festive occasion such as a general holiday or special tribal or family occasion. Many people participated in a meat meal, of which nothing would be left over in order to prevent spoilage. Such meat meals were consecrated in order to enlist God's aid in human ventures, as a sign of thanks, or as a propitiatory offering (see also *Sacrifice). The everyday meal was eaten by the family either in the house or in the field. It was generally prepared by the woman, while the zevaḥ and kerah were prepared by both men and women, thus emphasizing the importance of these social events. A meal was an occasion for pleasure and enjoyment. It was eaten while seated and the established customs and manners were observed before and after the meal. The upper classes might sing and propose riddles during the mealtimes.


Cereals, such as wheat (Heb. ḥiṭṭah) and barley (Heb. seʿorah), were cultivated crops. Stew made of lentils (Heb. ʿadashim) or beans (Heb. polim) was common and was eaten after being softened by cooking. Other vegetable dishes were uncommon, most vegetables being picked wild as needed and then cooked for the daily meal. Wild melons (Heb. ʾavaṭṭi'aḥ) and cucumbers (Heb. קִשּׁוּא, qeshu) were among the wild vegetables eaten in Ereẓ Israel. In Egypt there were plots for the cultivation of melons and cucumbers. Sesame seeds (Heb. shumshum), also gathered wild, were used in the preparation of oil, or were eaten raw, in stews or in some other fashion. Garlic (Heb. shum) and onions (Heb. baẓal) grew wild in Ereẓ Israel and served as food, while in Egypt they were cultivated. They were cultivated in Ereẓ Israel only in the postbiblical period.


The seven types of produce mentioned in Deuteronomy 8:8 include most of the fruit eaten in Ereẓ Israel. The vine (Heb. gefen) is mentioned after wheat and barley. Grapes (Heb. ʿanavim) were used mainly in the production of wine, although they were also eaten fresh. Grapes were dried in the sun to produce raisins (Heb. ẓimmukim, ẓimmuqim), which were preserved for substantial periods of time. Grapes were also used to produce a thick liquid like honey, called the grape honey (Heb. devash ʿanavim). Even today, grape honey (Ar. dibes) is produced in parts of Israel. Grape honey was made by treading in special vats: the liquid produced was not left to ferment, but was boiled in order to evaporate the water content, leaving behind a thick liquid resembling honey. Figs (Heb. teʾenah) were also common and were eaten either fresh when ripe, or dried, the dried figs (Heb. develah) being strung into a chain or made into a hard cake. This cake was made of figs stuck together and dried as a block. After sufficient drying, the fig block was sliced and eaten like bread. Pomegranates (Heb. rimmonim) were usually eaten fresh, although occasionally they were used in the preparation of wine for medicinal uses. Dates (Heb. temarim), too, were eaten fresh or were sundried. Like grapes, dates were made into a sweet, thick drink called date honey (Heb. devash temarim). This was prepared by soaking the fruit in water for some time during which it would disintegrate. The liquid was cooked down until thick and sweet. Olives (Heb. zeitim) were usually used to make oil (see below), although some were eaten after being preserved in tasty and fragrant spices, which removed their natural bitter flavor. The Bible also mentions nuts (Heb. ʾegozim), apples (Heb. tappuhim), pistachios (Heb. botnim), and almonds (Heb. shekedim, sheqedim). Nuts were common in Ereẓ Israel, particularly in the post-biblical period. Apples, pistachios, and almonds were not cultivated, but grew wild. They were picked for occasional home use when they were available, although most were imported as a delicacy.


The most common spice was salt (Heb. melaḥ; Job 6:6), there being hardly any food which was not seasoned with it. Salt served the additional function of symbolizing the making of a covenant (ii Chron. 13:5), or the destruction of a city (Judg. 9:45). It was obtained in two ways: the most common method was mining, as at Sodom, although it was also produced by evaporating sea water and removing the salts from the sediment. The raw salt was rinsed in fresh water, purified, and then crushed until fine, in which form it was used for seasoning food and for other purposes. The flavor of food was also enhanced by spices derived from plants. Garlic and onions, as well as being eaten as vegetables, were used to season cooked foods. Other spices mentioned in the Bible are coriander (Heb. gad), cumin (Heb. kammon), and black cumin (Heb. keẓaḥ, qeẓaḥ). More delicate spices for special feasts were imported from Arabia and India, and were considered merchandise of the highest value. Among such spices were various types of pepper (Heb. pilpel), and ginger.

foods produced by animals

During the biblical period, wild bee honey and eggs, especially birds' eggs, were eaten.

dairy foods

Most dairy items were produced from sheep or goat milk, since cattle were scarce in the country. The use of cow's milk is attested by Mesopotamian and Egyptian sources, such as the "Banner of Ur" and various Egyptian steles, as early as the fourth millennium b.c.e. In Ur, cows were milked from behind and in Egypt from in front of the udder, with their rear legs tied together. Milk, connected as it was with the miracle of reproduction, was used in pagan cults, in which a kid would be cooked in its mother's milk. This practice was forbidden for the Israelites (Ex. 23:19; et al.).

Milk was one the characteristic products of Ereẓ Israel (Ex. 3:8; 33:3; Joel 4:18). A nourishing food, it was frequently drunk cold or was cooked with other foods, as well as serving in other forms for medicinal purposes and ointments. Due to its importance, milk and its by-products served as offerings to gods and kings. The Bible mentions butter and various cheeses as milk-derived products. Butter was made by churning milk in vessels made especially for this purpose. Examples of these churns (Heb. mahbeẓah) have been found at Beersheba and elsewhere. The butterfat was separated as a result of the churning, and the excess liquid was evaporated in order to produce butter. In this concentrated form, it was used principally for cooking and frying. Cheese was made from soured milk. Milk was poured into special moulds in which it soured into hard lumps. These cheese lumps were dried in the sun or evaporated by cooking, producing curds (Job 10:10). A softer cheese was made in cloth bags filled with soured milk. The thin liquid filtered through the cloth while the soft cheese remained in the bag. The Hittites used cheese as an offering in their cult.


Most wine was produced from grapes. The vintage was brought to a winepress which was usually rock-cut. The grapes were spread on the broad upper surface of the press and tread upon by foot, in order to squeeze the liquid from them. This liquid (Heb. tirosh, "new wine") flowed down through a drainage channel into a vat in which the precipitates settled. From there it flowed to a second vat where it was collected. The drainage system was constructed so that the liquid flowed into the collecting vat only when the precipitation vat was filled. Thus, the heavier sediments such as waste matter, seeds, and skins had time to settle at the bottom of the vat, while the juice flowed into the collecting vat. The new wine was then transferred to vessels which were sealed and placed in a cool place to stand until the juice fermented by the action of the yeast in the fruit, becoming wine. There were several types of wine, some of which are mentioned in the Bible: a sparkling or foaming wine (Ps. 75:9); the wine of Helbon (Ezek. 27:18); spiced wine (Song 8:2); the wine of Lebanon (Hos. 14:8). The type of wine was determined by the grapes from which it was pressed, the time allowed for fermentation, and the age of the wine. Spices were added to improve the aroma and taste. The color was improved by steeping crushed grape skins in it. Sometimes wine was given an aroma by rubbing the winepress with wood resin. Wine was also made from raisins, dates, figs, and pomegranates.

Wine was considered the choicest of drinks. It was used in libations before gods, as payment of taxes to kings, and was highly regarded as an item of trade. It was measured by liquidmeasure: the bat (ii Chron. 2:9) and the hin (Ex. 29:40; Samaria ostraca). Wine was hoarded in vessels of uniform size in the treasuries of the royal and the wealthy. Ereẓ Israel was known for its fine wines and advanced methods of production. Some indication of this may be gained from the widespread occurrence of presses in archaeological excavations throughout the country. A good example of a rock-cut winepress from the biblical period found at Gibeon has a broad surface for treading the grapes and several collecting vats. Wine was an intoxicant with a stimulating effect upon the human disposition. One who had taken Nazirite vows was therefore not permitted to drink it or to make any use of vine-derived products. The Bible mentions houses which were visited for the purpose of drinking and becoming intoxicated (Song 2:4). Another vine product was vinegar, which was produced by extra fermentation of new wine. It was used for seasoning foods, pickling vegetables, and medicinal purposes.


Oil was produced mainly from olives in olive presses designed for this purpose. There were three stages in its production. First, the hard olives were crushed into a soft paste. This was then squeezed, the crude oil flowing out as a result of the pressure. Finally, the crude oil was stored in vessels or vats for some time, in which the sediments and water from the olives settled and the pure oil rose to the surface. The oil was then collected in vessels for storage or use. Archaeological excavations have revealed numerous olive presses dating to the Hellenistic period. The earliest press excavated in the country was found at Tirat Yehudah near Lydda. This press has been reconstructed and transferred to the garden of the Israel Museum.

Oil was used as a condiment for various dishes, to fry foods, especially meats, and as a component in certain dishes. Specially purified oils mixed with spices were used as ointments or for medicinal purposes. Sesame oil, produced in a similar way, was particularly fine. Like wine, oil was used as an offering to the gods and for payment of taxes to kings. Oil production was advanced in Ereẓ Israel, as is attested by much documentary evidence, and the discovery of many olive presses in various locations.

[Ze'ev Yeivin]

Post-Biblical Period

characteristics of jewish cookery

In their dispersion throughout the world Jews have adopted many dishes of the countries in which they found themselves, adapting them to conform to the requirements of the dietary laws. Economic factors have also played their part in the culinary sphere. Sometimes glamorous dishes have been created by enhancing poverty foods, influenced by local flavors and products.

The laws regarding use of animal food and its preparation require that all meat and poultry, having been killed in accordance with the laws of *sheḥitah, must be entirely drained of *blood. Observance of the dietary laws precludes the mixing or cooking of meat with milk; the Jewish cook is therefore debarred from using dairy products – butter, milk, or cream, etc. – in pastries, desserts, or other dishes which are to be eaten in conjunction with meat. Parveh (neutral) foods made with neither milk nor meat may be eaten with both. These include eggs, fish, vegetables, fruit, and liquors. A parveh substitute for milk or cream has been introduced into the modern kitchen.

The two main categories of Jewish cooking may be characterized as Oriental (broadly referred to as Sephardi) and Occidental (broadly referred to as Ashkenazi). While Sephardi cookery makes much use of spices, olive oil, rice, pulses, and lamb, Ashkenazi favors beef and bland vegetables, whose flavors are brought out by fats, sugar, and onions. Both feature many similar fowl and pastry dishes, and dishes having similar historical and religious significance. Because of this latter significance there has developed in modern times a sort of "culinary Judaism," by which many people identify with the Jewish religion mainly through this preference for traditional Jewish dishes. Indeed, assimilated Jewry in the orbit of the Hapsburg Empire from as early as the second half of the 19th century knew the conception of "Fressfroemmigkeit" for somebody whose devoutness finds its expression mainly or entirely in his eating the proper customary dishes on each holiday.

sephardi and ashkenazi tradition

Most of the foods of the Bible maintained their hold in the homes of the communities of the Mediterranean and Middle East where the same products are still grown. Grapes, dates, olives, melons, figs, mulberries, pomegranates, nuts, carobs, citrons, apricots, are still basically used in and around the Holy Land, not only as fresh fruits but as preserves such as dried apricot sheets, carob syrup (dibbs), and citron confiture. Pulses and cereals such as beans, lentils, cracked wheat (burghul), and spelt (rye) are used for Sephardi dishes as much as potatoes are in the West. The vegetables recorded in the Bible such as leeks, squash (also cucumbers of this family), and onions permeate Middle East cookery both for flavoring and as main dishes stuffed with meat. Cucumbers are preserved with dill, a herb that grows wild in Ereẓ Israel. Mint is used for flavoring many dishes, particularly vegetable salads. Frequently used spices and herbs include garlic in meat, saffron and cumin in cakes, coriander in coffee, and cinnamon not only in desserts but in meat and poultry dishes. Lamb fat and olive oil, so popular in the Bible, continue as the main fats used in Oriental Jewish cooking. The meat of goats and sheep is still eaten in the Middle East rather than beef and poultry. Pastries – usually deep fried – are dipped in honey or syrup among Eastern communities. Some Oriental groups – such as the Yemenites – even bake the bread (called lakho'akh or ḥubs) as in biblical days on the wall of a primitive earthen oven heated with embers, the fire being put out before baking, or bake it like a griddle cake on a rounded iron over embers. Bread is customarily put on the table for every meal, and also salt, symbolizing the covenant (see above).

In Eastern Europe among Ashkenazi communities milk foods and vegetables were the main fare during weekdays owing to impoverished circumstances and the shortage of kasher meat. Animals were generally slaughtered for food only for Sabbaths or festivals, or for celebrations. Figuring largely in the diet were lokshen (noodles) or other farinaceous food, potatoes, barley, peas, and beans. From time to time these were supplemented by fish. For celebrations of a circumcision or a wedding it was customary to provide fish and meat meals, and to bake festival bread and buns from cake dough, as well as sponge cake, sandwich cake, fluden (fladen), strudel, and egg cookies. In honor of the bride and bridegroom gilderne yoikh ("golden broth" of chicken soup) was served. During the summer in Eastern Europe, jams and confections would be prepared from the local fruits, which were added to tea, offered to guests, or served for the Sabbath or on festivals. The juice of raspberries, cherries, and other berries was also preserved. Preserves were made from plums and mushrooms, cucumbers were pickled, and sufficient sauerkraut was prepared for the whole year. In present-day Israel, Jewish cooking has been altered and adapted by each entry of new immigrants in the melting pot process of integration between East and West. This and the introduction of new products, such as avocado, formerly rarely known, has resulted in new trends in Jewish cooking.

Festival Cookery

sabbath dishes

For Sabbath and other holidays all sorts and shapes of ḥallah breads (called also barkhes or tatsheres) are baked. In most countries the Sabbath loaves are braided. The loaves are frequently sprinkled with (poppy or sesame) seeds to represent manna. Two loaves represent the double portion of manna gathered in the wilderness before the Sabbath. One of the two ḥallot on the tables of Ḥasidim is made of 12 rolls representing the 12 tribes, the loaf being referred to as yud-bet (= the number 12; Lev. 24:5–6). Fish is a standard food for Sabbath. The Talmud advises: "When may those who possess less than 50 shekels have the dish of vegetables and fish? Every Friday night of the Sabbath." In Eastern Europe, where fish was costly, the Jewish housewife made gefilte (filled) fish a popular dish. For gefilte fish the flesh is ground up, and bread, egg, onion, sugar, and pepper are added: after the fish is refilled it is stewed in onions. Carp and/or other types of fish may be used. Bukharan Jews eat fried fish dipped in garlic sauce with garlic bread.

A typical Sabbath dish popular in every community because it can be prepared beforehand and cooked overnight is cholent (Ashkenazi) – Oriental ḥamin – generally made with beans, fat meat, and potatoes. It is placed in a well-heated oven on Friday afternoon and allowed to cook slowly or simmer overnight until ready for the Sabbath meal. Ashkenazim may accompany the cholent with kugel (boiled pudding), stuffed helzl (neck skin), or kishke (stuffed derma), or a lokshen (noodle) pudding, sometimes made of leaf pastry, or a rice and raisin pudding. Bukharan Jews serve a rice cholent called baḥsh, layered with meat, liver, and vegetables, with rice and spices cooked in a bag in water: the liquid is not used. It was customary for gentiles to wait near the synagogue before prayers with kettles of boiling water; they would be given the baḥsh bag for cooking and return it after prayers. Bukharan Jews also bake mamossa (meat or fruit pie) for Sabbath, and eat cold meat (yachni) or kabab-pieces of meat and onion, dipped in salt and roasted on a spit before Sabbath. Kishke (Ashkenazi stuffed derma) is often eaten as a main dish for Sabbath, its Oriental equivalent being nakahoris. Ashkenazim use an onion and flour filling, and eastern communities fill the derma with ground meat, pine nuts, cinnamon, and sharp pepper. Persian Jews eat rice foods (pilaw) and a sort of meat pudding called gipa (stomach filled with rice). Often served as an appetizer on Sabbath is pitcha (also called cholodny, pilsa, fisnoga, drelyes; Heb. regel kerushah) – jellied calf's foot or jellied chicken with garlic and spices. In Yemen it is called kurʾi. Other appetizers are chopped (gehakte) herring, chopped egg and onion, or chopped liver (Ashkenazi). A traditional accompaniment to the Sabbath meal in Ashkenazi homes is poultry soup – usually served with deep-fried pastas called mandeln ("almonds") to symbolize the manna of the Bible. Side dishes include tsimes (Ashkenazi), a stew made usually of carrots, parsnips, or plums with potatoes. The Lithuanian rutabaga is turnip tsimes. Compotes of dried fruits, such as flohmen kompot made with the addition of blanched almondsand honey, are a traditional East European Sabbath dessert. Torten-sponge cakes, mandelbrot – almond cookies – and strudels-filled rolled pastries, are of Central European origin. Yemenite Jews serve a traditional Sabbath pastry, similar to kugel, cooked overnight, sometimes with cottage cheese, called ghininūn, or an overnight baked yeast cake, kubaneh. Pestelas (sesame-seed-topped pastry filled with pine nuts, meat, onion, and delicately flavored) also called burekas, are often served in Sephardi homes after the Sabbath service. So as to be able to pronounce the blessings: bore peri ha-eẓ; ha-gefen; ha-adamah; mezonot, before the Sabbath repast and after, Yemenite Jews eat gaʾle-roast peanuts, raisins, almonds, fruit, and candy. For melavveh malkah on Saturday night Ḥasidim eat a specially cooked barley soup with meat. Wine is drunk at the Sabbath meals, and brandy. Eastern Jews drink arak.


Passover foods vary in Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities. Ashkenazim exclude rice, while it is served by Sephardim. Most Ashkenazim avoid the use of pepper because it is sometimes mixed with flour and crumbs by traders. Ḥasidim do not eat soaked matzah on Passover except on the last day (in the Diaspora).

The several varieties of matzah include matzah shemurah, egg matzah, and sugar matzah. The exclusion of leaven from the home has resulted in a rich menu of matzah meal and potato foods for Passover, such as dumplings and pancakes. Popular are the dumplings known as kneydl (Ashkenazi) of various types made from either matzah meal or broken up matzah. Some are filled with meat or liver or fruits, used for soups or side dishes or desserts. Potato flour is largely used in cakes along with finely ground matzah meal and nuts. Popular Ashkenazi dishes are matzah brie (fried crumbled matzah with grated onion), matzah latkes (pancakes) and khremzlakh (also called crimsel or gres elies; matzah meal fritters). Wined matzah kugels (puddings) have been introduced into modern Jewish cooking. For thickening soups and sauces at Passover fine matzah meal or potato flour is used instead of flour: for frying fish or cutlets, a coating of matzah meal and egg, and for stuffings, potatoes instead of soaked bread. "Noodles" may be made by making pancakes with beaten eggs and matzah meal which, when cooked, are rolled up and cut into strips. They may be dropped into soup before serving. Matzah kleys – dumplings – are small balls made from suet mixed with chopped fried onions, chopped parsley, beaten egg, and seasonings, dropped into soup and cooked. In Oriental countries and in old Jerusalem sheep-tail fat was prepared for Passover. Oriental Passover dishes are fahthūt (Yemenite) – a soup stew made with matzah meal – and Turkish minas and mahmuras – layers of matzah with fillings of cheese, vegetables, or meats. In Sephardi homes ḥaroset is served as a treat and not just as ataste. The khreyn – horseradish relish – originating as an Ashkenazi Passover dish – is popular all the year round. The radish eyngemakhts, still retained as a confiture among Ashkenazim, may have had its culinary beginnings in talmudic days when the radish was referred to as an elixir of life. A Passover beverage is mead, instead of beer, which includes leaven. Raisin wine is also used for the Four Cups at the Seder. A kasher liquor from potatoes was brewed in Eastern Europe.


