Culture, Food, and Food Porn

Eating is not as a simple food-in, excrement-out process. It is a series of encounters – with cultures, with memories, with time. What we eat is a matter of self-creation, culture-building, and expression. People connect to their cultural group (groups, more accurately) through similar food patterns. Immigrants often use food as a means of retaining their cultural identity, as well as sharing that identity with the culture into which they have migrated. People from different cultural backgrounds eat different foods. The ingredients, methods of preparation, preservation techniques, and types of food eaten at different meals vary.

Food items themselves have meaning attached to them. In many Western countries a box of chocolates would be viewed as an appropriate gift. The recipient of the gift would react differently to a gift of cabbage or carrots than to chocolate. In other countries chocolates might be a less appropriate gift. What is considered edible or even a delicacy in some parts of the world might be considered inedible in other parts. Similarly, although food is often selected with some attention to physical need, the values or beliefs a society attaches to potential food items define what families within a cultural group will eat. For example, both plant and animal sources may contribute to meeting nutritional requirements for protein; soybeans, beef, horsemeat, and dog meat are all adequate protein sources. Yet, due to the symbolism attached to these protein sources, they are not equally available or acceptable in all societies.

On an individual level, we grow up eating the food of our cultures. It becomes a part of who each of us are. Many of us associate food from our childhood with warm feelings and good memories and it ties us to our families, holding a special value for us. Food from our family often becomes the comfort food we seek as adults in times of frustration and stress. But in recent years, these rules have become more fluid and open to interpretation. When it comes to food, we are increasingly global.

In a digital-first era, many people latch onto food as something that engages all of the senses and brings people together in physical space. I think that that’s expressed in social media. Food has become a conduit for creation. If you look at any of the statistics for Instagram Facebook, Twitter, etc., food topics are amongst the most posted and the most viewed. There are websites and message boards dedicated entirely to food. “Food porn” has become a feature of our language. Technology has changed our cultural relationship with food, for better or worse, for a few reasons. First is sensory deprivation. We have formed into a society that’s so accustomed to sitting in front of a screen and typing, whether that’s with our laptop or our phone. Food is tangible, it is imaginative.

Thanks to the portability of cell phone cameras and the magic of photo filters, we are well equipped to pose as amateur photographers. There are presently over 143 million images tagged with #food on Instagram—and while not all of those images are of food, the hashtag shows that we’re thinking about food socially. From plate shots of that special meal at that amazing restaurant to the spread from a backyard barbecue to the meal you just painstakingly made from scratch, food images are a large part of our social feeds. Our eyes let us “taste” food at a distance by activating the sense memories of taste and smell. Even a feast for the eyes only will engage the other senses imaginatively, for to see is not only to taste, but also to eat. The chef’s maxim, “A dish well presented is already half eaten,” recognizes that eating begins (and may even end) before food enters the body. While we may not be able to feel or smell or taste what’s on the screen, it sets us up to anticipate and dream. It lays the groundwork for our next food adventure.

Social media has, in some ways, made us more isolated, but food gives us a reason to come together with people, both virtually and in the physical world. It has the potential to break away from the isolation we often find ourselves subject to as we become more and more engrossed with the technology in front of us. It gives us a reason to take time out of our increasingly busy schedules and broaden our world, whether that’s dining out or cooking together.

What this means is that food is exploration, is drama, is a stage. Not only does it reinforce cultural norms, it expands them and redefines them. How we represent food in social media reflects a new conversation with those like us and those we have yet to connect with.  

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Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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