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Ever Wondered About... Food history?

Updated Wednesday, 27th April 2005

An introduction to food history

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The significance of food in our lives is not just nutritional, since eating does more than satisfy physical hunger and biological needs. On a day-to-day basis, the consumption of food – in the home, the workplace, the restaurant or the ‘fast-food’ outlet – is a central feature of our social relations with friends, colleagues and family. It can also be a major feature of those celebrations that mark particular rites of passage, such as weddings, birthdays and anniversaries. Food is, therefore, key to understanding how we organise our relationships with each other and the meanings of those relationships. Importantly, how we identify ourselves can be shaped too by our relationship to food. To identify oneself as, for example, a vegetarian conveys much about personal attitudes and values.

Our relationship to food is, however, always changing. This is not just as a result of the development of new recipes or new trends in food production. It comes out of wider historical changes that shape our personal lives and, in turn, the significance that we give to food. The growth in women’s paid employment, for instance, might be considered an important influence upon the increased availability of pre-packaged meals over recent years. Similarly greater affluence amongst large sectors of the British population could be used as explanation for the choices in cafés, bistros and restaurants that are now available to us.

There are, however, no easy connections to be made between social change and patterns of food consumption. Concerns about the demise of ‘the family meal’ – where all members of a family sat down to eat together on a daily basis – have been a focus of much discussion about the negative effects of recent social change upon family life. However the sociologist, Anne Murcott, has shown that anxiety about the supposedly declining institution of the family meal has been around in Britain and the USA since before World War II. She also reminds us that upper-class children in the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries always ate separately from adults, and that in the poorest of families women often went without food to ensure that their husbands (as breadwinners) and children could eat.

In the context of this Ever Wondered About Food series, we can see another strand of change, but here relating to the patterns of movement by people across local, national and international borders over the past hundred years. This movement has been a central feature of the ever-shifting trends and fashions of consumption. Immigrants and emigrants bring, and take, knowledge about food preparation, recipes and products that are used, merged and adapted by the receiving communities.

Our tastes in food, the pleasures of eating out and the availability of specialist products have all been widened and increased by these migration trends. Whether we’re eating pizza in Swansea, sushi in London or tiramisu in Edinburgh, we can be sure that our lives will continue to be shaped by our relationship to food and our tastes will continue to develop as we adapt to the rapidly changing world in which we live.

If you’d like to know more about historical and contemporary change, why not take a look at the Open University courses page and investigate the range of courses on offer that explore this fascinating area and how it shapes our everyday lives.

 

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