Serving of dairy dishes on Shavuot is customary among Jews everywhere. In celebration of the giving of the Law from Sinai, Mount-Sinai-shaped sweets and cakes are served in many Eastern and Western communities. Ashkenazi Jews bake saffron bread, butter cookies with cheese, cheese twist or cheese ḥallah (in Germany called kauletsch, specially for those who have observed the sefirah-counting of the Omer). Popular Shavuot dishes are blintses (pancakes) filled with meat or cheese and sour cream, kreplakh (dough filled with cheese, meat, groats or fruit, shaped into triangles or hearts and boiled), strudels (Germany), cheese cakes (Poland), cheese pies (United States), and knishes (yeast dough filled with meat and/or potatoes, cheese or fruit and baked (Lithuania). A dairy beet borsht with sour cream, or a cold chlodnik (cucumber soup) or shtshav (cold sorrel soup) is also served on Shavuot. Some Sephardim bake a Seven Heavens cake to symbolize the "seven heavens" which God rent at the giving of the Torah. Sephardi Jews use ewe's salted cheese and make savory dairy dishes like shpongous (a cheese-spinach bake), Cottage cheese, popular everywhere, is associated with legends such as the Israelites' late return to the camp after receiving the Commandments from Mount Sinai when the milk had already soured.


During the Nine Days between the First and Ninth of Av, no wine or meat is eaten (except on the Sabbath) as a sign of mourning for the destruction of the Temple. Both Ashkenazim and Sephardim eat farinaceous and other pastry food baked or boiled, and accompanied with cheese. The fast of the Ninth of Av is observed after a milk meal which includes a bagel – a crusty doughnut-shaped bun – or an egg dipped in ashes.

rosh ha-shanah

On Rosh Ha-Shanah the ḥallah loaf is baked round or coin-shaped to signify blessings all the year round. All communities eat sweet fruits to evoke a sweet year, and honey for sweetness is added to many dishes. Until after Sukkot, bread is dipped in honey for the benediction instead of the usual salt in order to symbolize a sweet year. On the second night of New Year apples are eaten dipped in honey, also white grapes and watermelons. The leykaḥ honey cake is traditional among Ashkenazim, since lekaḥ means "portion" and the cake signifies the prayer "Give them a goodly portion."

Sweetened fish dishes with raisins and honey lebkukhen, leibkuchen, are primarily eaten in Western homes (originating in Switzerland). A head of a fish served without a tail (or the head of a lamb in Oriental homes) symbolizes, according to the Shulḥan Arukh, "being at the head and not the tail." In many Sephardi homes it is served to the father of the family.

All sorts of fruits and vegetables are selected for eating on Rosh Ha-Shanah because of their symbolic associations and endless possibilities of word play. Sephardim place on the table a traskal – a covered basket of fruit and vegetables – and as the father of the family takes out some fruit, those present repeat a suitable verse, as for the pomegranate, "May our merits multiply like pomegranate seeds." Carrot tsimes symbolizes prosperity because the slices are coin-shaped and golden in color and is also linked with an involved play of words in German. Ḥasidim use beetroots or beet leaves (selek) in the blessings she-yistalleku oyeveinu "to get rid of our enemies"; bkeila, a dish of this green leaf and beans, is popular among Tunisian Jewry. The Yemenite hilbeh (fenugreek sauce) is called rubiya in Hebrew and therefore eaten to signify shehyirbu ("to multiply").

eve of and end of day of atonement

On the eve of the Day of Atonement Ashkenazim eat ladder-or bird-trimmed bread so that prayers should rise quicker to Heaven. In the morning many communities would distribute the loaves free at the entrance to the graveyard where people visited the graves of their forefathers, and honey cakes with a glass of wine. Before the fast, atonement (kapparah) meat is generally eaten. Ashkenazi homes usually serve kreplakh in the soup of the boiled kapparah chicken (though in many families the chicken is given to the poor). The white-feathered bird, symbolic of purity, assumes the role of the scapegoat slaughtered as a sin offering.

The fast is broken in Central European communities by eating barkes, or shneken – buns with cinnamon and nuts and/or raisins. To restock the body with salt, herring dishes such as chopped herring, pickled herring, or zise-zoyre (sweet and sour) pickled jellied fish are taken. Many Sephardi communities break the fast with spiced coffee-cinnamon (Dutch), cardamon (Syrian and Egyptian), and ginger with these spices (Yemen). Some Middle Eastern communities – Turkish, Greek, Iraqi – break the fast with a snow-white almond or other seed drink called mizzo or soubiya or soumada, the white color symbolizing purity. lraqi Jews eat chadjoobadah cardamon cakes. Italians serve dolce Rebecca (spiced mocha cake), and many Oriental groups eat sesame (sumsum) cakelets. Bamya (okra) in tomato sauce is an Iraqi end of Day of Atonement dish.


Dishes traditional to Sukkot are adopted from the lands of the Diaspora, mostly because they proved convenient for serving in the sukkah. These include cabbage-meat borsht (Russian origin), Hungarian goulash – meat stew with paprika and onions: kibbeh – a Middle Eastern burghul-coated deep-fried meat dish served with various fillings; kasher Greek moussaka – eggplant meat casserole; holeptses also called praakes, galuptzes – rice and ground meat rolled in cabbage leaves – and sarmis – vine leaves filled with rice, pine nuts, and chopped meat filling. Still popular is the fluden (also known as fladen) – a layered dessert of dough and fruits symbolic of the harvested crops referred to in Judeo-German cooking records of the 12th century. For Hoshana Rabba, the seventh day of Sukkot, the ḥallah loaf is sometimes marked with a hand, symbolic of reaching for blessings, or key-shaped, that the door of heaven may be opened to admit prayers.

simḤat torah and sabbath bereshit

For Simḥat Toraha round carrot sandwich (or slices) with honey symbolizes gold coins and the worth of the Torah. Sabbath Bereshit was formerly known in Vilna as the "honey Sabbath." The wives of religious functionaries baked honey cake with the honey their husbands received as a gift from the synagogue wardens for the festivals, and sold them. The proceeds enabled them to stock up with food and timber for the winter months.


For Ḥanukkah, Jews of all communities eat pastry and potato preparations fried in oil as a reminder of the miracle of the cruse of oil at the rededication of the Temple. Ashkenazim called them latkes, or fasputshes, or pontshkes. They are called zalaviyye (Yemen), dushpire (Bukhara), ata-if (Iraq), spanzes (Tripoli), and by Sephardim in general birmenailes. Hence the Israel sufganiyyot – doughnuts – of Ḥanukkah and the levivot (latkes – potato cakes) have a long tradition. A popular East European salad of this festival is the retekh salat of radish, turnip, olives, and onions fried in goose fat with gribenes or grivn (cracklings), all the ingredients being popular in the Maccabean era. As fat for Ḥanukkah is rendered from the goose used for Passover, this poultry (and related game like the Dutch ganzebord) is a popular Ḥanukkah dish, and grivn are often served with the latkes. In Czechoslovakia a shortbread cookie is made of goose cracklings (grameln) for this holiday. Yemen Jews eat laḥis gizar on Ḥanukkah, a sort of carrot stew, carrots being the vegetable in season.

tu bi-shevat

As Sabbath Be-Shalaḥ falls only a few days before Tu bi-Shevat (the Fifteenth of Shevat) many foods for this day are linked to the New Year of Trees. Dutch Jews make Be-Shallaḥ calling it kugel met waatz to symbolize the manna and sauce for the Red Sea where the Egyptians were drowned pursuing the Israelites. Swiss French and some groups from Germany serve a wheat garnish in broth for this reason. Italians make a dish called ruota di faraone (Pharaoh's wheel). Pomerantsen – candied citrus fruits – are popular on this day.

Fresh and dried fruits are served to symbolize the harvests of the trees planted on Tu bi-Shevat in the Holy Land. The bokser – carob fruit (St. John's bread) – has found its way around the world for this festival. In Switzerland and other places 15 fruits to coincide with Tu (= 15) are eaten. Rich dried fruit strudels are often served on Tu bi-Shevat as harvest symbols.

In many Sephardi communities a home service is held at the table where blessings are pronounced over wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and honey. Sephardim would distribute ma'ot perot ("fruit money"). At "white-red wine" parties each child is presented with a bolsa de frutas ("bag of fruit"). Ḥasidic groups arrange large fruit parties for which in the Diaspora they try to obtain fruit from Ereẓ Israel.


The Purim festival has a long culinary history. Recorded in the humorous tractate Massekhet Purim written by Kalonymus b. Kalonymus is the Purim menu listing 27 different meat dishes. All communities make pastries representing Haman's hats, Haman's pockets, or Haman's ears, They are known by different names but similarly filled with poppyseed (Ger. mohn – a sound resembling "Haman"). Some Ashkenazi groups also fill them with povidl – plum jam – to commemorate the rescue of Jews in Bohemia about 250 years ago when a plum merchant was saved from persecution. In Italy ciambella di Purim is a popular pastry, as are Hamantashen in Eastern Europe and mohn plaetzen – poppyseed cookies – in Western Europe. Haman's ears (Heb. oznei haman) – a fried pastry sprinkled with sugar are called Hamansoren (Holland), Hamman-Muetzen (Germany), Schunzuchen (Switzerland and French-Lorraine), Heizenblauzen (Austria), diples (Greece), shamleya (Turkey), and orecchie de Aman (Italy). According to folk tradition the custom originates from the punishment of criminals whose ears were cut off before hanging. Hamantashen are symbolic of Haman's pockets stuffed with bribe money. The Purim ḥallah loaf (given the Russian name keylitsh) is giant-sized and braided, representing the long ropes used to hang Haman. Sephardim fill similar pastries with meat, vegetables, or fruit. For mishlo'aḥ-manot ("sending of presents") on Purim, women in Eastern communities make sugar-starch fingers in various colors, and non-Jews in Eastern lands call Purim ʾīd al-sukar, the sugar festival. It was customary in Persia to distribute, after the reading of the Book of Esther, ha'alva kashka, a pleasantly spiced dessert. All Sephardi and Eastern communities bake sweet cakes filled with almonds or other nuts, all sorts of marzipan, special puralis cake containing a whole egg, and various sorts of pancakes called in Iraq zingula. In Salonika and Istanbul, women baked kulimas, barikas, or sambusach-khavsh – dough filled with meat.

See also *Cookbooks.

[Molly Lyons Bar-David and

Yom-Tov Lewinski]


Dalman, Arbeit, 4 (1935), 260ff.; R.J. Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology, 3 (1955), 50–105; C. Singer, et al. (eds.), A History of Technology, 1 (1954), 270–85; 2 (1956), 103ff.; N. de Garis Davies, The Tomb of Nakht at Thebes (1917), pl. 22; U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis. 2 vols. (1961), passim; idem, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus (1967), passim; J.B. Pritchard, Winery, Defenses and Soundings at Gibeon (1964), 25–27, figs. 54–55; Z. Yeivin, in: Attiqot (English Series), 3 (1966), 52–62; S. Krauss, Kadmoniyyotha-Talmud, 2 (1929), 93–276; A. Wiener, Die juedischen Speisegesetze (1895); J. Elzet (Zlotnik), Yidishe Maakholim (1920); M. Kosover, in: Yuda A. Yofe-Bukh (1958), 1–145; B. Safran, Di Yidishe Kikh in Ale Lender (1930); Y. Kafah, Halikhot Teiman (1962), chs. 1, 3–5; L. Cornfeld, Ha-Bishul ha-Tov (1967); idem, Israeli Cookery (1962); M.L. Bar-David, Jewish Cooking for Pleasure (1965); idem, Sefer Bishul Folklori (1964).


views updated May 29 2018



Caryn E. Neumann


Caryn E. Neumann


Caryn E. Neumann

Food: An Overview

Food during the Civil War tended to be plain and simple. Cooking styles in both the North and South did not vary dramatically from the colonial era. Differences in climate, terrain, and produce from state to state led to differences in cuisine, however. The New Englander, the Louisiana Cajun, and the Virginia tidewater aristocrat all dined on distinct cuisines. The foods of this era are difficult to replicate, partly because some of the varieties of fruits and vegetables are no longer sold and partly because many dishes were considered too common to record. Only foods prepared for special occasions typically appeared in cookbooks prior to the twentieth century.

There are some broad similarities in Civil War foods. American cuisine is based on English, African, and Native American cuisines. English cookbooks appeared in America with the first colonists. The recipes, rich with herbs, included dishes that would become American staples, such as fruitcake, pound cake, and butter sauces. Africans, who as slaves cooked for the wealthier Southern households, cooked okra in pots along with tomatoes. Sesame seeds and bean pilaus are other traditional African foods. The popularity of peanuts and sweet potatoes in the Southern diet may also reflect African influence, although these foods are native to the New World. Most Native American contributions to American cuisine came in the form of produce, such as squash, tomatoes, and, most famously, corn.

The kitchens and preservation styles of Americans in the Civil War era differed little from those of Europeans in centuries past. Cooking continued to be centered around open hearths and brick ovens. An adjustable spit was used for roasting, while a series of cranes and pulleys made it possible to move pots closer or farther from the flame. Pots were typically made of iron or tin. Only the wealthiest households could afford copper pots and pans. Most homes had at least four saucepans of various sizes, several skillets, a waffle iron, bread pans, a toasting iron, and a teakettle. Cooks used iron skillets called spiders, which were fitted with long legs that could be set among the coals. Dutch ovens were also common. These pots had legs and deep-rimmed lids so that coals could be piled both above and beneath for even heating. A chafing dish—a table-high tripod with a receptacle for coals—would be used for delicate dishes, such as boiled custard, or for the finishing of fricassees and sauces. American kitchens also generally held tin cake pans, pie pans, an oilcan, a candle box, a funnel, an egg boiler, scoops, dippers, a colander, breadboxes, and cake boxes. Woodenware in the home would typically include a breadboard, spice boxes, and a saltbox. Earthenware jars with lids kept pickles, butter, and salt. Baskets of various sizes held fruit, vegetables, and eggs.

The use of kitchen equipment required considerable skill as heat could not be regulated with the flick of a knob or push of a button as it can be today. Advice on frying food appeared in the March 1864 issue of Godey's Lady's Book, the most popular magazine for women in the nineteenth century, with a circulation of 150,000 during the 1860s. Cooks were told to use a pan that was about four inches deep, with a perfectly flat and thin bottom, twelve inches long and nine inches wide. The editors warned women to be very particular about what they used for frying. Clean, fresh, salt-free oil, butter, lard, or drippings were most advisable. Additionally, cooks in large kitchens could use clarified mutton or beef suet, preferably from the kidney area. (Southern cooks used sunflower seed oil when animal fats became scarce.) The fire under the pan needed to be clear and sharp, while the light in the kitchen had to be good enough to judge the color of cooked food. To determine when the frying pan had reached the proper heat, a cook was advised to throw a little bit of bread into the pan. If it fried crisp, the fat was ready. If it burned the bread, the fat was too hot. Knowing when fat was at proper heat was the key to frying. The magazine warned that although frying was one of the most common culinary operations, it was one that was rarely performed perfectly well.

Large brick ovens were easier to use than fry pans. These ovens were either freestanding or housed in a separate outbuilding, especially in hot Southern regions where additional heat in the home was not appreciated. Brick ovens were heated by coals; the coals were then swept out, and bread was placed directly on the oven floor. A dome of clay bricks above held the heat and the bread cooled gradually, forming a crisp, chewy crust. Pastries and other baked goods, as well as baked meats—often encased in pastry—also benefited from the radiant heat of the brick floor.

Iceboxes were sold commercially during the Civil War, but they were a luxury. For most Americans, the 1860s remained an era before refrigeration. Preservation methods included drying and smoking. Extra fruits and vegetables were bottled in Mason jars, a device perfected in 1859. Home canning did not become widespread until the development of the pressure cooker in 1874. As a result, Godey's Lady's Book offered numerous food storage tips. In August 1864, the magazine advised readers that vegetables kept best on a stone floor and apples could be preserved for a long period by packing them in large barrels with dry sand. Coarse nets suspended in a storeroom worked well to preserve finer fruits, such as lemons. Women were advised to purchase and prepare large quantities of lemons and oranges when they were cheap. The peels were saved for sweetmeats (organ meat) and grating, as they were commonly used in various dishes. Onions, shallots, and garlic were also hung up for winter use, in ropes from the ceiling, as were dried parsley, basil, savory, and, knotted together, marjoram, thyme, and tarragon.

Most of the recipes in Godey's Lady's Book were contributed by middle-class readers and were meant for family meals. Unlike cookbooks, these recipes were not intended for banquets or fine dining. The recipes indicate that the average American ate mostly meat and baked goods. The largest number of meat recipes in the magazine during the war were for beef, followed by those for pork, veal, wildfowl, chicken, turkey, lamb, and wild game. Chicken was only served in the summer, perhaps because that was the most appropriate time for thinning a flock. Because the United States was primarily rural, most of the consumed meat came from animals killed on the farm or brought in from the hunt. Accordingly, a cook would not want to waste any part of the animal. Tongue, brains, feet, and sweetmeats were regularly eaten. Seafood was also popular. Overall, Americans ate a wider range of meats than is common in the twenty-first century. These meats may have been well seasoned. Cayenne pepper was popular, and archeological examinations of sunken ships from the Civil War era have revealed that sailors used Worcestershire sauce in considerable quantities. The word "gravy" in Civil War recipes usually meant stock, not a sauce.

Civil War Americans ate comparatively few vegetables and fruits. In rural areas, people grew their own vegetables but the variety was not particularly great. Potatoes were most popular, followed by cabbages, onions, and turnips. Potatoes appear to have been served with every meal. The ease with which root vegetables could be preserved over the winter undoubtedly contributed to their popularity. Fresh vegetables were usually not available in the winter. Salads were not eaten, except for chicken salad and lobster salad. Southerners ate a number of different corn products, including hominy, a crude ash bread called pone, and ears of corn roasted in ashes. Everyone ate succotash—a mixture of corn and lima beans—as well as corn fritters, corn mush, boiled and baked corn puddings, and corn chowder.

The typical American ate little fruit, except for apples and pears. Oranges and lemons were usually special treats, as they were expensive imports. Coconuts and pineapple, brought in from Cuba, could be found in markets. Watermelon, berries, and grapes were sometimes grown locally. Both apples and pears were pressed into cider and perry, healthier beverages than water. (Cholera, a major nineteenth-century killer, was spread through water consumption, as were a number of other nasty parasitic diseases.) Although the North had dairies and bottled milk had been sold in New York City since the 1850s, milk consumption nationally was less than half a pint a day. Canned condensed milk, perfected by Gail Borden, was only available to the troops, as the U.S. government commandeered Borden's entire factory output. The alcoholic beverage most favored by Americans at mid-century was beer, followed by whiskey and wine. Coffee was just becoming popular at the start of the war. When it became rare, drinkers drank mock coffees, brewed from a wide range of substances: parched and ground acorns, beans, chicory, corn, cottonseed, dandelion roots, groundnuts, okra seed, peanuts, parched rice, rye, sweet potato, and wheat. Eating chocolate was largely unknown and baking chocolate did not become available until later in the century. Hot chocolate, however, was consumed. In the South, when chocolate became unavailable, cooks invented a substitute made from roasted peanuts blended with boiled milk and sugar. Common teas included black alder, blackberry, currant, holly, huckleberry, raspberry, and sassafras. Confederate soldiers made mock tea from corn bran, ginger, or various herbs.

Breads were a staple of the American diet. When Europeans arrived in the New World, they discovered maize, also called Indian corn. (The Old English word for grain is corn.) This popular Indian food was so closely linked with the Native Americans that it became known as injun. By the nineteenth century, the bread known as rye 'n injun filled the stomachs of many Northerners. By the time of the Civil War, most Northern households used fine white flour. Corn and rice, not wheat, were the major grain crops of the Confederate states. Cornbread, not wheat or rye bread, was found in the majority of Southern homes.

