Eating the Familiar


Eating the Familiar – Food and Trans/Nationals

By combining food and sociability we first experience commensality – the coming together for the sharing of food – within the family, then with friends and then with others. These experiences contribute to the mix of our personal identity. The cuisine and dining practices perform the function of holding fast to an identity where cultural and locational boundaries are not coterminous. Especially when the actual loss of location occurs, as in the case of historic diasporas, or exiles, and with the various categories of transnationalists that exist today.

Food is an important contributor not only to an individual’s identity but also to a group’s collective sense of identity.[i] For some people locational and ethnic boundaries often do not coincide. Looking, for example, at the map of Africa, there exist very clear artificial, geographic boundaries, which have separated ethnic peoples into different countries, while binding together disparate cultural and ethnic groups within a national boundary. One outcome of this is the creation of national culinary identities as part of the push to establish coherent national identities.[ii]

The forging of a national culinary identity can be seen through the production of books, which bring together the regional and ethnic recipes of a nation. However, this can have the dual outcome of blurring important ethnic boundaries, while supporting the creation of a national culinary tradition. Nation building is the important outcome here, and a national cuisine, reflective or not of what is actually eaten, is the vehicle for the creation of this identity.

Ethnic cuisine is an excellent paradigm for ethnicity itself.[iii] Like ethnicity, it is only realised through alienation and boundary creation: ‘it takes a ‘them’ to define an ‘us’’.[iv] In Nigeria, for example, which is one of the world’s most ethnically diverse and tense nations, we see the major groups of Hausa, from the north, Yorùbá from the south west, the Igbo/Ibo from the east; and the Fulani, a nomadic people, all combine to make up 72% of the population. Various other groups make up the remaining 28 percent. These ethnic groups are ,generally geographically seperated but with permeable boundaries based on both ethnicity and religion. Each ethnic group has its own favourite foods and in large part these depend customs, traditions and religion. So, although yams may be eaten by many groups, each groups will differentiate themselves by, for instance, holding the festival for the new yam on different days and even months.[v] Thus, within a national boundary, food and food differences can contribute to the cohering of an identity other than national identity.

For modern transnationalists, though, both ethnicity and, importantly, country of origin are central connections, and a ‘large majority of transnationalists’ think of how to relate to their places of birth’.[viii] In relation to food, migrants, refugees and colonisers have on the one hand, been recognised as agents of dietary change,[ix] but also group diasporic identities are shored up by the use of foodways – that is the procurement, preparation and consumption of food – to sustain that identity.[x],[xi] While there may not be a straightforward correspondence between the transmission of food practices pre- to post- diasporic location, or from one generation of transnationalists to the next, ‘foodways, provide (groups) a framework for making sense of their social experiences’.[xii] Food is an important, if not a crucial, contributor to both the displaced individual’s and group’s collective sense of identity.[xiii] 

While the culinary realm is one avenue for the development and maintenance of a cultural identity, this does not mean that an exact ingredient match or replication of foods, rules or habits are required. Again, cultural tastes change between generations and result in a development of foodways where ‘cultural taste is constantly disputed’.[xiv] The conflation of African and African-American cuisine is an example of the co-option of ‘soul-food’ to this space,[xv] as is the disputed inter-generational food experience of Ukrainians in England.[xvi]

Ethnicity is, however, an ‘imagined space’ and associated cuisines may be imagined too. Talking and writing about ethnic food can add to a cuisine’s conceptual solidity and coherence.[xvii],[xviii] New World recipes have developed their own flavour, ingredients and preparation methods which are distinct from those original recipes; nevertheless a common, but complex, historical and cultural identity is held to by African-Americans, and ‘this way with food (presents) a microcosm of history’.[xix] 

Food choice and dining behaviour are used as a way of holding to and preserving identity differences and this happens within and also between communities. We eat what is familiar in the face of otherness, generational difference, historical distance, locational disturbance and profound and disputed changes in foodways.

[i]      Igor Cusak, ‘Pots. ‘Pots, pens and ‘eating out of the body’: cuisine and the gendering of African nations’, 278.

[ii]     Ibid.

[iii]    Pierre L. van der Berghe, ‘Ethnic cuisine: Culture in nature,’ Ethnic and Racial Studies 7.3 (1984): 395.

[iv]   Ibid.

[v]     Indeed it may be seen as a mark of the historical alienation between various ethnic groups that a move has been made in recent years to hold a New Yam festival with the stated aim of ‘building unity amongst Nigeria’s various ethnic groups.’ Viewed 14 March 2014.

[vi]    Oscar Forero and Graham Smith, ‘The reproduction of ‘cultural taste’ amongst the Ukrainian Diaspora in Bradford, England,’ The Sociological Review (2011): 78-96.

[vii]    Toyin Falola, The African Diaspora: Slavery, Modernity and Globalization, (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2013), 3.

[viii]   Ibid.

[ix]     Sidney W. Mintz and Christine M. Du Bois, ‘The Anthropology of Food and Eating,’ Annual Review of Anthropology               31:99 (2002):119.

[x]     Sangmee Bak, ‘McDonald’s in Seul: Food Choices, Identity and nationalism’, Golden Arches East, ed. J.L. Watson (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 136-160.

[xi]     Terry Threadgold, ‘When home is always a foreign place: Diaspora, Dialogue, Translations,’ Communal/Plural: Journal of Transnational & Cross-Cultural Studies 8.2 (2000): 193 – 217.

[xii]    Forero and Smith, ‘The reproduction of ‘cultural taste’ amongst the Ukrainian Diaspora in Bradford, England,’ 79.

[xiii]   Cusak, ‘Pots. ‘Pots, pens and ‘eating out of the body’: cuisine and the gendering of African nations,’ 278.

[xiv]   Forero and Smith, ‘The reproduction of ‘cultural taste’ amongst the Ukrainian Diaspora in Bradford, England,’ The Sociological Review (2011): 78-96

[xv]    Stephan Palmie, ‘Intangible Cultural Property, Semiotic Ideology, and the Vagaries of Ethnoculinary Recognition,’ African Arts 42.2 (2009): 54-60.

16   Forero and Smith, ‘The reproduction of ‘cultural taste’ amongst the Ukrainian Diaspora in Bradford, England,’ The Sociological Review (2011): 78-96

[xvii]   Catherine Simone Gallin, Kneidalach, Paprika, and the Spanish Omelet Jewish Food and Identity in Barcelona Today. Conference paper at Understanding Food, November 2012)

[xviii] Mintz and Du Bois, ‘The Anthropology of Food and Eating,’ 109.

[xix]    Jessica B. Harris, The Welcome Table: African-American Heritage, (New York: Fireside) 1995, quoted in Bryant Terry, Vegan Soul Kitchen (Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2009).