While doing work on a project related to nutritional supplements in Asia I had the distinct pleasure of getting away for a day and exploring one of the many markets in Hong Kong. For anyone interested in the relationship between food and culture, these sorts of excursions are tantamount to spending a day in the Elysian Fields. The sights, smells, sounds, and general crush of life can produce sensory overload, but they are worth every second. You might think that food is just food, but in reality, food is as much a part of society as money, politics, and taxes. The growing or gathering of food, its consumption, and our attitudes about it all reflect the state of the economy, social classes, and tradition. And it serves as a great reminder of how we think about analyzing the world around us.
I would contend that we owe the widespread popular fascination with all things food-related, whether in academics, shows like Hell’s Kitchen, or the random “food porn” selfie to these most ancient bazaars and culinary settings. There is something absolutely primal to the act of eating, yes, but also to the exploration of what we eat, whether through taste, texture, sight, or any other sense. Food, like language and religion, is a foundational part of the shared human experience, and something that marketing folks often overlook.
So what is food? It’s not as obvious as it may seem. And know that food has been a fixture in the study of culture from the beginning, I would hesitate to give a single answer. But it seems that the question of what exactly bounds food itself is an object that has been ignored or over simplified in the world of marketing and design. And yet, it is the central question that lies at the heart of debates over the ethical, cultural, aesthetic, and political debates of GMOs, vitamin-fortified staples, enhanced water, MSG, and even pink slime. Defining what makes food more of less “real” is central to how we talk about it, and for manufacturers, how they market it. Much of what you see in a market like this would be labeled as gastronomically valid, but much of it would not. With all the various competing perspectives, And what is contested between the competing communities of food practice, so to speak, revolves on the privileging of various biological, cultural and technological elements of food – preparation, harvesting, storage, presentation, and packaging all fall within competing interpretations of what is “right”. The point being that the “yuck” factor we so often attribute to one food or another has more to do with how we interpret food than it does with anything biological. Culture and context shape our understanding and acceptance (or rejection) of it.
Why do I mention it? Because it has everything to do with how we market it. Food is symbolically charged. It is wrapped up in deeply held beliefs that we carry with us whether we know it or not. And it’s something we need to be constantly aware of when in the field or out of it. How we experience the world matters and how we craft it into something that resonates is about touching the heart and soul.