Leaven made for a lighter bread product. Hardtack, the infamously unpalatable staple food of the Civil War soldier, stayed in the "eat-it-or-starve" category because it lacked leavening. Accordingly, leaven was actively pursued. Commercial yeast did not reach the market until 1868. Civil War cooks used potash, a potassium carbonate leeched out of burned wood ash. Partially refined, it was known as pearlash and had been exported by the ton since the late eighteenth century. Saleratus, a leavening agent, became available to cooks in the first half of the nineteenth century. Combined with cream of tartar (an acid) to make it work, it evolved into baking powder in 1856. Yeast became commercially available around 1868, although other versions were commonly made at home before that time. Godey's often included recipes for yeast. In 1863 the magazine included directions for making peach-leaf yeast, potato yeast, and hop-beer yeast.

Civil War desserts were typically puddings. Common Northern fare included corn, plum, and pumpkin puddings, whereas Southerners enjoyed sweet potato and rice puddings. Custards, creams, and fruit desserts also enjoyed popularity. Molasses custard and huckleberry pie were common in the South. Tarts, made of apples, lemons, or cranberries, were often baked in a crock with only a pastry lid. The term cake was used interchangeably for breads and cookies. Northerners baked Boston cream cakes and Vermont currant cake. Both regions enjoyed rhubarb fool and strawberry soufflé.

The Civil War did not have a large effect on the food habits of Northerners. It did, however, drastically affect the nature of the foods available to Southerners. Following the war, food habits returned to normal in the South by the start of the 1870s.


Evans, Meryle, et al. The Southern Heritage Breads Cookbook. Birmingham, AL: Oxmoor House, 1983.

Fowler, Damon Lee. Classical Southern Cooking: A Celebration of the Cuisine of the Old South. New York: Crown, 1995.

Grover, Kathryn, ed. Dining in America, 1850–1900. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.

Johnson, Sharon Peregrine, and Byron A. Johnson. The Authentic Guide to Drinks of the Civil War Era, 1853-1873. Gettysburg, PA: Thomas, 1992.

McIntosh, Elaine N. American Food Habits in Historical Perspective. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995.

Spaulding, Lily May, and John Spaulding, eds. Civil War Recipes: Receipts from the Pages of Godey's Lady's Book. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999.

Caryn E. Neumann


During the Civil War, the average American had a diet centered on meat and bread in both the North and South. There was, however, an increasing interest in changing general eating patterns. Vegetarianism was promoted, and many foods were used for medicinal purposes. The safety of food preparation was re-evaluated, and women were encouraged to become more educated in cooking and to approach cooking scientifically. The feeding of children was studied, as well, and new ideas on scheduling and rationing a child's food were implemented.

The nineteenth century witnessed a health reform movement that placed food at the heart of its philosophy. Vegetarians, encouraged by the theories of Sylvester Graham, argued that the killing and eating of animals contaminated and brutalized the human soul, making meat-eaters murderous and bloodthirsty. In 1860, as the United States stood on the brink of war, the prominent health reformer Russell Trail criticized the presidential contenders for failing to address a vitally important topic: vegetarianism—or, as he put it, the issue of "beef versus bread, hog v. hominy, or mutton v. squash" (Whorton 1982, p. 62). Like other vegetarians of the time, Trail held that true emancipation meant the liberation of all Americans from an appetite for flesh.

Other reformers saw different dangers in the nations kitchens. A certain Dr. Hill, for example, quoted in Godey's Lady's Book in August 1865, warned of the cost of inadequate food preparation practices: "Bad cookery kills multitudes, and makes miserable dyspeptics and suicides innumerable. It would be an inestimable boon to humanity to make cookery an indispensable branch of public school learning." A proper diet of properly prepared food was essential for good physical and mental health.

Food preparation had long been regarded as women's work and as not requiring education or analysis, while cookbooks were simply collections of recipes. The publication in 1846 of Catherine Beecher's Treatise on Domestic Economy, however, did much to change American attitudes toward diet. Beecher encouraged women to learn all they could about contemporary science and to use that knowledge to decide how to best feed their families. Other publications, such as advice books, home medical manuals, and women's magazines, emphasized that women needed scientific education to be good wives and mothers. All of these ideas remained in vogue during the Civil War.

As mentioned above, meat and baked goods predominated in the average American diet of the 1860s. A New England breakfast often consisted of cornmeal mush with cream, perhaps with some maple syrup as a sweetener. The same table might include corn dodgers (cornmeal griddle cakes), tea, and doughnuts made from locally ground wheat. Dinner, the largest meal of the day and served at noon, typically consisted of boiled potatoes and ham, fresh pork, or corned beef. Pie would always be served with apple in the winter, rhubarb in the spring, and berry in the summer and fall. Mincemeat pie, perhaps made with venison and boiled cider, appears to have been more common in the fall and winter. A Saturday dinner would consist of boiled salted codfish. A Sunday dinner might be baked beans, brown bread, and Indian pudding. In the evening, supper was served. This was typically a light meal of johnnycake and milk, bread and milk with maple syrup, or flapjacks sprinkled with brown sugar, followed by custard.

Meals were equally as plain in the South. Although meat was scarce in the South during the war, beef and pork were heavily favored. In 1861, for example, one South Carolina inn served hog and hominy (pork and boiled corn) for breakfast, dinner, and supper. The Southern upper classes did usually consume a greater variety of foods, however. A woman in Georgia lamented during the summer of 1865 that on her plantation

We have no kind of meat in our house but ham and bacon, and have to eat hominy instead of rice at dinner….Cornfield peas have been our staple diet for the last ten days. Mother has cooked them in every variety of style she ever heard, but they are cornfield peas still. All this would have been horribly mortifying a year or two ago, but everyone knows how it is now, and I am glad to have even cornfield peas to share with the soldiers. (Spaulding 1999, p. 6)

Medicinal foods also formed part of the diet. Until the advent of antibiotics in the mid-twentieth century, there was little that physicians could do for people sick with wasting diseases, chronic illnesses, or any other type of serious illness. Family members, chiefly women, were expected to care for the ill as well as possible, usually by treating them with patent medicines or home remedies. Vanilla, for example, was used as an aid for stomach distress, as a stimulant, and as a calmative for hysteria. For invalids, jelly was recommended, according to the May 1862 Godey's Lady's Book. Isinglass jelly contained one ounce of isinglass (gelatin) shavings, forty Jamaica peppers, and a bit of brown crust of bread that was boiled and then strained. Bread jelly required that the crum of a penny roll be cut into thin slices, toasted to pale brown, boiled gently in a quart of water, strained on a bit of lemon peel, sweetened with sugar and, perhaps, strengthened with wine. Strengthening jelly contained an ounce of pearl barley, an ounce of sago, an ounce of rice, and an ounce of eringo root reduced in two quarts of soft water to one quart. It was to be taken by teacupful in milk, morning, noon, and night.

The feeding of children was of particular interest. The "Health Department" of Godey's Lady's Book warned that half of all children died before reaching the age of eighteen because of inattention to their diet. The magazine advised that children past age six be limited to three meals a day, augmented by snacks of apple or cold, dry, coarse bread. Children were to be taught to eat slowly, though they could eat as much as they wanted, and hard food was to be cut up into pieces no larger than a pea. To provide the lime needed for the development of good teeth, the magazine suggested that children should eat whole-grain brown bread instead of white bread.


"Editor's Table." Godey's Lady's Book and Magazine, 71, August 1865.

Kamminga, Harmke, and Andrew Cunningham, eds. The Science and Culture of Nutrition, 1840-1940. Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1995.

Spaulding, Lily May, and John Spaulding, eds. Civil War Recipes: Receipts from the Pages of Godey's Lady's Book. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999.

Whorton, James C. Crusaders for Fitness: The History ofAmerican Health Reformers. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982.

Caryn E. Neumann

Food Shortages

Food shortages became a fact of life in the Confederacy during the Civil War. The Confederacy suffered from a constant and critical lack of provisions, a situation stemming from a number of factors ranging from its economy to enemy actions. The Union blockade of the seas, successful Union invasions, the occupation of key agricultural areas, and the fighting of battles on prime farmland resulted in a sharp reduction in Southern food production. Army rations, already sparse at the beginning of the war, were cut back as the conflict progressed. As historians have noted, the South's ultimate defeat came in part because of the ever-present hunger suffered by soldiers and civilians. The North, in contrast, did not experience a food shortage to any degree.

The South suffered from a severe shortage of food crops. Prior to the Civil War, the main crops of the South were tobacco and cotton. Neither crop filled stomachs. In 1863, Joseph Brown, the governor of Georgia, issued a proclamation calling on Georgians to plant food crops instead of tobacco and cotton. He also urged that farmers "prevent the destruction of food" by turning stored foodstuffs into alcoholic beverages (New York Times, October 25, 1863). Before the war, many Southern farmers produced corn and other grains for home consumption. When these men went off to war, their households lost an irreplaceable source of family support. Without slave ownership or the funds to replace the labor of absent husbands, ordinary Southern white women experienced great deprivation. Many were forced to rely on the charity of town councils and similar groups.

As the war continued and more Southerners required food aid, the pool of food resources continued to shrink and prices rose. Additionally, Confederate currency rapidly lost its purchasing power. In 1864, a bushel of potatoes that cost $2.25 in the North cost $25 in Richmond (Moore 1996, p. 242). Confederate diarist Mary Chesnut reported spending $800 for two pounds of tea, forty pounds of coffee, and sixty pounds of sugar in June 1864 (DeCredico 1996, p. 163).

Rising levels of desertion from the Confederate army were frequently blamed on the fact that many men could no longer bear the thought of the destitution their wives and children were facing. In response, the Confederacy and state governments took steps to support the dependents of soldiers. Charleston, for example, established a free market to supply provisions to the needy families of soldiers and sailors. These governmental bodies were not always successful, however. By January 1864, the Charleston market had exhausted its funds and could no longer provide help to several thousand dependent women and children. Even when food was available, it often failed to reach its destination because of problems with the Confederate railroads. By the mid-point of the war, most Southern rails were deteriorating rapidly and routine maintenance had become almost impossible because of a shortage of iron.

In the spring of 1863, the Confederacy was rocked by food riots. The Richmond Bread Riot involved a group of women, estimated at anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand, who marched to Capitol Square in search of food and answers as to why their families were starving. The mob looted the business district until President Jefferson Davis calmed the situation by threatening to have a militia infantry unit fire on them. The next day, the Richmond city council established a free city market for the meritorious poor. For those in reduced circumstances as a result of inflation and shortages, the council created a city depot where low-cost provisions could be sold. Bread riots also broke out in Atlanta and in High Point, North Carolina.

While much of the damage to fields resulted inadvertently from fighting, punishing civilians became the goal of Union troops marching with General William T. Sherman. As part of Sherman's policy of hard war, his men were ordered to destroy civilians' food supply, leaving just enough food for the people to eat. Even those Southerners with money found it difficult to obtain food. Eliza Mason Smith, a member of a prominent planter family from the low country outside of Charleston, South Carolina, fled to Augusta, Georgia, in 1864. She reported that prices in the market were high beyond belief, that many foods could not be bought at any price, and that no goods were secure because of widespread theft, including daily street robberies (Whites 1995, p. 99). Catherine Rowland of Augusta reported a similar situation in the winter of 1865. In her diary she observed, "I was startled and amazed to find out how greatly the price of everything had advanced, it is awful, and how the poor can live I cannot imagine" (p. 99). The Charleston Mercury reported on February 10, 1865, that Captain Julian Mitchell, under the authority of the South Carolina governor, aimed to save food from the hands of the enemy for the use of South Carolinians. "The garden of the State is now the battle ground of two armies," the newspaper explained, "and not a plough will, in all probability, be struck in this whole region of country again until the end of the war" (New York Times, February 11, 1865). According to the May 6, 1865, issue of the New York Herald, despite the efforts of Mitchell and others, starvation did come to the South.

Food Shortages in the Last Days of the Confederacy

Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut (1823-1886), the daughter of a governor of South Carolina and wife of a senator, James Chesnut Jr., kept a diary from February 1861 until August 1865 in which she recorded her impressions of the Civil War and of life on the Southern home front. The Chesnuts were living in Charleston, South Carolina, when the Civil War began in 1861. James Chesnut became a brigadier general in the Confederate Army after he resigned his seat in the U.S. Senate. In her diary, Mary chronicled the growing hardships experienced on the Southern home front, especially after 1863. The following excerpts from early 1865 describe the effects of food shortages on even well-to-do Southerners in the last year of the war.

February 16th, 1865…. The day I left home I had packed a box of flour, sugar rice, and coffee, but my husband would not let me bring it. He said I was coming to a land of plenty-unexplored North Carolina, where the foot of the Yankee marauder was unknown, and in Columbia they would need food. Now I have written for that box and many other things to be sent me…or I shall starve.

February 18th…. As we came up on the train from Charlotte a soldier took out of his pocket a filthy rag. If it had lain in the gutter for months it could not have looked worse. He unwrapped the thing carefully and took out two biscuits of the species known as "hard tack." Then he gallantly handed me one and with an ingratiating smile asked me "to take some." Then he explained, saying, "Please take these two; swap with me; give me something softer that I can eat; I am very weak still." Immediately, for his benefit, my basket of luncheon was emptied, but as for his biscuit, I would not choose any.

February 26th.—Mrs. Munroe offered me religious books, which I declined, being already provided with the Lamentations of Jeremiah, the Psalms of David, the denunciations of Hosea, and, above all, the patient wail of Job. Job is my comforter now. I should be so thankful to know life never would be any worse with me. My husband is well…. I am bodily comfortable, if somewhat dingily lodged, and I daily part with my raiment for food. We find no one who will exchange eatables for Confederate money; so we are devouring our clothes.

February 29th. Ellen [Mary's maid] and I are shut up here. It is rain, rain, everlasting rain. As our money is worthless, are we not to starve? Heavens! how grateful I was to-day when Mrs. McLean sent me a piece of chicken. I think the emptiness of my larder has leaked out. To-day Mrs. Munroe sent me hot cakes and eggs for my breakfast.

March 5th…. The rain, it raineth every day. The weather typifies our tearful despair, on a large scale. It is also Lent now—a quite convenient custom, for we, in truth, have nothing to eat. So we fast and pray, and go dragging to church like drowned rats to be preached at…. Ellen said I had a little piece of bread and a little molasses in store for my dinner to-day.

March 6th. To-day came a godsend. Even a small piece of bread and the molasses had become things of the past. My larder was empty, when a tall mulatto woman brought a tray covered by a huge white serviette. Ellen ushered her in with a flourish, saying, "Mrs. McDaniel's maid." The maid set down the tray upon my bare table, and uncovered it with conscious pride. There were fowls ready for roasting, sausages, butter, bread, eggs, and preserves. I was dumb with delight. After silent thanks to heaven my powers of speech returned, and I exhausted myself in messages of gratitude to Mrs. McDaniel.

Frey J. Rebecca

SOURCE: Chesnut, Mary Boykin Miller. A Diary from Dixie. New York: D. Appleton, 1905, pp. 348–357.

Food shortages forced Southerners to make substitutions for products that had been easily accessible before the war. Typical substitutions included artichoke leaves for hops in the manufacture of yeast, peach tree leaves for vanilla, and sorghum for sugar. Salt pork and bacon grease were common seasonings in Southern cookery prior to the Civil War. With meat scarce and poverty rampant during the war, it became usual to supplement the meager diet of field peas, greens, sweet potatoes, and grits with cheap salt pork fat. The North, in sharp contrast, had enough food to be able to export the surplus to Europe.

With the end of the war came food for the Confederacy. When Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, he reported that his men had been without food for two days and asked Ulysses S. Grant to feed them. Lee's soldiers reportedly sent up a rousing cheer when wagons of food appeared. The May 6, 1865, New York Herald reported that only the fact that U.S. commissaries were furnishing them with food was preserving the people of Virginia from starvation. "At present," the newspaper warned, "the farmers generally are without the implements or seeds necessary to do their planting, and unless these can be speedily procured there will be no crops forthcoming in the State in the summer and fall." The war's outcome depended as much on stomachs as it did on bullets.


"Amnesty Offered to the Southern People." New York Herald, May 6, 1865, p. 1, col. 1.

"Black Flag Raised South, by Starving Women." New York Times. February 11, 1865, p. 4, col. 3, quoting the Charleston Mercury, February 10, 1865.

Davis, William C. A Taste for War: The Culinary History of the Blue and Gray. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2003.

DeCredico, Mary A. Mary Boykin Chesnut: A Confederate Woman's Life. Madison, WI: Madison House, 1996.

Dickson, Paul. Chow: A Cook's Tour of Military Food. New York: New American Library, 1978.

Moore, Jerrold Northrop. Confederate Commissary General: Lucius Bellinger Northrop and the Subsistence Bureau of the Southern Army. Shippensburg, PA: White Mane, 1996.

"Report on Defeat of Shelby in Missouri (War)." New York Times. October 25, 1863, p. 6, col. 5.

Whites, LeeAnn. The Civil War as a Crisis in Gender: Augusta, Georgia, 1860-1890. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995.

Caryn E. Neumann


views updated May 29 2018



Lawful and Prohibited Foods . Despite their vast geographic, social, and chronological diversity, Muslims share the concepts of halal (permitted) and haram (forbidden) foods. The verse of the Qur’an outlining these prohibitions says, “He has only forbidden you dead meat and blood and the flesh of swine and any (food) over which the name of other than Allah has been invoked. But if one is forced by necessity without willful disobedience nor transgressing due limits then Allah is Oft-Forgiving Most Merciful.” (16: 115). The verse thus forbids four categories of flesh but allows for their consumption in cases of desperate hunger. The Qur’an also requires special rites for slaughtering animals: “To every people did We appoint rites (of sacrifice) that they might celebrate the name of Allah over the sustenance He gave them from animals (fit for food) but your Allah is one Allah: submit then your wills to Him (in Islam) and give thou the Good News to those who humble themselves” (22: 34). The ritual sacrifice that marks various Islamic celebrations always involves distribution of the meat among family, friends, and the needy. As the Qur’an says, “It is not their meat nor their blood that reaches Allah: it is your piety that reaches Him. …” (22: 37). Beyond the few forbidden foods, Muslims are encouraged to “Eat of the things which Allah hath provided for you lawful and good: but fear Allah in Whom ye believe” (5: 88).

Tayyibat . The word used for good and lawful food is tayyibat, or beneficial provisions of God. Many such permissible and beneficial foods are mentioned in the Qur’an, including various fruits, vegetables, herbs, grains, milk, and honey. All kinds of seafood are permitted in Islam and do not require ritual slaughter. The prohibition against pork and its derivatives virtually eliminated the raising of pigs in Southwest Asia, North Africa, and parts of Central Asia, but the hot weather and the earlier prohibition against pork among Jews made pork rare in these regions even before Islam, in contrast to East Asia and Europe. In other regions where Islam spread, archaeologists use the lack of pork remains as evidence for identifying Muslim settlements within non-Muslim areas. Other meat prohibitions included animals that had been killed by a predator, by goring, or by falling, unless the animal could be slaughtered before it died. It was significant, however, that Muslims were specifically permitted to eat meat slaughtered by Jews and Christians. This provision fostered social mingling because Muslims could break bread with the People of the Book, and it made family life in mixed marriages much easier than it would otherwise have been. A society that required dietary isolation among the people who worship the same God would have effectively prohibited sharing among neighbors and visits among all sorts of associates, creating great difficulties among people who converted to Islam as they tried to follow the Islamic requirement to keep good relations with the families of their birth. The ability to share food prevented isolationism. Among religiously heterogeneous neighbors in Muslim regions, sharing of food among neighbors of different faiths was common, and it is frequently mentioned in literature.

Alcoholic Beverages . The well-known Islamic prohibition against wine extended to all fermented, alcoholic beverages that might be made from dates or grains (such as beer and distilled spirits). Addressing the Prophet and the questions raised by his followers, the Qur’an states, “They ask you concerning wine and gambling. Say: ‘In them is great sin and some profit for people; but the sin is greater than the profit.’ They ask thee how much they are to spend; say: ‘What is beyond your needs.’ Thus does Allah make clear to you His Signs: in order that ye may consider” (2: 219). Muslim legal scholars unanimously interpreted the prohibition as meaning any intoxicating substance, including drugs that clouded the mind. During Muhammad’s prophethood, the prohibition was introduced gradually, beginning with the injunction not to come to prayer beclouded with drink, which sharply limited when a person might drink and still make the five daily prayers. Hadith transmitter Anas Ibn Malik reported that when the final prohibition was revealed at Madinah, whoever was serving wine at the time dumped out their vessels immediately. As the news spread through the city, it was reported, wine ran in the streets. For later Islamic periods, it is difficult to gauge the degree to which this prohibition was honored as the Muslim presence expanded into areas where wine was produced and used by people of other religions.

