Construir a paz nas mentes dos homens e das mulheres

Food and culture: the spice of life

"Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are." The maxim penned a century and a half ago by the French lawyer Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in his celebrated work on gastronomy, The Physiology of Taste, has not gone unheard by modern anthropologists. The foods people select from the range available to them in their environment, the ways in which they prepare those foods for consumption, the significance they attach to the act of eating and the code of manners which govern it can shed remarkable light on many other aspects of the societies in which they live. Food and drink are so profoundly important for humanity that they are often linked with matters that have nothing to do with nutrition. To take but one example described in this issue, for some groups of Mexican farmers, maize is not only a staple of their diet but an object of veneration, the very heart of their culture, myths and religious practices. If food satisfies an essential human need, it is also an essential ingredient of cultural identity.

This issue of The UNESCO Courier examines some of the connections between the eating habits of peoples in different parts of the world and other aspects of their behaviour. These connections, as our contributors point out, are many and varied. Eating together is a way of initiating and maintaining human relations. Meals convey social messages. Through eating together as a family cultural values are transmitted from generation to generation. Symbolic meanings are attached to food and drink by the major world religions, and eating is associated with initiation and burial rites and other ceremonies. Food is used as a form of currency. The consumption of rare and expensive foods is a mark of status.

This issue is thus intended as an introduction to the "anthropology of eating" rather than an examination of the problem of world hunger. If the question of food aid to the victims of natural catastrophes and other disasters is evoked, it is in terms of the impact of such aid on the nutrition habits of those who receive it.

Finally, the importance of food and eating is reflected in proverbs, folk wisdom and metaphor in many languages. We hope that the following pages will whet our readers' appetite for knowledge about mankind's "consuming passions", provide them with some food for thought, and leave them hungry for more.

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May 1987