Food is more than what appears on the table. What we eat is an element of who we are, where we come from and how we relate to our world. To the social scientist, food is a symbol of culture, identity, gender, family and power.

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However, at the same time students learn another and most important lesson: Students begin to understand that their own conception of who they are, in themselves, is profoundly connected to their home food cultures. 

For instance, one aspect that we discuss is having dinner with families, and how work and sports tended to separate eating patterns within the home, so that families often do not eat dinner together. In their final personal essays, students invariably state that, when they are parents, they will do their best to continue—or begin—a tradition of eating together as a family. While they may not have liked it when they were kids, they were also thoughtful enough to understand how important it was in maintaining identity. This always strikes us as particularly sweet, as well as insightful. They realize, as we all should, that food mediates social relationships and self-presentation

Eating and cooking habits are instruments through which we can all apprehend cultural meaning—food is so much more than what we put in our mouths to assuage our hunger. Culinary practices are a kind of symbolic capital, the threads of which identify who we are and help us to mediate relationships. 

So, as we suggest to our students, get your grandparents’ recipes! Interview them if you can, ask about cooking traditions, about when food was scarce in their lives and when food was plentiful. You will find your identity and tradition through your family’s foodways and you will find a rich reward.

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Salt and pepper shaker art by Joyce Gabriel