Pre-Islamic and Early Islamic Arabia . Settled Arab farmers lived in oases and highland areas with rainfall, growing dates, barley, and, less often, wheat. In addition to these staples they grew vegetables such as onions, gourds, cucumbers, palm hearts, various greens, herbs, and fruits such as grapes and pomegranates. The diet of the pastoral people consisted mainly of milk and occasionally meat from a slaughtered sheep or goat, but only rarely a camel. They supplemented their diet with wild fruits, vegetables, herbs, game, and small desert animals such as lizards. From the oases they acquired dates and grain for bread, illustrating the relationship between pastoral and settled groups at its most basic level. Through their interaction, both groups gained variety and additional nutrients in their diets. Dates are a highly nutritious, healthful staple, providing many vitamins, minerals, and carbohydrates. The date palm had many other uses as a source of wood, fiber, and thatching material. Bread was something of a luxury among pastoral tribes. Dates, raisins, and thin strips of roasted meat were sun-dried to preserve them. Honey was a rare but appreciated sweetener mentioned in the Qur’an as a healing and blessed substance, and milk was also celebrated in prophetic lore. Milk was drunk fresh and preserved as clarified butter or cheese. Foods were cooked by roasting, boiling, or baking on hot stones. Cuisine was simple, as in hays, a mixture of dates, butter, and milk, or tharid, a broth made of meat and vegetables with crumbled bread. Broths and porridges were made. Since eating dry bread was not considered a meal, bread was dipped into a condiment such as oil, vinegar, or salt if nothing else. While spices such as cinnamon and saffron and aromatics such as mastic were known and traded through the region, their use was probably sparse because they were expensive. Expeditions and caravans carried the components for sawik—dried barley meal to which water and clarified butter or fat from the tails of sheep was added. The irrigated agriculture of southern

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Arabia allowed more variety in fruits, vegetables, and grains, producing wheat, sesame, beans, and capers. Date groves, orchards, and vineyards were common.

Cuisines . With the expansion of Islam into the Fertile Crescent, North Africa, and Central Asia, the rich agriculture and culinary heritages of Rome, Persia, India, and Egypt were added to the simple Arab fare. The tendency for migrating people to import their native food habits over all else may have led the Arabs to introduce their simple fare into new lands, but this diet was counterbalanced by the newly available variety of foods in the rich agricultural regions of the Fertile Crescent. The many new ingredients and methods of preparation in the Fertile Crescent and elsewhere soon overcame the simple diet of the Arab migrants, though it continued with little change in the Arabian peninsula. Among converts in the new territories, the Islamic prohibitions against haram foods modified existing dietary practices and influenced the further development of cuisines in those areas.

Crop Transfers . Another factor that altered the diet in Muslim regions after the seventh century was the introduction of new crops fostered by expansion, migration, travel, and trade. Literary sources from the medieval Muslim world show that a great deal of travel, migration, and trade took place. For humble pilgrims, scholars, merchants, and diplomatic envoys, traveling within the Dar al-Islam (Abode of Islam) meant the possibility of traversing much of inland Asia, the coasts of the Indian Ocean from China to East Africa, North and West Africa, and the lands around the Mediterranean, including Spain. Travelers took with them knowledge of the farming techniques, plant life, and cuisine of their native regions, and they were exposed to the knowledge and products of the lands they visited. The result was an important period of exchange in crops, agricultural methods, and foods. Botanical exchanges that took place between the seventh and the fifteenth centuries in the Muslim world include many important food crops, such as sorghum, rice, hard wheat, sugar cane, citrus, and nutritious vegetables.

Supplying Cities . The degree of urbanization in Muslim society points to an efficient and well-developed system of agriculture and food distribution, as well as crafts related to the processing of staples such as oil, cheeses, and other dairy products and preserving meat, fish, fruits, and flour for city populations. Major towns and cities had commercial establishments for storing and selling ice even in summer. In the central Muslim lands, ice was usually gathered from snow-capped mountains, where it was compacted, packed, and transported in straw or sawdust, canvas, and lead-lined boxes. At the point of sale, ice was stored in lined pits underground. Occasional hail or snow was made into slabs and preserved, and winter river-ice from north of the Caspian Sea was imported. While ice was a luxury enjoyed profusely in the palaces of the wealthy, it was common in lesser quantities in prosperous homes, and as an occasional treat for others. One of its best-known appearances in Islamic history was the iced sherbet offered by the legendary Salah al-Din (Saladin) to Richard the Lion-hearted when the English king fell ill.

Fats . Olive oil had been a Mediterranean staple since ancient times, produced for local use and export using several types of oil presses whose gradual development was one of the earliest forms of mechanical engineering. Beam presses, screw presses, and vertical and horizontal grindstones were all used to extract the oil from the olive or seed cake. Many Muslim regions—including Syria, Palestine, and Tunis—were well known for exporting olive oil. Where it was plentiful, olive oil was also used for lighting in homes and masjids, a use mentioned in the well-known “Verse of Light” in the Qur’an (Qur’an, Ayat al-Nur). Olive oil was eaten as a condiment with bread, mixed with herbs such as oregano and mint, combined with other fresh ingredients, and added to cooking. Other prized vegetable oils were sesame from fresh and roasted seeds, cottonseed, and poppy-seed oil. Almond, pistachio, and other nut oils were used in baking sweets. Linseed and castor oil were pressed for industrial uses. Animal fat was clarified for preservation and used in cooking, mostly by the lower classes. Butter was used fresh or clarified by removing the protein, leaving pure butter fat, called saman, which kept well. It was mixed into foods or used for frying.

Salt . Salt was traded on a large scale as a health essential and important preservative. Books for the muhtasib (market inspector) include guidance that this officer should make sure that the leftover fish each day be salted to preserve it and to prevent its being sold as fresh the next day. Meats were preserved with salt, fats, and spices as sausages, and the muhtasib was also responsible for overseeing its manufacture. The gold-for-salt trade in West Africa was carried on to provide inland people in salt-poor areas with an essential dietary supplement. Another stimulus to the gold-salt trade in West Africa may have been the need to preserve the plentiful catch of fish during the season of flooding in the inland delta of the Niger River, which became a series of lakes and wetlands during the wet season, and was near the cities of Djenne, Gao, and later Timbuktu—all regional centers for grain, cotton, and animal products that developed and sustained long-distance trade.

Cheese and Curds . Milk could be preserved by curdling, or souring, and salting. Medieval sources mention soft and hard cheeses made from goat, sheep, and camel milk. Curds of milk were dried and used in cooking sauces. Yogurt was introduced by the pastoral Turks and became known to Europeans through visitors to the Ottoman Empire near or after 1500. Fresh and curdled milk were featured in recipes for vegetables, meat, and sweet dishes.

Beverages . Milk was mentioned as a favored drink in the Qur’an and hadiths. Milk from goats, camels, sheep, and buffalo was drunk fresh; soured, salted, and diluted with water; and sometimes traditionally fermented. The Turks in their native Asian steppe drank mare’s milk and fermented it for use in a strong, ceremonial beverage called koumiss. Water was the basic drink of rich and poor, a welcome refreshment in warm, arid lands. Drinking water after a meal was a practice of the Prophet, who warned believers to fill their stomachs one-third full with food and one-third full with water and to leave one-third empty. Construction of wells and public fountains was a common charitable activity, and shopkeepers kept pottery jars of air-cooled water at their doorsteps. In pastoral regions, water skins continued in use after the time of the Prophet, and they are frequently mentioned in hadiths. Watersellers were ubiquitous in public places, and with their tanks, belts, and shining cups they can still be seen in Muslim cities today. Literary sources mention containers and methods for drawing water from rivers and wells, filtering it, and allowing it to settle until it was crystal clear. The wealthy mixed water with snow. Drinks prepared from pressed or soaked fruits were common, but the jurists warned people not to allow them to ferment. The propriety of using drinks that fermented quickly was debated, since they were used as a base for all sorts of alcoholic drinks before Islam. Sugar, honey, and treacle were used to preserve fruit juices. Fruit juices and fragrant syrups were even bottled for export to the cities, and they were frequently mixed with water and iced for drinking after dinner and on other occasions. Prepared drinks were also made with ginger, tamarind, jujubes, licorice, and flowers. Laymun was a sherbet (sweet-ened “drink”)

that resembles lemonade. Such drinks were prescribed in medical works. Pharmacies and perfumers sold dried substances from which infusions could be made.

Alcohol . Beer-like drinks prepared from almost any fruits or grains were common in all pre-Islamic societies. Despite the Islamic prohibition on alcoholic beverages, neither wine drinking nor the cultivation of grapes for wine was eliminated from lands chiefly populated by Muslims. Wine was specifically allowed to dhimmis (non-Muslim People of the Book) since it was used in religious practices such as communion. There are many historical and literary references to the persistence of wine drinking despite Islamic law. Contemporary historians reported that some prominent rulers regularly drank, not at courtly dinners but in more intimate gatherings of like-minded courtiers. Celebration of wine also appears in literature that depicts the life of scoundrels and thieves. Incongruously, in some Arabic and Persian poetry wine became a metaphor for both worldly love and love of the divine in a purely spiritual sense.

Social Practice . It is difficult to tell, however, how widely wine was drunk in actual social practice. While alcoholic beverages certainly did not disappear from Muslim societies altogether, it is nonetheless probable that the prohibition against drinking, selling, manufacturing, and transporting alcohol by Muslims (though not by non-Muslims) exercised a dampening effect, and that common folk generally obeyed this ban, since it is still widely observed in Muslim countries. However, use of wine and other forms of intoxicating drink certainly took place among some ordinary medieval Muslims, at least in secret, and it was drunk fairly openly in privileged circles. Nonetheless, criminal punishments were designated and carried out for those who broke the taboo, and a brisk production or trade in wine among Muslims does not seem to have arisen.

Rice. Except for some wild varieties, rice was originally domesticated from grasses in the Far East as early as 3000 B.C.E. It is the only grain that can be cooked and eaten whole. Most others need to be pounded or ground into flour. Rice has a high yield and nutrition value per acre, but growing it requires a lot of hand labor and water. Its cultivation spread to Persia and possibly parts of the Mediterranean before Islam, but its diffusion as a major crop outside East and South Asia took place with the spread of Islam, during which it became a staple crop in Iraq and Persia, and it appeared in North Africa and as far west as Spain by

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the tenth century. Beginning as a luxury dish that remained popular among the Muslim upper classes, rice bread also became a staple for the lower classes in Abbasid cities. In Muslim cookery, rice was boiled by itself and flavored with salt and spices, or it was added to meat and vegetable stews. Nutritious chickpeas, lentils, or pistachio nuts were added to rice—with or without spiced meat—as versions of a dish called aruzz mufalfal which appeared in medieval Muslim cookbooks. (This dish is somewhat like the later Turkish rice pilaf.) Rice was the main ingredient in a sweet pudding called muhallabiya, which is still popular in the region; for this dish washed rice is cooked in fresh milk and seasoned with mastic (aromatic Arabic gum), camphor, and cinnamon; sugar or honey could be added and sometimes meat or chicken. Rice was also made into vinegar, and it had other uses, such as a thickening agent, a powder for washing hands and scenting clothes, and probably a glue and sizing agent for paper and cloth.

Hard Wheat . Another important food crop for nutritional value and versatility in cooking was durum wheat, which may have originated in the eastern Mediterranean or East Africa. Its cultivation spread widely under Muslim influence, reaching North Africa, Spain, and Central Asia, as well as southern and eventually northern Europe (where the predominant medieval grain was rye). Hard wheat is drought resistant and can be stored for a long time without spoiling. It is high in gluten, which makes dough made from its flour rise well and stretch easily into thin sheets. Thus, hard wheat is the only kind of grain suitable for making pasta such as noodles, macaroni, and North African couscous, and fine pastry dough for use in layered, nut-filled, honeyed sweets such as baklava. Macaroni was invented by travelers who made dough into balls or tubes with holes, which were light and easy to carry when strung together. Then they could be cooked quickly in salted water for a substantial, nutritious meal. Sauces, legumes, vegetables, and meat could be added, and pasta was also sweetened. Hard wheat flour was also an important component of the many kinds of flatbreads enjoyed in cities and countrysides across the central, grain-producing Muslim regions.

Citrus Fruits . Some citrus fruits may have arrived in the Mediterranean region in pre-Islamic times. Cultivation of varieties such as kumquats, sweet and sour oranges, lemons, and limes began in China, Malaysia, and India. Fruits often spread through gifts to royal gardens, such as the well-known Patio de los Naranjos in Cordoba. From there, citrus trees moved to ordinary backyard gardens, family courtyards, and village orchards.

Bananas . The versatile banana, raw or cooked, ripe or green, was introduced from tropical Southeast Asia. It was first cultivated on a larger scale in India and disseminated along the monsoon routes before Islam. By the eighth century, banana cultivation—which requires cuttings rather than seeds—had spread to many Muslim regions. By the fifteenth century it had reached around the Mediterranean to Spain, and bananas were grown in much of Africa. Bananas—an important source of minerals, vitamins, and starches—are one of the natural “perfect foods.” The word banana, meaning “fingers of the hand,” is found in the Qur’an, but mauz is the Arabic word used for the fruit.

Other Fruits and Nuts . Specific varieties of grapes used for juice and raisins, cherries, quinces, apricots, peaches, and pomegranates also spread across Muslim lands during the medieval time. Apricots, certain nuts, and melons such as the watermelon disseminated along the Silk Road in pre-Islamic times, and they were widely cultivated and traded in fresh and dried form for the use of urban populations. For the wealthiest clientele in Baghdad or Damascus, melons from Bukhara or Samarqand were shipped in lead cases filled with ice and were a commonly stocked item in khalifal kitchens. In Central Asia particularly, melons were a delicacy enjoyed by all classes for quenching thirst in the heat and for good digestive health, as they were valued everywhere they grew. Fruit markets were called melon houses in some places. The arid belt from North Africa to Arabia and Central Asia was well known for dried fruits such as dates, raisins, figs, and apricots, as well as for nuts, including almonds, pistachios, walnuts, and hazelnuts. These nutritional staples were important as a source of carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Dried fruits of high quality were important items of local, regional trade, and the best quality fruits were prized long-distance trade items such as Smyrna figs. When trade traffic was brisk, even bulky fresh fruits were transported if underground cold storage was available locally to hold over apples, pomegranates, and grapes. Some regions sent fresh or dried fruit such as apples to the khalifahs’ storehouses in payment of the kharaj land tax. For the wealthiest customers, shipping in lead ice boxes insulated with straw was sufficient to transport valuable specialties over considerable distances.

Vegetables . Of the many vegetables that were used in Muslim kitchens during the period, spinach, originally grown in Nepal, was known as the “queen of vegetables,” and made its way westward, along with its Arabic name, isbanakh. Asparagus was highly prized in Abbasid times, and root vegetables such as carrots, turnips, beets, and onions, as well as gourds and squashes; legumes such as lentils, peas, and beans; and greens such as lettuce, parsley, mint, and watercress were widely eaten in Baghdad during the Abbasid period and in other cities. Many variations of recipes for these ingredients have been passed down. Pickling vegetables with brine and vinegar was a common, inexpensive method of preservation. Olives, cucumbers, turnips, carrots, and eggplants were some of the most common daily food items preserved by pickling, and they were ubiquitous items on the tables of rich and poor alike. Poor families might have pickles as the only relish for their meal of bread.

Sugar . Of all the crops that moved across Muslim regions during the medieval period, sugar cane has the most interesting history. It began as a domesticated grass in Southeast Asia, was cultivated on a large scale in ancient India, and was introduced to China and Persia, where it

was a rare delicacy. Small quantities may have reached the royal courts of other lands to the west before Islam, but sugar did not begin to spread rapidly until the development of Muslim cities with their prosperity and sophisticated urban lifestyle. Growing sugar cane produces more human food per acre than any other crop, and what is left after the extraction of its juice makes excellent animal fodder. Sugar-cane juice was drunk as a nonalcoholic beverage and made into cane sugar, molasses, or other syrups. Cultivation and processing of sugar cane required sophisticated agricultural, irrigation, and processing techniques. Wind and waterpower were used to crush the cane and extract the juice. Workers were highly organized to perform the steps of its production. Sugar was traded regionally and exported, and Muslim techniques for processing sugar were transferred to China.

Uses of Sweeteners . There were many grades of sugar and molasses, from the darkest syrup to the purest white powder, which people purchased according to their means. Sugar was purchased in solid molds or cones from which the cook broke or shaved the amount needed. (Sugar was still sold in this form in colonial America.) Treacle, or sugar syrups of various kinds, was made by boiling fruits to a concentrated juice, with or without additional sweetener. A sweet paste made of carob pulp or dates was also a sweetener of less refinement. Like many newly introduced plants, sugar was thought to have medicinal value, but its important contribution to Islamic medicine was the innovation of mixing medicines with syrups to make them more palatable. Syrups were also believed to speed medicine to the organs, an idea supported by modern knowledge of the rapid rate at which sugar is metabolized. Evidence indicates that sugar cane was grown in Egypt by the mid eighth century and spread across North Africa, reaching Spain and Sicily by the tenth or eleventh century. The Crusaders were introduced to sugar in the eastern Mediterranean and Cyprus, areas that exported the luxury sweetener to Christian Europe. European visitors, especially the scholars who flocked to Spain during the twelfth century to translate Arabic philosophical and scientific works, were certainly exposed to delights such as marzipan, the tasty sweet made from ground almonds and sugar, a Toledo specialty as well known as its libraries. Sugar was used in fruit preserves such as apricot jams and candied or crystallized oranges and lemons and in the preparation of fruit and flower syrups— such as violet, rose, jasmine and orange blossom—for sherbet. It was used alongside honey for sweetening cooked dishes, and in urban medieval cooking, where novelty was a virtue, sugar was even added to meat dishes.

Flavorings and Spices . Locally grown flavorings such as mint, parsley, coriander, fennel, scallions, dill, garlic, onions, sumac, sage, and exotic herbs figured in the cuisines of various Muslim regions. Some were mentioned in the Qur’an and earlier scriptures and had figured in pre-Islamic folk literature and medicine for ages. They were used fresh, pounded into paste, and dried for storage. Herbs played a part in traditional medicine. They were mentioned in botanical encyclopedias and pharmacological treatises of the ancient Greeks and Persians and passed into Muslim pharmacological works. Foods were eaten for their medicinal properties. According to ancient and medieval theories of bodily “humors,” which were accepted in western Europe as well as the Muslim world, foods and their flavorings were considered humid, dry, cold, or hot according to the “humors” they produced, and were combined to enhance or counter these effects. A variety of rhubarb that was imported along the Silk Road from China cured dysentery in children and adults. Many spices—such as pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, saffron, frankincense, vanilla, clove, and mastic—were available only through regional or long-distance trade, but cumin and coriander were grown in local gardens. Aromatic substances such as attar of roses and jasmine were used for perfuming the body, the home, and the masjid in addition to flavoring foods. Having inherited the Indian art of gardening, Persia was a source for the most fragrant flowers. Use of spices by the wealthy and middle classes of Muslims brought these flavorings to the attention of European traders and visitors to Muslim courts, helping to stimulate European maritime exploration for trade routes to the spice-producing regions of Asia and Africa.


Muhammad M. Ahsan, Social Life Under the Abbasids, 786-902 A.D. (London & New York: Longman, 1979).

Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, “On the Flatbread Trail,” Aramco World, 46 (September-October 1995): 16-25.

Andre Clot, Harun al-Rashid and the World of the Thousand and One Nights, translated by John Howe (New York: New Amsterdam Press, 1989).

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Ahmad Y. al-Hassan and Donald R. Hill, Islamic Technology: An Illustrated History (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press / Paris: Unesco, 1986).

Timothy Insoll, The Archaeology of Islam (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999).

C. Pellat, “Khubz,” in Encyclopedia of Islam, CD-ROM version (Leiden: Brill, 1999).

M. Rodinson, “Ghidha,” in Encyclopedia of Islam. J. Sadan, “Mashrubat,” in Encyclopedia of Islam.

’Abd al-Rahman ibn Nasr al-Shayzari, The Book of the Islamic Market Inspector: Nihayat al-Rutba fi Talab al-Hisba (the Utmost Authority in the Pursuit of Hisba), translated by R. P. Buckley (Oxford: Oxford University Press on behalf of the University of Manchester, 1999).

Andrew M. Watson, Agricultural Innovation in the Early Islamic World: The Diffusion of Crops and Farming Techniques, 700-1100 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).


views updated Jun 11 2018


Food and gender exemplify the total social phenomenon identified by the anthropologist Marcel Mauss (1872–1950) as those social practices so ingrained in our lives that we cannot imagine either ourselves or our social world without them. The range of meanings in gender and food makes generalization close to impossible, and only a multitude of perspectives can do them justice if we are to understand the implications of each for life as we know it.

Do such far-reaching social phenomena connect or divide? Do they sustain community or fortify individuality? Necessarily, they do both, and food, as with culture more generally, divides quite as much as it connects. The sociologist Georg Simmel (1858–1918) long ago pointed out the paradox of eating, an activity that equalizes individuals and distinguishes among them. For although we all eat, we do not all eat the same foods, or eat them the same way, with the same utensils or with the same sorts of people. Nor do all of us invest food with the same meanings. It is only to be expected that some of the most striking connections and most dramatic divisions concern gender. In many societies, food practices remain highly gendered activities. Even so, or perhaps precisely because this gendering is so intrinsic to the ways in which we think about food and our relationships to it, gender divisions are often taken for granted. We see them as naturalized rather than historicized, an example of what the cultural commentator and semiologist Roland Barthes (1915–1980) identified as a mythology—that is, a narrative that explains and legitimates the comfort of the world as we know it. Meanwhile, the end of the twentieth century saw a veritable explosion in what has come to be known as food studies, prompting closer examination of the many ways in which food practices both divide and are divided by the particulars of periods, places, and peoples.

Among those particulars, gender orders food practices in many ways. But whether the effects are conspicuous or discreet, gender is central to three fundamental aspects of food: the sensuality that makes us desire food, the work that puts food before us, and the commensality that turns eating into a collective enterprise. Most discussions move readily across categories. Still, these rubrics help to clarify the gendering of foods and, in a larger sense, the feeding of gender; doing food, they show conclusively, entails doing gender.


The group, like the individual, requires food for sustenance, and the state of any society is commensurate with the well-being of its population. The distinctive consumption patterns of individuals and groups uphold a given food order or system. These patterns reveal principles that, in defining consumption, identify both self and community. On the most basic level, food is an insistently material product, and consumption is grounded in the primary sensual experience of physical change. This constitutive sensuality of food, what one eighteenth-century cookery book called its terrestriality, is responsible for an array of gender connections, all of which derive from the property of food to transform. Because the possibility, even necessity, of alteration triggers unease, anxiety attends every food decision. Consciously or not, every consumer weighs the hope of pleasure against the fear of pain.

In no domain is this power of food clearer than in corporeal consumption. Chefs and nutritionists, diners and legislators have long recognized that food has the potential to alter the collectivity no less than the individual—the body politic along with the body. All uses of food assume the alteration of the consumer, whether the physiological changes consequent to the ingestion of nourishment or the attendant psychic and social modification of behavior. Because food so profoundly engages identity, the dynamics of eating are necessarily fraught with both the fear and the desire for change. Both what and how we eat, then, reveal a great deal about what we are and what we hope to be. You are what you eat, the adage tells us, and it is hardly surprising that notions of food should carry markedly gendered conceptions of self.

In many—perhaps most—cultures different foods and food practices at different times are related to men and to women. The consequent segregation of male and female spheres of activity tends to reinforce ideal, and often idealized, conceptions of masculinity and femininity. The belief that certain foods fortify has led societies across the globe and at all stages of development to require or at least enjoin men to consume certain foods before going into battle or onto a playing field. In a startling twist on this bond between the food consumed and the body constructed, Michel de Montaigne notes in his essay "On Cannibals" (dating from 1575 and first published in 1580) the conviction that consumption of the enemy's flesh constitutes the final subjugation of the enemy through the assimilation of his strength.

The projection onto particular foods of the manly virtues of strength and courage is commonly invoked to prohibit women from consuming or even touching certain foods. Mere contact is thought to contaminate the food with female physiology, which is taken to undermine the strengths ascribed to male physiology and required of men. Other foods, conversely, target female physiology, with the intent of promoting the fertility and nurturance that defines women. Still other foods, notably sweets in contemporary Europe and North America, have been deemed the domain and the delight of women, who have themselves customarily been charged with being, as the nursery rhyme goes, sugar and spice and everything nice.

Long considered a lesser sense because it allies humans with animals, taste (along with smell) has been ranked well below the noble, more intellectual senses of sight and hearing. Food, as a consequence, has been charged with seduction. The temptations of the table are seen to lead humans, most notably men, away from the path of higher virtue. Just as poison seems an appropriately passive female means of destruction—what true warrior ever stoops to such means?—food offers women a resource that inverts as it perverts their constitutive association with nourishment. Eve leads Adam astray with the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 1). Rebekah alters the order of succession in favor of Jacob, and she does so by preparing Isaac's favorite dish for a disguised Jacob to present to his father in exchange for his blessing (Genesis 27). The overtly sexual seduction puts food on display as a promise of the woman herself. The magnified sensuality of eating signifies the erotic possession to come. Food proposes as it embodies the (female) Other; the equation holds in lesbian discourse as well as the heterosexual tradition.

As a vehicle of definition and self-definition, food has multiple and even contradictory uses. If you are what you eat, you are also not what you do not eat. The most striking pattern of gendered consumption involves the refusal to eat. Anorexia nervosa—that is, a pathological fear of gaining weight and attendant avoidance of food—overwhelming afflicts young middle-class women in North American and European societies. As perhaps the most prominent gendered eating disorder in modern industrial societies, anorexia (and its counterpart of binge eating followed by purging, bulimia nervosa) has attracted the attention of psychologists and nutritionists, sociologists and historians. (Although obesity is often construed as an eating disorder, it is less clearly gendered than is anorexia or bulimia.) A contrary view proposes this form of willed starvation as a means for the otherwise powerless woman to define her social situation. Historians who have scrutinized the writings and lives of medieval female saints advance complex arguments about the incidence and significance of eating—and in particular, fasting—for women. Rejection of food renounces this most basic of earthly pleasures in favor of the incomparably greater pleasure of the divine. At the same time, this renunciation regulates, and endeavors to control, the social relationships that define women's lives in a patriarchal society. Insofar as refusing nourishment at once rejects and reasserts the association of women and food, fasting reconfigures the prevailing social role and status of women. In a negative no less than in a positive mode, food is very much part of the gender equation.


The production of food operates under very different premises. Whereas consumption inexorably comes back to the body and corporeal ingestion of food, work points away from the body to the social sphere. Rather than predicaments of individual or group identity, work raises issues for the distribution of resources and access to the means of production and to the economic, political, and cultural spheres sustained and shaped by that production system.

Here it is worth reflecting on the factors that have kept conventional women's work from serious intellectual consideration. Neglect in this area explains why gender is so often equated with women: with women's concerns, values, and aesthetics; with the specific opportunities open to and the particular obstacles faced by women. Feminists in the 1960s and 1970s made this case, as they examined, reevaluated, and valorized women's work. Yet this promotion of women's work assumes that it remains a special category, a deviation from the norm. Is women's work an exception to the universalist rule identified with a social order that takes the masculine as the norm? Or is it a distinctive category in its own right? And what are the social implications of these positions? The debate is far from closed.

The overall disregard for women's work needs to be understood in light of the prevailing conception in social science of work as an activity that is publicly performed and formally remunerated. By this standard the largely private and unremunerated food work of women is essentially hidden. The focus of classical and Marxian economics alike on industrial production and commercial markets could not take the domestic contributions of women into account. Finally, the macrosocial processes by which social science understands contemporary society are not designed to consider attributes such as gender. Industrialization, urbanization, democratization, modernization, and globalization offer models of social change that largely disregard the particularities of gender as a force in such change. The question that must be addressed by every analysis concerns precisely this particularity: How different is women's work and what are the effects of that difference?

Although anthropologists have been alert to the significance of women's work in traditional or premodern societies, the impetus for recent scholarly and popular work on food has come with a focus on contemporary institutions and primarily in North America and Europe. In part because it is a highly visible, identifiably modern institution, born in response to the increasing social and geographical mobility of an expanding urban society, the restaurant has become a privileged location for such study. The restaurant is also a central site of the service economy. In this public space production and consumption join forces in a bounded setting amenable to investigation. Then too, the highly gendered nature of restaurant work, the conspicuous division of labor, and the clear gender hierarchy signals the restaurant as an important setting for the display of the gendered nature of both food production and consumption.

The starkest distinction in the restaurant appears among the workers. As the military origins of the model of the chef determined and justified, the male chef ran the restaurant just as he had run the kitchens of the aristocracy. Even in the twenty-first century, despite undeniable—even dramatic—changes, the closer the restaurant to a long-established, mostly French, model, the higher the proportion of men in the upper reaches of food production. It was the male cooks who first professionalized as chefs, and it was the elite male consumer who became the culinary connoisseur known as the gastronome. The knowledgeable male consumer and the professional male chef formed the ideal gastronomic couple. In this closed culinary community, women had no place.

Women coped with other disadvantages. As either housewives or hired help, women were everyday cooks in a domestic setting, not chefs in a restaurant. By custom as well as by law they were excluded from public venues and professional associations. Moreover, the oral culture in which domestic cooking occurs hindered their broader social presence. In terms of prestige, women cooks might do well enough for small households, but claims to consequence demanded a real—that is, male—chef and his team of assistants (which the French language, continuing the military model, appropriately calls a brigade). The broader distinction between written and oral culture reinforced the polarity of male and female culinary domains. Not until women entered the public arena with cookery books did they and their cooking get out of the kitchen and into the culture at large. Through recipes, reporting, and other formalizations of practice, writing gives food a permanence that is denied to the material product that disappears upon consumption.

We should, however, guard against taking rules, regulations, ideological pronouncements, and literary glosses as faithful renditions of practice. Despite the formal exclusion of women from the most professionalized venues and masculinist (and even frankly misogynist) norms, contemporary research has pointed to how crucial women and women's cooking have been in setting the culinary order. The remarkable growth of the domestic culinary market gave women cookery-book writers a platform, and sales, that the elite chefs came to envy (and emulate—even, in one case, resorting to a female pseudonym).

The gender dichotomy of female cooks versus male chefs persists because of reinforcement by other culinary binaries: elite versus popular cuisines, cafes and other informal eating venues versus restaurants, haute cuisine versus home cooking, special occasion feast versus everyday meal. The typical configuration would give us domestic women cooking popular or home-style dishes every day at home, and professional men operating in restaurants preparing special occasion or fancy cooking. In the worlds of real cooks and food, the boundaries are considerably more fluid, the categories more capacious and certainly more ambiguous. Thus in twenty-first-century Africa, women have a strong public presence as the primary vendors of street food. Cooking and chefing are the two sides of any culinary enterprise, roles dissociated from the status of cook and chef. Even so, the gender divisions outlined here will not soon disappear. Restrictive classifications are still in place, and they remain a useful, if inequitable, shorthand for characterizing, and judging, the food worlds that we encounter.

Many contemporary societies must deal with the tensions discernable in these foodways: the promotion of equality in the public sphere through equal access to professional status set against the appreciation of distinctiveness and difference. Are we concerned with women cooking or with an attitude toward food characteristic of a culinary product that could be identified as women's cooking? Although the significance ascribed to culinary difference is most striking with respect to other cuisines (national, regional, ethnic, foreign), gender often subtly defines the relationships of these kinds of cooking to the practices that dominate the culinary landscape.

Women writers have made much of the differences of women's conceptions and practices of food. A classic instance can be found in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse (1927) where a great stew epitomizes the community created with great thought and skill at the dinner table by the hostess. In Mexican writer Laura Esquivel's novel Like Water for Chocolate (1989) (and in its film version), the preparation of food makes a fantastic declaration of love and offers amazing evidence of the transformative powers of food. These time-honored associations of women with nourishment and food preparation have also inspired numerous collections of recipes that celebrate cooking as the expression of a distinctive female universe centered around home, family, and intimate personal relationships.


The meal controls consumption, and it does so by regulating the individual appetite. The formalization of the meal integrates the individual into a social order. Social norms and custom temper the constitutive sensuality of food. By controlling pleasure and pain, the formally organized meal reduces the scope for individual initiative. In modern Europe and North America, the increasing attention to proper behavior at table, to the formal sequence of meals, to the specific utensil for each task, and to the proliferation of rules of etiquette has been linked to the domestication or civilizing of the military order and the promotion of a civility or polite society commonly associated with women. The dainty fork in the small hand of a woman picks up the morsel, instead of the knife wielded aggressively by a man (although not until the nineteenth century did the fork become a generally required implement).

Eating in company melds the social and the individual. Accordingly, commensality opens a window into the ways in which individuals as well as collectivities conceive of social life and practice their values. Even a rudimentary meal creates a community, however temporary it must be. The meal brings interpersonal tensions to the table, dramatizes social dynamics, and provides a setting for the performance of social relations. To the extent that it reproduces a common social order, commensality requires a certain, if momentary, equality. Whence the proliferation of mechanisms of exclusion and rules of inclusion that determine who may eat what with whom and on which occasions. Many of the dining rules or customs translate the differential positions occupied by men and women in society; that is, the gendered hierarchy of social roles. Many groups allow no or little gender-mixed commensality—men take precedence over women, who routinely eat separately from and after men. Or, as was almost invariably the case in clubs and fraternal orders of one kind and another, women had no dining privileges except on special occasions, and even then often were required to enter the establishment by a side entrance. Although these patterns of exclusion have been vehemently contested in many quarters, exclusionary bastions of male commensality continue to exist. By contrast, female commensality tends to informality, often in an extension of the domestic setting (the coffee klatch, the tea party), exclusionary of men more in fact than by intent. Though they were designed to attract women, the tearooms and lunchrooms opened by early department stores did not exclude men.

At the same time, the preparation of the meal, whether the family dinner or commemorative meals such as Passover and Thanksgiving, most often falls to women. They may eat apart, but, as the customary guardians of tradition, they have the responsibility of keeping the table and maintaining the community. Preparation of the meal gives women a place, albeit in absentia, at the men's table. Though formally discrete, the male and female spheres may actually overlap a good deal. As a significant extension of the community beyond the kitchen, written recipes correspond to a gentle nationalism that identifies and promotes the national community through its culinary practices. Their collection and publication give women a not insignificant stake in the enterprise of nation building from which they are otherwise largely excluded.

An example will illustrate the high promise of commensality, a coming together that is dependent upon the sensuality of the food and the work that puts that food on the table. Babette's Feast by the Danish director Gabriel Axel (1987) is the quintessential cult food film, a dramatization of the transformative potential of every meal, of the food, of the cook, of the consumer. Even more than the novella by Isak Dinesen (1885–1962) on which it is based, the film questions even as it shows the ways in which gender associations inflect our understandings and practices of food.

The feast in question is the culinary creation of Babette, a French woman who fled civil war in Paris in 1871 and sought refuge with two middle-aged sisters in a remote corner of Denmark. For many years Babette cooks for them, preparing the familiar and very simple local fare. One day she wins the lottery and determines to use her winnings to make a real French dinner for the sisters and the other members of their austere Lutheran sect. The dinner is magnificent, a repast worthy of the greatest chef. The explanation comes when Babette reveals that she had been the head chef in one of the most celebrated restaurants in Paris.

From preparation to consumption, the sensuality of the meal illuminates the screen: gleaming copper pots, starched white table linen, gleaming silver, glowing red wine, sparkling champagne, a crackling fire, quail prepared with unctuous foie gras studded with black truffles, a mammoth round of blue cheese. This conspicuous sensuality scares the pious guests who have watched the procession of foodstuffs with increasing trepidation: a live tortoise on a cart and quail fluttering in a cage, a whole calf's head with its baleful stare. Fearing a witches' Sabbath, they resolve not to yield to their senses. "It will be as if we never had the sense of taste," vows one man. Yet so great is her artistry that Babette works magic even against their will. The seduction of food works its way, in a completely desexualized mode, its transcendent pleasures reinforced by the hymns that the group sings after dinner. The luscious goods of this earth turn into extraterrestrial phenomena as they prompt a higher felicity. As one guest declares, "In this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible." Babette is the alma mater, the nourishing mother who sacrifices herself to sustain others. The Frenchwoman will not return to France, having spent all her lottery winnings on the feast. She will remain in service to the sisters and return to the routine of their, and her, everyday life.

The transformation of the food transforms Babette herself. The cook whose work is rooted in the domestic crosses culinary gender lines to conquer the masculine realm of the chef. After many years spent preparing the uncomplicated and undemanding meals of everyday, Babette suddenly appears as a true chef, the chef as a veritable general directing complex strategic operations. With Babette's preparation of her feast, cooking moves out of the domestic arena into the public domain. That a high-profile professional woman chef such as Babette would have been an impossibility in nineteenth-century France only underscores the opposition of cook and chef that justified the exclusion of women from public venues in the first place. At the same time, Babette's chefing in the film points to the intimate and intrinsic bond between chefs and cooks. Babette's Feast deconstructs the conventional culinary duality by separating the culinary roles of cooking and chefing from the culinary statuses of cook and chef. Because they are so clearly social constructions, the gendered roles are shown as both arbitrary and powerful—all the more powerful for their grounding in society, its norms, its interdictions, and its injunctions.

Cook and chef, Babette converts the guests no less than the food. The camera pans around the table, showing the faces changing as the guests fearfully and then joyfully taste the mysterious dishes set before them. The sect that had fallen into squabbling and dissension becomes one again, as the women and men realize the original vision of love and harmony of the founder whose centennial they had gathered to celebrate. Babette expands the conventional female role from the family to the larger community. In the Parisian restaurant where she had cooked for an adoring public, her cooking gave her the opportunity to make that public hers. "I made them happy," she tells the sisters. With this feast, with commensals far removed from the connoisseurs whom she once served, she not only made the guests happy, she shapes a community.

Babette's Feast ratifies our own experiences with food. We know that food connects as it divides, and we know as well that gender is a powerful element in connection and division just as it is a crucial component of our food practices generally. Sensuality, work, commensality—these fundamental qualities of our food experiences insistently remind us of the many ways that food practices both are gendered and themselves do gender—total social phenomena that, in concert and in conflict, shape our world.


Appadurai, Arjun. 1988. "How to Make a National Cuisine: Cookbooks in Contemporary India." Comparative Studies in Society and History 30(3): 3-24.

Counihan, Carole M., and Penny Van Esterik, eds. 1997. Food and Culture: A Reader. New York: Routledge.

Counihan, Carole M., and Steven L. Kaplan, eds. 1998. Food and Gender: Identity and Power. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers.

Counihan, Carole M. 1999. The Anthropology of Food and Body: Gender, Meaning, and Power. New York: Routledge.

Cusack, Igor. 2003. "Pots, Pens, and 'Eating Out the Body': Cuisine and the Gendering of African Nations." Nations and Nationalism 9(2): 277-296.

Ferguson, Priscilla Parkhurst. 2004. Accounting for Taste: The Triumph of French Cuisine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Richards, Audrey I. 1948 [1932]. Hunger and Work in a Savage Tribe: A Functional Study of Nutrition among the Southern Bantu. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.

Shapiro, Laura. 2004. Something from the Oven: Reinventing dinner in 1950s America. New York: Viking.

Trubek, Amy B. 2000. Haute cuisine: How the French Invented the Culinary Profession. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

                              Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson


views updated Jun 27 2018




Meat. All social groups ate, by modern standards, a tremendous amount of meat, which was not a luxury item in Europe until the mid sixteenth century. Prior to that time Europeans—rich and poor alike—preferred their meat boiled or roasted, and the standards included beef, mutton, pork, poultry, pigeon, goat, and lamb. Game was regularly consumed: wild boar, hare, rabbit, stag, roe deer, as well as many types of birds that today would be considered rarities, such as herons, egrets, wild swans, cranes, partridges, and larks. Turkeys became popular after they were introduced from the Americas in the first half of the sixteenth century.

Availability. Before the mid sixteenth century, the demand for meat rarely fell, and, even in times of famine, the poor were able to consume it. The size of the herds of cattle brought to sixteenth-century Germany's largest cattle fair, held in Buttstedt (near Weimar), commonly reached twenty thousand and testifies to the great supply of meat from Western Europe's mountains and countryside. Meat was so plentiful that the dukes of Saxony were able to issue an ordinance in 1482 that mandated that even simple craftsmen working on projects had to be fed at least two different types of meats at lunch and dinner, and at least one serving offish at each meal on Fridays and fast days.


In many ways the diet of the poor in Eastern Europe and Russia was similar to that of the poor in Western Europe, Thought to have been written between 1550 and 1580 by a priest, Silvester, who served in one of the Kremlin cathedrals (Moscow), the Domostroi is a book that suggests the rules and manners by which Russian nobles and wealthy merchants ought to govern their houses. This passage provides detailed information on the diets of simple household servants and the nonresident poor who sought sustenance from their social betters. It is important to remember that the menus listed in the Domostroi are prescriptive; that is, they are recommendations only, and should not be regarded as definitive records of what the poor actually ate on a daily basis. Note how constructions of social status are highly connected to dining rituals.

When the [master's] table empties, you [the servants] must gather all the dishes and have them washed. You must go over all the food—meat, fish, chilled aspic, and soups—and [store them for future use]. On the evening following a feast, or even sooner, the master should check that all is in order. He should question the steward at length on what was eaten and drunk, on who received what. The steward should be able to account for every expense and every item. The steward should answer the master straightforwardly in every particular. If, God willing, all is in order, if nothing is broken or spoiled, the master may reward the steward. The same applies to the other servants: if the cooks and bakers have worked courteously and carefully and have not gotten drunk, then the master will feed them and give them drink....

As everyday food servants receive rye bread, cabbage soup, and thin kasha [buckwheat groats simmered in broth] with ham. Sometimes they may have thick kasha with lard. This is what most people give their servants for dinner, although they vary the menu according to which meat is available. On Sundays and holy days servants sometimes get turnovers [small pies], jellies, pancakes, or other, similar food. At supper they eat cabbage soup and milk or kasha. On fast days the servants have cabbage soup with thin kasha, sometimes with broth, peas, or turnip soup. At supper on these days you may offer cabbage soup, cabbage, oatmeal, pickles, or fish and vegetable soup. On Sundays and holy days, for dinner [the main meal], give them various kinds of pies, barley-pease porridge, barley groats, or kasha mked with herring or whatever God provides. For supper, serve cabbage, pickles, fish and vegetable soup, and oatmeal.

The serving women, aids, children, other kinfolk, and dependents [by “dependents” are meant non-resident beggars as well as non-relative members of the household, such as the stablemaster or the house carpenter] should get the same food, but with the addition of leftovers from the masters’ and guests’ tables. As for the better class of merchants [traveling salesmen], the master should seat these at his own table....

Those who cook and wait at table eat after the meal; they also get leftovers from the table. The mistress honors seamstresses and embroiderers as the master does merchants: she feeds them at her own table and sends them food from her own dish.

Source: Carolyn Johnston Pouricy, ed. and trans,. The Domostroi: Rules for Russian Households in tke Time of Ivan the Terrible (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994), pp. 160-162.

Changing Pattern. By the 1550s Europe's steady population growth had caught up with its preplague (1348-1349) levels. Land was becoming scarcer, unemployment was on the rise, real wages dropped, and prices rose dramatically. Additionally, long-established landholding patterns changed over much of Europe during the first decades of the sixteenth century, and many smaller, subsistence-level farms were displaced by larger-scale farms. Many smaller farmers were reduced to becoming landless day laborers, who had to hire themselves out for meager wages. Not surprisingly, patterns of food consumption among the poor in Europe changed accordingly, and a noticeable decline in meat consumption began that lasted until the mid nineteenth century. In general, the decline in meat consumption was greater in Southern Europe than in the north, where pasture fields were richer and more plentiful. However, even in the north, poorer workers and peasants had to alter their diets. Thus, in contrast to the Saxon craftsmen of the 1480s, workers in Saxony's copper mines in the early years of the 1600s could afford to eat only bread, gruel, and vegetables. Likewise, in 1601 elite journeymen weavers in the prosperous city of Nuremberg complained that, while they were due a serving of meat from their masters every day, they were receiving it only three times each week. Furthermore, the type of meat eaten also changed after the 1550s. No longer able to enjoy roasted or boiled meat, Europe's poor generally consumed smoked or salted meat during the remainder of the early-modern era. Salted beef and bacon became the standard type of meat eaten by the poor in Ireland and England, particularly during the winter months. According to one commentator on the English urban poor in the late seventeenth century, the Reverend Richard Baxter, the poor were happy to have a single piece of hanged bacon once a week. Peasants in France favored salted pork and bacon. Thus, the Republic of Venice's ambassador to France noted, during his stay in Paris in 1557, that “pork is the habitual food of the poor people, those who are really poor.” In Italy and Germany, sausages were the predominant meat source of the poor. In the Venetian ambassador's native city, as in much of Southern Europe, offal, most usually tripe, was an everyday food for the poorer folk.

Hospital Fare. A recent study of the food served to those few among the poor who were fortunate enough to be admitted as patients to state-financed hospitals in Hesse, Germany, clearly reveals the transition of meat from a plentiful staple to a luxury item. An ordinance of 1534 specified that each patient was to receive, on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, two separate meat dishes in the morning and a third in the evening. Though the prescribed diet also included plentiful portions of fish, cheese, pea soup, barley soup, and oatmeal, the average male patient was receiving an average of 3,556 calories per week from meat alone (while only eating meat three days a week!), as well as 1,015 and 833 calories per week from fish and cheese, respectively. The residents consumed 2,500 calories each day, and the proportion made up solely by meat, fish, and cheese was roughly 31 percent. Notable, however, is that this amount had become, within several decades, a cause for alarm and scandal, and, following investigations ordered at the highest levels of government in 1574, 1590, and 1621, efforts were repeatedly made to alter the weekly menus in Hesse's various hospitals. Officials were scandalized that patients were being served vast quantities of ox, calf, and cow meat, in addition to hogs, rams, lambs, goats, geese, and chickens. By 1590 daily servings of eggs, oatmeal, and honey had increased, while servings of meat, cheese, milk, and beer had been reduced, though not as much as the government wished.

Eggs and Dairy Products. Although meat did not remain a staple for Europe's poor throughout the entire early-modern era, other foods certainly did. Eggs, cheese, and milk served as the great sources of protein for the masses. In Turkey and in parts of the Balkans, yogurt, another milk product rarely consumed in other parts of Europe, comprised a large portion of the daily diet, and was served with, depending on the time of year, cucumbers or melons, leeks or onions. Cheese was not considered a “gourmet food,” and descriptions of, or recipes for, individual cheeses are conspicuously absent from pre-1700 cook-books. All over Europe, peasants preferred cheese made from the milk of cows and ewes; goat cheese, a gourmet food today, was considered quite inferior. On the Continent, the more highly regarded cheeses included Roquefort, Parmesan, Swiss Gruyère, and sassenage (made from a mixture of cows’, goats’, and ewes’ milk all boiled together). Milk was drunk in large quantities, but was of a somewhat different texture than the milk modern people drink, as it was commonly watered down both by the dairy farmers and by the larger-scale retailers. Butter, particularly salted butter—a form originally dictated by the lack of refrigeration which has, in present-day society, retained its popularity, though it is no longer necessary—was commonly consumed in Northern Europe, whereas Southern Europeans used lard, bacon fat, or olive oil. Eggs remained a fairly inexpensive commodity and were widely eaten as a good source of protein. Although eggs were an everyday food in most of Continental Europe, the French philosopher Montaigne was surprised to discover during his travels through Central Europe that the Germans seemed to eat only hard-boiled eggs, and then only in salads.

Fish. Because of the many religious fast days ordered throughout the year, fish was an important component in the diet of early-modern Europeans. Of course, in the years following the Reformation, subjects in Protestant lands were freed from observing many of these fasts. Yet, by the time most people had finally accepted their new religious freedom, the price of meat had risen exorbitantly, and so fish remained a staple in the diet of the peasants and urban poor in Protestant lands. In Catholic lands and in Orthodox areas, such as Russia, there were 166 days, including Lent, during which people could neither eat meat, eggs, nor poultry. Indeed, corrupt practices regarding the sale of Butterbriefe (documents that could be purchased and allowed a Christian to consume dairy products on fast days) were one of the specific catalysts that led Martin Luther in 1517 to write his Ninety-Five Theses and thus begin the Reformation. In such a religiously charged culture, the demand for fish, whether fresh, smoked, or salted, remained rather high. Since sea fishing was hardly sufficient to satisfy demand, Europeans, particularly those living far from a coast, turned to freshwater fishing. Another cause for this recourse to freshwater fish lies in the fact that fish spoils quickly in transit and becomes quite inedible. Seventeenth-century legislation stipulated that even the water which had been used to soak salted cod could be disposed of only during certain hours of the night. Thus, to combat the odors associated with spoilage, freshwater fish (that is, local fish) was introduced to the diets of central Europeans. No river, no stream, not even the Seine which flowed through Paris, was without an authorized group of fishermen. In fact, archival records throughout Germany and France between 1400 and 1600 reveal the conflicts that ensued when profit-hungry nobles flooded fields previously used by the peasants to graze their herds in order to establish artificial lakes for the breeding of carp. An inventory of ministerial revenues ordered by the Elector of Saxony in 1544 reveals that even in relatively small Thuringian towns, parishioners paid village pastors with hens, capons, cows’ milk, and carp. Finally, though modern scientists recognize whales as mammals, whale meat and fat were consumed as “fish,” particularly by poor people during Lent, when demand for fish was high among all social classes. Thus, whale fat was known, by the poor in seventeenth-century Italy, as “Lenten lard.” The poor continued to eat whale meat and fat during Lent until the mid seventeenth century, when the commercial uses of whale fat—for oils, soaps, perfumes, and lighting products—rendered its use as a cheap food source economically untenable.

Spices. Because the food of the poor was often badly preserved, because the meat they ate was often far from tender, and because their diet was so monotonous, spices—predominantly peppers and salt—played a large role in the eating habits of early-modern Europeans. Westerners’ contact with the Middle East during the twelfth-century Crusades reintroduced spices, such as cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and ginger, that had been forgotten since the Fall of Rome. Fourteenth-century cookbooks are filled with recipes for spicing meat, fish, jams and jellies, soups, dried fruits, and drinks. Of course, the laboring poor of Europe could not partake of these luxury spices as readily as could the privileged, but, after the Dutch in the mid seventeenth century had permanently established trade with the Indian subcontinent, the price of these “exotic” spices fell rapidly, and they began to appear less frequently on the food of the wealthy and more frequently on the food of the poor. Spices from the West Indies, in particular chili, were also consumed with gusto by the poor throughout Western Europe as quickly as they were introduced.

Cereals. Compared to other parts of the world, Europe had plenty of land relative to its population during the period 1350-1500, and a good deal of it was used to graze livestock. In order to feed all the people, however, especially during the population increases of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, an increasing amount of pasture land had to be converted to arable. This development occurred because a given amount of arable land will always produce, no matter how bad the quality of the soil or the agricultural technology, ten to twenty times as much food (measured in calories) as would be obtained by using the same land to graze animals for consumption. Thus, after 1500, grains made up the largest share of the lower-class diet. A study of early-seventeenth-century Genoa reveals that cereals alone comprised 53 percent of the daily calories in a noble's diet, but accounted for a whopping 81 percent of the daily calories for the institutionalized urban poor.

Thomas More. The need to transform pasture land to arable clarifies an otherwise obscure line located in a famous passage in Book One of Sir Thomas More's Utopia (1516). More realized that the conversions taking place in early-sixteenth-century England from arable land to stock-raising land (the opposite of what was happening, of necessity, elsewhere in Europe!) would create great hunger for the growing masses, and, fearing that from such hunger criminality and social disorder would arise, he wrote, “sheep that were wont to be so meek and tame, and so small eaters, now . . . become so great devourers and so wild, that they eat up, and swallow down the very men themselves.” More's fears were based on the fact that grains were consumed in greater quantities in rural areas than in towns, and in greater quantities by the poor than by the rich.

Dilemma. The fact that wheat, like other winter cereals, requires careful manuring created somewhat of a dilemma, however. If productivity, and hence food supply, were to increase, more fertilizer (cow manure) would be needed. However, to obtain more manure, fields that ought to have been converted to arable had to remain as pasture for livestock. Sometimes peasants tried to solve this problem by grazing their livestock along the sides of roads, in hayfields, or even in forests.

Maslin. Wheat was considered the best quality of grain, but peasants usually mixed it with lesser grains such as rye due to its high quality and price. The mixture of wheat and rye was known as maslin, or “small corn.” Peasants considered rye to be less nourishing than wheat and viewed it as a purgative. In Saxony in the 1540s, wheat was three times more expensive than oats, while rye was only twice as expensive as oats. In addition to growing wheat, peasants throughout Southwestern Europe also concentrated on barley, which was used for making beer, feeding pigs and horses, and making millet. A grass cultivated for its seed, millet could be stored for upwards of twenty years and was kept by municipal governments for emergency food supplies in case of military sieges and blockades. A traveler in the 1520s to Hendaye, a village located on the French-Spanish border, disparaged the local soil by claiming it was not much good for grains except for millet. In Northern Europe, peasants grew softer grains such as oats and rye. Regarding the English peasantry, William Harrison wrote in 1577, “they eat it [wheat] when they can reach unto the price of it. Contenting themselves in the meane time with bread made of otes and barlaie: a poore estate god wot!” Many standard recipes were based on coarser cereals as well. For example, in early-modern Spain polenta was a gruel that consisted of toasted barley, ground and then mixed with millet, while in the Brittany region of France peasants ate a gruel that consisted of buckwheat, water, and milk. Peasants in Britain ate porridge, a gruel made from oats, while kasha (a porridge made from buckwheat groats or toasted rye, simmered in broth) was a staple in Poland and Russia. This situation explains why Baltic merchants sold at least as much rye in Central Europe as they did wheat. In parts of Eastern France, and in the mountainous regions of Germany and Switzerland, peasants made bread from spelt.

Distinctions. Indeed the type of bread served to a guest or given as payment for a service was highly bound to notions of honor. Scores of grievance documents penned by sixteenth-century Saxony ministers inform us that peasants often tried to mitigate the economic hardship of the tithe, or church tax, by paying members of the local clergy with inferior breads. In fact, one way peasants could reveal their displeasure with a local cleric was to give him bread made from barley or millet rather than from wheat, as such a gift would quite literally label the cleric a “pig.” White bread was a rarity and was quite expensive; perhaps only 4 percent of Europe's population ate it. Indeed, English peasants who ate white bread were taxed for it, and one of the mundane demands of the peasant rebels who participated in the religious uprising known as the “Pilgrimage of Grace” (1536-1537) was the abolition of this tax. White bread made from sifted flour and mixed with milk was a delicacy fit for royalty, and it was so favored by Maria de Medici, regent of France from 1610 to 1617, that it was known as “Queen's bread.”

Rice. Introduced to Europe in antiquity, rice thrived in the Balkans and throughout Italy and Sicily. Like millet, it was inexpensive, and thus it is not surprising to find both of these grains on the inventories of poor-relief institutions in the sixteenth century. Rice was served to sailors on French military vessels and to soldiers in barracks, and was also distributed to the poor during times of famine, although even under these circumstances it might be mixed with mashed turnips, carrots, and pumpkins. In short, rice was a food for emergencies, and rarely did the rich ever have to eat it (and if they did, it was cooked in milk).

Nuts and Beans. The aforementioned grains alone did not suffice to feed the masses of Europe, as sudden, unexpected labor shortages following outbreaks of plague, or, at other times, increased cultivation led to rather drastic declines in cereal yields. To give just two examples, yields from one grain sown declined 27 percent in England between 1350-1399, and declined 18 percent in Germany between 1500-1599. Thus, consumption of chestnuts, buckwheat, acorns, and roots was generally higher than what one might suppose. Chestnuts were the popular supplement to grain until replaced by the potato in the nineteenth century. In the Auvergne, peasant farmers often lived on boiled chestnuts for several months each year. They ate them with a watery soup made up of cabbage, turnips, onions, and carrots. Likewise, lentils, beans, peas, and chickpeas were not valued as “honorable” foodstuffs in themselves, but were viewed only as supplements to the more traditional cereals. Peasants turned to pulses in those years when a wet spring dampened or mildewed the cereals, lest they eat grains which had become infested by ergot, a fungus which caused, in humans who digested it, lameness, necrosis of the extremities, and psychedelic hallucinations.

The Rich. The eating habits of the rich and privileged differed greatly from the eating habits of the bulk of Europe's population. Europe's poor bordered on chronic malnutrition, while the wealthy and privileged dined on elaborate feasts that competed with one another in terms of opulence and ostentation, and in which dozens of courses were served. During a typical banquet, royalty might dine on herb pastries; an assortment of salted and smoked meats and sausages; fricassee of small birds, minced with veal and egg yolk; veal, beef, pork, and mutton, roasted, as well as in pies and soups; chickens, pigeons, geese, and game pies; dishes with beans and peas; various servings of fish; and, for dessert, various cheeses, cakes, puddings, and seasonal fruits. The elite preferred to dine on birds no longer considered delicacies, such as swans, egrets, peacocks, and storks. Cooks would roast such birds without their feathers, but served them in dramatic poses with their original feathers reattached. In Venice and France, members of the royal courts ate foods sprinkled with gold dust, which was believed to be advantageous to the heart. Another distinguishing feature of the diet of the rich was its (relative) diversity. The majority of Europe's people could not afford imported exotic fruits, wines, or spices. Food grown locally was eaten day after day. The rich could afford luxuries such as chocolate and tropical fruit, and, unlike the poor, had the means to feed animals marked for slaughter throughout the winter, thus insuring themselves fresh meat whenever desired. Indeed, the eating of meat is a recurring theme in François Rabelais's novel Gargantua (1534), a source that reveals the eating habits of the French aristocracy and upper clergy in the early sixteenth century. The hero's mother, while pregnant with him, dines particularly on salted meat, hams, smoked ox tongues, chitterlings, sausages, beef pickled in mustard, and tripes. In fact, she is delivered of Gargantua specifically because she consumes so much tripe during a single meal. The novel is not completely absurd; diners at Henry VIII's court received 80 percent of their caloric intake from meat.

New World Foods. It is noteworthy that Europeans of the day, while embracing certain Asian and New World foods like the potato, were generally unwilling to eat non-European foods. The early eighteenth-century writings of Jean-François Foucquet, a Jesuit missionary who experienced a circuitous return to France after years in China, reveal that European settlers on islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans chose to go hungry for weeks, waiting for the flour and rancid meat brought by supply ships, rather than to eat the monkeys and lizards which abounded in the jungles. Tobacco, however, was prized, both for its supposed medicinal value and aphrodisiac effects.


Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century, “The Structures of Everyday Life,” translated by Siân Reynolds, volume 1 (New York: Harper & Row, 1979).

Lorenzo Camusso, Travel Guide to Europe 1492. Ten Itineraries in the Old World (New York: Holt, 1992).

Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983).

Robert Jütte, Poverty and Deviance in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

Susan Karant-Nunn, Luther's Pastors: The Reformation in the Ernestine Countryside (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1979).

H. C. Erik Midelfort, A History of Madness in Sixteenth-Century Germany (Stanford, Cal: Stanford University Press, 1999).

Thomas More, Utopia (New York: Collier, 1910).

Alison Sim, Food and Feast in Tudor England (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997).

Jonathan D. Spence, The Question of Hu (New York: Knopf, 1988).


views updated Jun 11 2018




Plain Fare. By modern standards, the Greek diet was rather plain and lacking in variety, and heavily based on grains (wheat and barley in particular). As one scholar observed: “The typical Greek meal consisted of two courses: the first, a kind of porridge; the second, a kind of porridge”—a humorous exaggeration, but not always that much of one, especially for the poorer classes or in times of scarcity. For the modern student looking at the Greek diet, what is most striking are the absences: foods that were not eaten because they were not known to the Greeks (potatoes, tomatoes, sugar, corn, citrus fruits, coffee, tea, and bananas) or because the Greeks simply did not care for them (butter, beer, and milk). The diet, however, was in many ways similar to that followed in modern Greece, in particular in its dependence on olive oil. Since Greece has the best longevity figures for any country in the European Union (despite lower income levels, which usually depress life expectancy), diet has been cited as a possible explanation. By extension, we may infer that the ancient diet was a healthy one as well, perhaps even more because of limited meat and dairy consumption.

Animal Husbandry. The climate of Greece allowed the cultivation of a wide variety of foods: there was enough water for wheat, barley, and various types of vegetables, and it was warm enough to allow cultivation of olive and fig trees. It was also well suited for grape cultivation, and the presence of the sea made fish a good source of protein. Most parts of Greece were not, however, well suited for large-scale animal husbandry: the soil made raising cattle and pigs difficult (although sheep filled a useful niche by grazing nonarable pastureland).

Grains. The most significant part of the Greek diet was composed of grains. In fact, the word for grain (sitos) was used as a synonym for food, and opson (sometimes translated as relish) was a special word for anything other than grain. Cultivated grains included wheat, barley, oats, rye, and millet, with wheat and barley being the most common. Wheat cultivation changed significantly between 800 and 323 b.c.e.: older species of husked wheat (such as spelt and emmer) gave high yields and a laborious process of drying and pounding was necessary in order to extract the grain from the husk. Spelt and emmer were gradually replaced by durum and bread wheats (varieties that still dominate wheat production today), from which the grain could be separated by threshing (breaking up the kernels) and winnowing (using a fan to generate air currents to blow away the lighter husks, leaving the grain behind). Milling technology changed as well, so that flour became finer, with fewer impurities, although it was still coarse by modern standards.

Barley. Since it requires less water when growing than wheat does, barley was a more plentiful and cheaper grain in ancient Greece. Nevertheless, wheat was in greater demand because it has more gluten and produces better bread. For this reason, barley became known as a food for poor people and slaves.

Breads. Grain could be eaten in a variety of ways. The easiest in terms of labor was to cook it with water into a porridge or gruel (similar to modern hot breakfast cereals). Somewhat more appetizing, perhaps, were breads and griddle cakes: barley could be made into a cake known as maza, and a variety of breads were known, with the more refined, “whiter” breads being the most valued. Home baking was rare in cities because of a lack of sufficient space to build ovens. Bakeries were plentiful and were usually equipped with brick ovens. To bake bread, a fire was built in the oven and allowed to burn itself out. The embers were swept out, and the bread dough inserted, with the baking accomplished by the heat stored in the bricks.

Ritual Drink. Another common way of consuming grain was in the form of a kukeôn, a mixture of barley meal and water that was thin enough to drink. It was the ritual drink served to initiates of the Eleusinian Mysteries and thought to have healthful properties. It was considered a country beverage and could be flavored with local herbs such as thyme and pennyroyal.

Cakes. Equally popular, but much fancier, were cakes—not the sort modern people eat for dessert, but fancy, sweetened breads or pastries. There were a vast array of these, and whole books were written about them. They were considered a delicacy to be eaten as a dessert with fruit after banquets, and many varieties were baked to be used in sacrifices to the gods.

Legumes. Beans, peas, chickpeas, and lentils formed an important part of the ancient Greek diet and were for most people the main source of protein. They could be mashed up and baked into bread, fried, or cooked into soups. An additional advantage was that they could all be easily dried and stored indefinitely.

Oils and Fats. Olive oil was the main source of fat, although other types of vegetable oils such as sesame oil were available, and cheese (which contains butterfat) was also common. Fats are a necessary part of any diet, especially one high in carbohydrates, and in a culture in which most people worked hard, spent much time outdoors, and ate little meat, excessive consumption of fat would rarely have been a problem.

Processing. Olives are inedible when raw and have to be processed for eating (by packing in salt or salt water) or to make oil. For making oil, they had to first be crushed in mills (occasionally large, complicated devices, but most times just a flat stone with a large roller), then pressed to extract the oil. Usually this process was done with green, unripe olives, which were thought to give better oil (this in contrast to modern practice, when black, ripe olives are used). The first pressing produced the “green” oil (what is today called “extra virgin”) which was often kept separate and sold at premium prices. Many regions became famous for their oil production, and the high-quality product of these regions could be exported and valued as a luxury item in the same way as vintage wine. Specialty oils were so valued that large amphorae (storage jars) full of oil were given as prizes to victorious athletes in the Panathenaic Games.

Uses. As in the modern world, however, most olive oil was of lower quality and destined for everyday use. In addition to its uses in food, it was an important ingredient in medicines and perfumes, and was the standard fuel for household lamps.

Dairy Products. Milk was primarily the food of foreigners, such as the Scythians, and of shepherds, and the drinking of fresh milk was considered an odd, barbaric practice (for example, in Homer’s Odyssey, written circa eighth-seventh centuries b.c.e., only the cyclops Polyphemus drinks milk). Given the climate and the extreme perishability of milk, it is hardly surprising that the Greeks rarely drank it. Dairy products had medicinal, cosmetic, and ritual uses, however, and were frequently consumed in the form of cheese. It could be soft and fresh (curds, ricotta, or farmer’s cheese are modern analogues), although these were perishable and would have to be eaten quickly. Aged hard cheeses would last much longer and transport better, and the various references to cheese-graters by the comic poet Aristophanes suggest that hard cheese was common. (These types might resemble modern-day Parmesan or Romano.) Sheep’s and goat’s milk were the most common sources for cheese, not surprisingly given the difficulty of pasturing large flocks of cattle, and modern Greek cheeses like feta and kasseri are probably not too different from their ancient counterparts.

Meat. Consumption of meat varied tremendously from one region to another, although in most places it was quite low for economic reasons. In the Odyssey large feasts with consumption of beef are commonplace, which can fool the reader into thinking this practice was standard in ancient Greece. In fact, the Odyssey was designed to show a bygone heroic world in which everything was greater and larger than in the present, including the consumption of expensive food; in this way, it actually provides evidence for the rarity of meat consumption. Data from Athens suggests that a sheep might cost about 12 drachmas, a pig about 20, and a cow as much as 80. Given that a semiskilled worker in the fifth century would be paid a drachma per day, meat was usually too expensive for most city-dwellers to buy. Most people, then, ate meat only at public sacrifices, where it was given out for free. For these occasions wealthier citizens would supply sacrificial animals (usually pigs, sheep, goats, and cattle). After the animals were ritually killed and parts of their bodies (usually fat and bones) dedicated to the gods and burned, the remaining meat would be roasted and eaten, being parceled out to the citizens and others who came to participate in the festival. (The Greeks were far too practical to waste a perfectly good animal by giving the gods the better parts. They were also too practical to waste edible flesh, including organ meats and blood—the Spartan national dish, for example, was a thin black stew consisting of pork, blood, salt, and vinegar.) Fair distribution of sacrificial meat was in many instances an act rich with political symbolism, especially in Athens where the official ideology was one of equality. Chickens, ducks, small wild birds, and their eggs also formed a part of the diet and were more affordable. Those who lived in the country could also hunt or trap wild game, including deer, boars, and rabbits.

Fish. The proximity of all parts of Greece to the sea made fish available and a desirable delicacy. It is uncertain, however, how much of a contribution they made to the Greek diet, since they are not especially plentiful in the Mediterranean. In most places they could not have been a significant source of protein, although they provided welcome diversity in an otherwise monotonous diet.

Valuable Catches. Fish were caught mostly along the shoreline, although it was necessary to go out into the open sea for many of the more valuable kinds. Shellfish were also taken from along the shore, as were octopus and squid. The region’s few freshwater lakes were a source of fish, especially Lake Copais in Boeotia, famed as a source of eels. Fishing was always a difficult and chancy way to make a living, depending on unseen migrations and shifts in the fish population, although the enduring market for certain highly prized species made some fishermen rich. Much fishing was done with nets, although individuals would also use rods and lines the way modern anglers do.

Preparation. Fish were most often dried or pickled, although in a large city like Athens, which had a harbor only five miles from the city center, fresh fish of many varieties were available. The Athenians, in fact, had a particularly severe case of the general Greek mania for fish, to judge from the many references by Aristophanes and other comic poets. Fish was perhaps the prime example of an opson; in fact, the diminutive form of this word, opsarion, is the source of the modern Greek word for fish (psari). There was nothing Athenians (and many other Greeks) seemed to like so much as fish. Among other things, the ability to consume certain types of fish became a marker of class difference: sardines, sprats, and other small species were affordable by the common people, but eels, tuna, grouper, mullets, and crayfish were reserved for the rich. The fish market was a popular, crowded place, and in Aristophanes’ Frogs (405 b.c.e.) we hear of a rich man pretending to be poor (to avoid taxation) who gives himself away by buying expensive fish. In his work written in 411 b.c.e., Thesmophoriazousai (a fantasy about the redistribution of power), the poor receive greater slices of fish. Plutarch (writing in Roman times but still reflecting older Greek attitudes) tells his readers that if they ever run across a Rhodian dogfish they should buy it, or take it by force if necessary, even at the risk of death. (An exaggeration, not unlike the Japanese proverb about fugu, a delicious fish that can be deadly if not properly prepared: “It is madness to eat fugu; it is also madness not to eat fugu”) Fish were popular items at upper-class banquets, and serving a large specimen of a rare type of fish was an excellent way of showing off.

Nutrition. In addition to fish, vegetables provided variety, along with needed vitamins. Onions, garlic, cabbage, lettuce, artichokes, cucumbers, turnips, and radishes were commonly eaten; availability was seasonal and varied from countryside to city. Olives were also eaten, as were some nuts and seeds (sesame, almond, walnut, chestnut, and poppy): these provided fat as well as vitamins, and the seeds were common seasonings for cakes.

Fruits. Apples, pears, grapes, quinces, and pomegranates were readily available and figured not only on the table but also in legend. (Persephone is said to have eaten pomegranate seeds in Hades and thus been doomed to stay there.) The most important fruit, however, was the fig: some scholars claim that no other crop produced more calories per unit of area. Different varieties were cultivated, in part to extend the season of availability. Fresh figs were a treat (although not a particularly rare or expensive one); dried figs were food for slaves or country people, or a sort of emergency food reserve. They were also important as a sweetener, since sugar was unknown to the Greeks.

Honey. The usual sweetener in Greece was honey. Beekeeping had been a carefully practiced art since circa 700 b.c.e. Hives could be made of terracotta, wood, or reeds, and the Greeks were aware of the different flavors that could be produced by altering the bees’ diet. The thyme-flower honey of Hymettus (near Athens) was famous, and many other locations had special, sought-after varieties of honey.

Seasonings. Herbs and spices were an important part of Greek cuisine. Most of these were locally grown green plants: basil, bay leaf, chives, fennel, garlic, leeks, mustard, onions, parsley, rosemary, sage, and thyme. There were other, exotic spices that might be imported from distant lands, but the spice trade was still quite undeveloped compared to what it was in Roman times, when trade contact with India and China was more feasible. There was a tendency to flavor food, rather than serve it plain, that survives to this day in the cooking of Mediterranean countries.

Beverages. Water and wine were the only beverages commonly consumed. Milk was unusual and foreign, as was beer. Unfermented fruit juice was too perishable to be practical: rather than make fruit juice that would have to be consumed immediately, Greeks simply ate other fruits and turned grapes into wine.

Alcohol. Wine production was an important factor in the development of civilization and therefore was well advanced and sophisticated by 800 b.c.e. Most modern techniques for training vines (for example, on trellises or trees) were known, and the process of making wine changed little until the advent of modern technology. Grapes were crushed in presses and the juice (known as “must”) was placed in large jars to ferment, sometimes with additives such as seawater. Hotter climates produce sweeter wines, with a higher alcohol content, so most Greek wines were in the higher range of possible values for these (perhaps 14 percent alcohol; in the absence of distillation—a medieval invention—there was no hard liquor, and wine was the strongest beverage available). Simple wines would be ready within a few months; others were allowed to ferment longer, although Greek wine-makers were unable to stop the fermentation process, and wines would not last for more than four to five years. Since climate and soil determine the essential characteristics of a wine, the development of an export trade from favored wine-producing areas occurred early. Many of the best wines came from Ionian islands (near the coast of Asia Minor) such as Lesbos, Chios, Rhodes, and Thasos.

Popularity. Wine was consumed as an everyday beverage with meals, sometimes mixed with honey or flavored with spices. It was also taken for medicinal purposes as well as to simply get drunk. It was almost always diluted with water: drinking unmixed wine was something done by barbarians or by foolish people who did not care about its effects. The proportion of water mixed in varied according to occasion: heavily diluted wine would be best for children, or for those who needed to maintain sobriety while working; purer wine was suited for banquets and drinking parties. It was the drink of slaves and kings alike (although kings drank better wine), and its use was never seriously questioned. Writers recognized the possibility that excessive drinking could have serious consequences: Pythagoras is said to have claimed that excessive drinking was a training ground for madness, and authors of both fact and fiction tell of alcohol-induced misbehavior ranging from falling off roofs to initiating brawls at weddings. Nevertheless, the Greeks did not have our concept of alcoholism and were quite unselfconscious about enjoying the pleasure and escape from care that drinking could provide. Thus, in the Bacchae (circa 406 b.c.e.) of Euripides, the prophet Teiresias praises wine as the gift of the god Dionysus: “Filled with that good gift, suffering mankind forgets its grief; from it comes sleep; with it oblivion of the troubles of the day. There is no other medicine for misery.”

Food Preparation. The degree of attention paid to the preparation of food varied according to the amount of income and leisure available. As noted above on housing, most city houses had relatively little space for cooking and lacked ovens, so most urban dwellers bought bread from bakeries. Although a lot of attention was paid to seasoning, methods of preparation must have been simple: boiling, sauteing, or grilling. Prepared foods were available from vendors in the marketplace, inns, and taverns. Between these sources and the number of public festivals at which food was distributed for free, the urban poor may have done little of their own cooking.

Freshness. When cooking was done in the home, it was usually by women or slaves, as were other household tasks. Given the lack of refrigeration, and even of storage space, urban cooks probably bought fresh food on a daily basis (a practice that is still followed in many European cities). In the country, households would aim at self-sufficiency in food and could store large amounts of grain, oil, and wine, and buy whatever opson they needed on occasional trips into town.

Meals. The number of meals taken per day varied: originally three, in fifth-century Athens the usual number was two (although this later reverted to three). Under the older system, breakfast (ariston) would be eaten soon after sunrise, with the main meal (deipnon) near midday, and a lighter supper (dorpon) in the evening. In Athens, the ariston was moved back to later in the day, as was the deipnon, which became an evening meal. (A similar alternation may be found in the United States and parts of Europe, where moving the main meal to the evening is gaining popularity. However, much of the reason for this transition has to do with the demands of urban rather than rural life.)

Etiquette. In houses of sufficient means, meals would be taken in the dining room. Sitting while eating was common, although the fashion for lying down was imported from the East in about 700 b.c.e. and was followed on formal occasions. Utensils would vary according to income and the formality of the occasion: drinking vessels were of pottery, wood, or metal (glass was not commonly used until Roman times). Plates were wood or ceramic. Various examples of highly decorated drinking utensils and plates survive; these items were created by skilled vase painters and were for formal rather than everyday use. Spoons and knives were common; forks were unknown, and most food was eaten with the fingers.

Differences in Diet. Throughout the Greek world each group of inhabitants had different reputations concerning their dietary habits. The Spartans, for example, were famous for frugality and moderation: they took their meals in communal public messes, drank and ate moderately, and their famous black broth was considered unpalatable by other Greeks. By contrast, the Boeotians were known for high living, overeating, and drinking too much, and were considered to be slow-witted and dull. The citizens of Sybaris in Sicily were considered gourmets, devoted to luxury in all its forms: they were said to have given eel-producers an exemption from taxation. (The word sybaritic, meaning devoted to luxury, comes from the name of this town.) Although there is some truth in these assertions (especially those concerning Sparta), they must be taken with a grain of salt, since they reflect not just reality but the prejudices of Athenians and other outsiders, who wished to portray other Greeks as both different and inferior to themselves. Food and its consumption could have a moral dimension largely missing from the present world: “moderation in all things” was a Greek ideal.

Abstention. Some Greeks followed vegetarian diets for religious reasons, although it was not especially common. Followers of the sixth-century philosopher Pythagoras abstained from meat because of their belief in reincarnation: a cow or pig might contain a person’s soul. (They also abstained from beans, for reasons that are less clear.) Other philosophers, such as Empedocles, had the same view as did followers of Orphism. Abstention from meat was sometimes also prescribed for medical reasons.


Chariot races were difficult and sometimes dangerous. There was much opportunity for skill and cunning, and fair play was ensured by judges and by making competitors swear that they would compete fairly. The following passage comes from Homer’s Iliad (circa eighth-seventh centuries b.c.e.), with Achilles presiding over a series of competitions to honor his slain comrade Patroclus:

They stood in line for the start, and Achilleus showed them the turn-post far away on the level plain, and beside it he stationed a judge, Phoinix the godlike, the follower of his father, to mark and remember the running and bring back a true story.

Then all held their whips high-lifted above their horses, then struck with the whip thongs and in words urged their horses onward into speed . . . presently after this battle-stubborn Antilochos saw where the hollow way narrowed. There was a break in the ground where winter water had gathered and broken out of the road, and made a sunken place all about. Menelaos shrinking from a collision of chariots steered there, but Antilochos also turned out his single-foot horses from the road, and bore a little way aside, and went after him; and Menelaos was frightened and called out aloud to Antilochos: “Antilochos, this is reckless horsemanship. Hold in your horses. The way is narrow here, it will soon be wider for passing. Be careful not to crash your chariot and wreck both of us.” So he spoke, but Antilochos drove on all the harder with a whiplash for greater speed, as if he had never heard him . . . but then the mares of Menelaos gave way and fell back, for he of his own will slackened his driving for fear that in the road the single-foot horses might crash… But Menelaos of the fair hair called to him in anger: “Antilochos, there is no other man more cursed than you are. Damn you. We Achaians lied when we said you had good sense. Even so, you will not get this prize without having to take an oath.”

Eventually Menelaos’s claim of foul play is upheld, although he graciously allows Antilochos to keep the prize for first place. The dangers of chariot racing are shown more graphically in Sophocles’ Electra (circa 497-405 b.c.e.), where the following false report of Orestes’ death is given:

Orestes always drove tight at the corners barely grazing the edge of the post with his wheel, loosing his hold of the trace horse on his right while he checked the near horse. In his other laps the poor young man and his horses had come through safe. But this time he let go of the left rein as the horse was turning. Unaware, he struck the edge of the pillar and broke his axle in the center. He was himself thrown from the rails of the chariot and tangled in the reins. As he fell, the horses bolted wildly to the middle of the course. When the crowd saw him fallen from his car, they shuddered. “How young he was,” “How gallant his deeds,” and “How sadly he has ended,” as they saw him thrown earthward now, and then, tossing his legs to the sky—until at last the grooms with difficulty stopped the runaway team and freed him, but so covered with blood that no one of his friends could recognize the unhappy corpse.


James N. Davidson, Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens (London: HarperCollins, 1997).

Robert Flaceliere, Daily Life in Greece at the Time of Pericles, translated by Peter Green (New York: Macmillan, 1965).

Peter Garnsey, Famine and Food Supply in the Graeco-Roman World: Responses to Risk and Crisis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

Robert Sallares, Ecology of the Ancient World (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990).

Charles Seltman, Wine in the Ancient World (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957).

John Wilkins and others, eds., Food in Antiquity (Exeter, U.K.: University of Exeter Press, 1995).

William A. Younger, Gods, Men and Wine (London: Wine & Food Society, 1966).


views updated May 18 2018



Food is a biological necessity. Like sex, it has implications for the perpetuation of the species, but unlike sex, it also has implications for the survival of each individual. Social anthropologists point out that food is further implicated in the social and cultural survival of human groups. Acquiring and eating food is thus extended into the realms of the economic, political, and psychological.

Human beings are omnivorous, capable of safely eating a particularly wide variety of plant and animal sources of nutrientsa characteristic that has enabled the worldwide distribution of the species. Major, very broad transitions in human modes of living can be traced. Some 10,000 years ago the protracted shift began from foragingcontinually on the move, hunting and gatheringto farmingsettling, domesticating plants, and tending livestock. Then there is the comparatively recent 500-year increase in the movement of both people and foodstuffs around the globe: for example, new people to the Americas, turkeys to Europe. Most recently is the approximately 200 years industrialization of both food productionagriculture, preservation, and processingand food consumptionwholesale and ready-made retail distributionthat has been coupled with and supported by the increasingly intense application of physical, chemical, and biological sciences. The role of food in this long history of human groups is shrewdly summarized by Raymond Firth, who observed that in industrial society, getting food occurs in breaks between work, whereas in nonindustrial society, getting food is the days work (1973).

The contemporary supply and distribution of food worldwide is notoriously unequal and inequitable. Particular attention has been devoted to international policies for the relief of severe and devastating food shortages. A major theme of this work is to note serious disjunctions that have profound consequences for those whose plight is meant to be alleviated. On the one hand are the media images of famine conjured in more-developed countries, typically of children in profound distressimages that then get dovetailed with assumptions embedded in international agencies debates on world food security as to the relief required. On the other hand are what Johan Pottier describes as the everyday realities food-insecure people face (1999). In The Anthropology of Food he includes a simple, but compelling example. Official agricultural programs had no space in their information-gathering exercises in Kenya for the testimony of an elderly woman farmer, reputed in her community to be the most knowledgeable about growing yams. The program was, top down, informed by research scientists knowledge, not local expertise.

Even desperately hungry people need their own food, because, despite being omnivores, people do not eat everything available that is nontoxic and nutritious. This observation is only partly explainable in biological terms. Human groups the world over are observed to be selective in what, culturally speaking, counts as food. Such social definitions of food vary from society to society and they change over time. Familiarly, horse meat is food in Belgium but not in the United States; dog is a delicacy in parts of China but not in France. And on their first introduction to England, tomatoes were regarded as attractive but poisonous, whereas potatoes were initially grown in Sweden only as a garden ornament.

The social definition of food extends to encompass whole cuisinesdistinctive combinations of ingredients and modes of their transformation into dishesand what has been called culinary culture, a shorthand term for the ensemble of attitudes and tastes (both literal and metaphorical) members of a social group bring to cooking and eating food they have selected. Certain cuisines and culinary cultures have a long and persistent history. The beginnings of a Japanese rice-based cuisine, for instance, can be dated from the introduction of wet-rice agriculture over 2,000 years ago. Rice features strongly in eighth-century myths seeking to establish a national identity distinguishing Japan from its neighbors. These stories entailed notions of abundance, a land of good rice harvests. Divine power was incorporated into every grain of rice, symbolizing not only the relation between deities and people, but also of those among human beings themselves. Thus rice became central to commensality, the act of eating together, and thereby cemented and symbolized social relationshipsand a meal without rice could not count as a meal.

The case of rice illustrates the manner in which some have stressed the prime significance of symbols in understanding culinary cultures. By contrast, others have argued that emphasizing the material and practical rather than the symbolic offers superior intellectual interpretations of the variability in social definitions of food. But in a study of the global reach of sugar over four centuries, Sidney Mintz presented a powerful case for a combined approach that recognizes the symbolic significance of a foodstuff while arguing that meaning thus attributed is a consequence of practical human activity (1985). That the meaning of sugar could change from medicine in late-medieval Europe to luxury (like a spice, available only to the exceptionally wealthy) in the early modern period, then to a commonplace necessity to the laboring classes of nineteenth-century Britain, occurred, Mintz argues, as a result of usageand of supplier-induced demand.

The case of rice also introduces the idea of a proper mealone that is culturally appropriately composed, prepared, and served on socially prescribed occasionsa version of which appears to be found in most human groups. A British versionthe caricatured meat and two vegetablescontinues to be readily detectable not only in Britain, but also in its erstwhile colonies in North America, southern Africa, and Australia. Scholars specializing in the study of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century consumption have claimed, however, that allegiance to such traditional modes of eating are disappearing, as part of broader changes of postindustrial society. One element of such changes, they argue, is the proposal that social differentiation is diminishing: No longer are education, income, gender, or age systematically evident in preferred dishes, locales for eating (e.g., expensive restaurants or fast-food diners), or the household division of food-preparation tasks. Another is that the predominant mode of food provision in both household and public settings has become commercial rather than domestic: Coupled with an increase in the rate of eating away from home in cafés, restaurants, and diners is the use at home of ready-made complete meals rather than dishes prepared from raw ingredients. And a third elementfinding frequent expression in popular and journalistic commentaries claiming that families no longer gather round the table to share a mealis that institutional rhythms are subject to erosion. Substantiating these claims adequately is difficult, however, and determining the extent to which they apply remains incomplete.

What is clear, though, is that the twenty-first-century food supply is global, providing populations in more developed countries with year-round fresh produce from less developed countries and an apparently ever widening range of products on supermarket shelves, with consumer choice as a watchword. Critics point to the environmental as well as social costs, for example in the diversion of comparatively limited local supplies of water to agricultural production for export markets, or the additional carbon emissions of air freight. Trends such as this are paralleled by a strikingly rapid increase in rates of obesity in a growing number of countries. Some commentators are even predicting that a generation of children will suffer fatal diseases associated with obesityfor example, diabetes and heart diseaseto such an extent that they may even predecease their parents. This kind of public concern looks set to supplant the food-safety scares that dominated the last two decades of the twentieth century, the most dramatic and most costly example of which was bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly called mad cow disease, responsible for an invariably fatal disease if eaten by human beings. Public health policies, especially those geared to limiting the rates of obesity, are not readily aligned with economic policies supporting industrialized food production and the associated provision of employment. This essential, but in its current incarnation highly contested, sphere of human existence represents a considerable intellectual challenge to the still comparatively small number of social scientists seeking to understand its myriad facets.

SEE ALSO Food Crisis; Malnutrition


Firth, Raymond. 1973. Food Symbolism in a Pre-Industrial Society. In Symbols, Public and Private. London: Allen and Unwin.

Mennell, Stephen. 1985. All Manners of Food: Eating and Taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the Present. Oxford: Blackwell.

Mintz, Sidney W. 1985. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Viking Penguin.

Pottier, Johan. 1999. Anthropology of Food: The Social Dynamics of Food Security. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Warde, Alan. 1997. Consumption, Food, and Taste: Cultural Antimonies and Commodity Culture. London: Sage.

Anne Murcott


views updated May 29 2018


Food and families are two topics in which everyone claims some expertise. Families are made up of people who eat food. Both families and food contribute to a person's physical and social well being throughout life.

Dictionary definitions of food include terms such as nourishing, sustaining growth, or furnishing energy. People recognize that food is necessary for the physical survival of their families. Although sometimes the purpose of food intake is only to satisfy hunger, the role of food in families goes much further than meeting physical needs.

Food structures families' schedules, provides social activity, defines relationships, and represents ethnic identities. Food is part of family celebrations, ceremonies, and rituals. Food-related health concerns such as malnutrition and obesity impact family members' emotions and their relationships with each other. For some families, food is easily accessible. Other families are starving. Through food demands and concerns, families shape societies and societies influence families. The purpose of this entry is to describe the importance of food to families by examining international examples of the many connections between family and food.

Family Meals

People associate food with family relationships. Debra Lupton (1994), an Australian researcher, found that childhood memories of food were related to social relationships rather than to foods themselves. When requested to write about "food," participants in Lupton's study described emotional themes related to belongingness, happiness, control, and disappointment. In most cultures food is linked with group membership, including belonging to a family. Eating together provides opportunities for family members to interact while sharing the same event or eating similar foods. Family members' interests and activities may vary widely in the areas of work, school, and leisure activities; mealtime provides a common focus.

Many people recognize the importance of family mealtimes, and many factors, including work schedules, school events, and the convenience of restaurants, make eating together a challenge for some families. Attention to the benefits of family meals is not new. In 1943 James H. S. Bossard indicated that the family meal "holds members of the family together during an extended period of time." During mealtimes, noted Bossard, family members interact, enlarging vocabulary, providing information, developing personality, and socializing children. He acknowledged that because family meals represent "families in action," negative as well as positive interactions occur during meals. Similarly, Lupton noted that the family meal itself is not necessarily positive. When family members cooperate, are valued, and positive interactions predominate during meal preparation and eating, the family meal helps establish a sense of security among family members.

Family mealtimes may be a higher priority for some families than for others, and a possible decline in frequency of family meals is a commonly expressed concern. Social problems, ranging from failure in school to delinquency, have been attributed to the decline in family meals. However, a decline in family meals may not be as extensive as feared. An American Dietetic Association (2000) fact sheet indicates that the average family prepares and eats dinner together five nights a week. Obviously, many people are committed to obtaining the benefits of a family meal.

Parents have an impact on what their children eat and how much they eat. Children prefer foods with which they are familiar (Birch 1996). To develop familiarity with and preference for specific food items, children may need to be exposed to that food ten times. Parents have the responsibility of selecting much of the food eaten by very young children. But children also affect the food behaviors of other family members by influencing what is purchased and prepared. Parents want to serve food that their children will eat. According to Gill Valentine (1999), "the power of children shape[s] the consumption practices of a household." Valentine found that differences in food preferences among family members may lead to negotiation and compromise or to the decision to have meals in which family members eat very differently from one another (e.g., vegetarians and meat-eaters).

Parents and children not only impact one another's food choices. The care and love parents demonstrate by purchasing or preparing food for their children is evident; in addition, children also use food to express care and helpfulness to parents. In interviews conducted in California, adolescents between the ages of eleven and fourteen reported cooking for themselves or siblings in order to be helpful to parents. They viewed preparing food at home as making a contribution to family life (Kaplan 2000). Thus, children and parents alike help to create a sense of family by giving and receiving care demonstrated through food.

The adolescents interviewed by Elaine Bell Kaplan (2000) indicated that their mothers were responsible for preparing the evening meals, but the boys described enjoying cooking as much as the girls did. Boys' enjoyment of cooking follows a trend in which men frequently contribute to preparation of family meals. Women still do most of the cooking for families, but men often participate in food preparation. Lupton (2000) found that among rural Australian heterosexual couples, many enjoyed food preparation, although the men who liked to cook were typically middle-aged or younger. Even though women still took the major responsibility for meals, these couples viewed food preparation as part of the division of labor, which they had negotiated, rather than as the duty of the female. Attitudes toward food and gender role patterns, however, may vary from country to country. More gender role segregation in food practices has been reported in British than in Swedish households ( Jansson 1995).

Food preferences and preparation responsibilities are negotiated between husband and wife, as well as between parents and children. People also negotiate and renegotiate food patterns throughout the stages of their own lives. Researchers in Scotland examined changes in eating habits when couples began to live together. Prior to marriage or cohabitation, people shopped for food when they felt like it or needed more food; when they began living together, both meals and shopping became more regular. Women made efforts to improve their husbands' food choices, and men's diets improved. Most couples reported that food was a much more important component of their relationship than they had expected (Kemmer 1998).

As children grow and eventually move out of the household, some parents tend to eat less regular and smaller meals. Parents return to cooking and eating more when children visit. This pattern is particularly characteristic of widowed women, who have experienced loss of social interaction, as well as the satisfaction of providing care through meals (Quandt et al. 1997).

Trends in society include people living longer, an increase in dual-earner and single-parent households, and access to more convenient foods. In addition, many people live alone. Sometimes jobs are located long distances from homes. Therefore, families may have little time or incentive to cook and may choose to eat in restaurants or to bring fully prepared meals into their homes. According to Gisele Yasmeen (2000), few urban Thai families regularly cook meals at home. Because most Thai and Southeast Asian women are in the paid workforce, these families might subscribe to a neighborhood catering network or eat other publicly prepared food. When consumers desire readily available, fully prepared food, industry complies. Increases of fast-food restaurants in Western societies provide an example of both the impact of the consumer on society and society on the consumer. When fully prepared food is available and affordable, families are likely to cook less.

Food content and methods of meal preparation have changed and will continue to change for individuals as they age and for families as their lifestyles change. Nevertheless, meals are an important part of family life in which families experience belonging and continue to pass on culture and traditions to future generations.

Food and Culture

People also connect to their cultural or ethnic group through similar food patterns. Immigrants often use food as a means of retaining their cultural identity. People from different cultural backgrounds eat different foods. The ingredients, methods of preparation, preservation techniques, and types of food eaten at different meals vary among cultures. The areas in which families live— and where their ancestors originated—influence food likes and dislikes. These food preferences result in patterns of food choices within a cultural or regional group.

Food items themselves have meaning attached to them. In many Western countries a box of chocolates would be viewed as an appropriate gift. The recipient of the gift would react differently to a gift of cabbage or carrots than to chocolate. In other countries chocolates might be a less appropriate gift.

Nations or countries are frequently associated with certain foods. For example, many people associate Italy with pizza and pasta. Yet Italians eat many other foods, and types of pasta dishes vary throughout Italy. Methods of preparation and types of food vary by regions of a nation. Some families in the United States prefer to eat "meat and potatoes," but "meat and potatoes" are not eaten on a regular basis, nor even preferred, by many in the United States and would not be labeled a national cuisine. Grits, a coarsely ground corn that is boiled, is eaten by families in the southern United States. A package of grits is only available in the largest supermarkets in the upper Midwest and would have been difficult to find even in large Midwestern supermarkets twenty years ago.

Regional food habits do exist, but they also change over time. As people immigrate, food practices and preferences are imported and exported. Families move to other locations, bringing their food preferences with them. They may use their old recipes with new ingredients, or experiment with new recipes, incorporating ingredients to match their own tastes. In addition, food itself is imported from other countries. Approximately 80 percent of Samoa's food requirements are imported from the United States, New Zealand, or Australia (Shovic 1994). Because people and food are mobile, attempts to characterize a country or people by what they eat are often inaccurate or tend to lump people into stereotypical groups.

Nevertheless, what is considered edible or even a delicacy in some parts of the world might be considered inedible in other parts. Although food is often selected with some attention to physical need, the values or beliefs a society attaches to potential food items define what families within a cultural group will eat. For example, both plant and animal sources may contribute to meeting nutritional requirements for protein; soybeans, beef, horsemeat, and dog meat are all adequate protein sources. Yet, due to the symbolism attached to these protein sources, they are not equally available in all societies. Moreover, even when the foods perceived to be undesirable are available, they are not likely to be eaten by people who have a strong emotional reaction against the potential food item.

Some food beliefs and practices are due to religious beliefs. Around the world, Muslims fast during Ramadan, believed to be the month during which the Qur'an, the Islamic holy book, was given from God to the Prophet Muhammad. During this month, Muslims fast during daylight hours, eating and drinking before dawn and after sunset. Orthodox Jews and some conservative Jews follow dietary laws, popularly referred to as a kosher diet, discussed in Jewish scripture. The dietary laws, which describe the use and preparation of animal foods, are followed for purposes of spiritual health. Many followers of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism are vegetarians, in part, because of a doctrine of noninjury or nonviolence. Abstinence from eating meat in these traditions stems from the desire to avoid harming other living creatures. Despite religious food prescriptions, dietary practices vary widely even among those who practice the same faith. Such variations may be due to branches or denominations of a religious group, national variations, and individuals' or families' own degree of orthodoxy or religious adherence.

In addition to impacting food choices, culture also plays a role in food-related etiquette. People in Western societies may refer to food-related etiquette as table manners, a phrase that illustrates the cultural expectation of eating food or meals at a table. Some people eat with forks and spoons; more people use fingers or chopsticks. However, utensil choice is much more complicated than choosing chopsticks, fingers, or flatware. Among some groups who primarily eat food with their fingers, diners use only the right hand to eat. Some people use only three fingers of the right hand. Among other groups, use of both hands is acceptable. In some countries, licking the fingers is polite; in others, licking the fingers is considered impolite (and done only when a person thinks no one else is watching). Rules regarding polite eating may increase in formal settings. At some formal dinners, a person might be expected to choose the "right" fork from among two or three choices to match the food being eaten at a certain point in the meal.

The amount people eat and leave uneaten also varies from group to group. Some people from Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian countries might leave a little bit of food on their plates in order to indicate that their hunger has been satisfied (Kittler 2001). Cooks from other locations might be offended if food is left on the plate, indicating that the guest may have disliked the food. Similarly, a clean plate might signify either satisfaction with the meal or desire for more food.

Even the role of conversation during mealtime varies from place to place. Many families believe that mealtime is a good time to converse and to "catch up" on the lives of family and friends. Among other families, conversation during a meal is acceptable, but the topics of conversation are limited. In some Southeast Asian countries it is considered polite to limit conversation during a meal (Kittler 2001).

Food plays an important role in the lives of families in most cultures. However, the degree of importance varies from culture to culture. For example, in American Samoa most family activities and ceremonies center on eating. A host family demonstrates its prosperity or societal rank by providing large quantities of food (Shovic 1994). Among other families in other locations, activities and celebrations include food, but food is not necessarily the center of the event.

Food traditions vary widely throughout the world. Even among people who share similar cultural backgrounds and some of the same food habits, eating patterns are not identical. Further, families vary from their own daily routines on holidays, when traveling, or when guests are present. Men eat differently from women. People of different age groups eat differently. However, in most parts of the world, food is associated with hospitality and expression of friendship. Therefore, sensitivity to food rules and customs is important in building and strengthening cross-cultural relationships.

Food Security

Around the world and across ethnic groups, food security greatly influences the meanings, values, and benefits a family associates with food. A family who has food security is able to obtain enough food to avoid hunger. As income rises, a smaller percent of the income is used for food. Families with lower incomes spend a higher proportion of their incomes on food. Throughout the world, more money is spent on food than on other categories of activities. Sometimes families experience food insecurity; for those families, the primary role of food becomes satisfying hunger.

Hunger has negative consequences for children, including anemia, developmental and behavioral problems, and learning difficulties. Under-nourished pregnant women are more likely to have low-birthweight infants who are more likely to experience health and behavior problems. Food insecurity also causes anxiety for parents and children.

Because food is connected with so many social benefits, families who face long-term food insecurity are likely to experience more than physical suffering. Social relationships may be impaired; verbal abilities developed through family mealtime interactions might be less developed; the opportunities to negotiate and compromise food choices may be fewer. Families who are not able to be hospitable may lose social status. Therefore, the impact of food insecurity has far-reaching social, emotional, and developmental consequences for families and children.

Food is part of everyone's life. It affects the structure of family schedules and enhances relationships among family members and between families. Food may be a mark of cultural and religious identity. Culture shapes families' food attitudes and behaviors, and families' needs, beliefs, and behaviors impact culture. Because food is an essential part of families' physical and social lives, examining its role in families helps us to understand families in the context of their cultures.

See also:Communication: Family Relationships; Division of Labor; Eating Disorders; Failure to Thrive; Family Folklore; Home; Housework; Judaism; Religion; Resource Management


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other resource

american dietetic association. (2000). "making the most of family mealtime." available from

renee a. oscarson