Food’s Not Really Meant for Eating…

Leigh Lawrence

… Well, not from a sociological standpoint, that is. The sociology of food is a multifaceted and diverse study, broaching into topics of food security, climate studies, nutrition, economics, diplomacy, race and gender studies, and so much more. Food’s diverse positioning as a biological necessity, a cultural practice, and a grounding in our physical and social environments (through food production and consumption) makes the act of production and consumption of food, as well as its mere existence, an integral part of the fabric of our social world.

It’s not hard to instantly feel nostalgic when I recall the spice-laden smell of my mother’s pumpkin bread wafting from the kitchen oven on a chilly, foggy fall morning; nor can I deny the absolute joy of baking copious amounts of Christmas cookies each December in my family’s annual holiday tradition. In this sense, food merits value not by its flavour, but as a by-product of participation in societal norms. For example, as an American, I eagerly look forward to Thanksgiving as soon as I see the first amber-coloured leaf of autumn; not just because of pumpkin pie with lashings of cream (my favourite), but because Thanksgiving is an important family holiday centred around celebrating family. Yet in reality, the holiday has more to do with how Americans celebrate consumption and selectively reframe colonialist history. Food anchors the “invented tradition” of Thanksgiving in dominant ideological narratives which encourage the ritual and voluntary participation. 

In the world’s most populous country, the consumption, production, and traditions of food are inherently political. China’s unique governmental structure centred in socialism and communism, as well as the nation’s turbulent 20th century, has meant food has always been regulated; food becomes highly political in a place where distribution is, and has been, highly centralized. During China’s Cultural Revolution and Great Famine, the surplus of food was strongly reinforced through widespread propaganda illustrations of prolific farming, abundant food surplus, and well-fed citizens, betraying the stark food insecurity faced by millions during that time. More recently, Xi Jinping launched a “Clean Plate Campaign” in August 2020 in an attempt to reduce food waste, mitigate food shortages, and assuage a forthcoming post-COVID recession. The recent crackdown on food waste in Chinese restaurants is a pertinent example of how food behaviours are manipulated as a political tool. Framed along the discourse of a “war” against wastefulness, the campaign equates copious food quantities with immoral and unpatriotic behaviour. The reduced consumption of food has thus become a measure of an individual’s love for their country and moral quality; yet this concept is inimical to established Chinese food tradition and culture which symbolizes surplus, wealth, and prosperity through large, generous amounts of food. While people’s consumption of food is a natural and biological fact of life, political actions can manipulate and shift culture to meet the needs of the state, as food traditions and culture shape and are shaped by the political climate.

Food can be commodified or weaponized; it is a reflection of the successes, and failures, of industrialization and globalization. Likewise, the study of all aspects surrounding food offer a wealth of knowledge into the current and shifting state of a society. Professor Anne Murcott has written extensively on the sociology of food and its symbolic interactionalism, offering new ideas towards the dominant ideology that the sociology of food is a prelude to consumption. In Jean-Pierre Poulin’s recently translated book The Sociology of Food: Eating and the Place of Food in Society, food is described as a nutritional and social act established within cultural frameworks that serves as quotidian training in social norms and rules. Poulin draws on Durkheim’s work of “social facts” and anomie to illustrate the integral role of food in societal regulation and development through a sociological lens.

Durkheim was also a key figure in the philosophy of moral education whose ideas are applicable to the contemporary Chinese example today. Durkheim argued schools are an important process to maintain social order, such as through cultural socialization and the idea that they create new being(s) shaped according to needs of society; an idea that rings (dinnertime) bells in relation to the sociology of food as a political process. Just like food, the consumption of morals through education provides nourishment for the growth and development of the individual and the state. In contemporary China, both food and moral education are curated, monitored, and dispensed throughout society in an attempt to edify youth in China’s “New Era” social facts. While school educates the mind, food nourishes the soul; its regulation effectively allows control over not just how people think, but how people are.

My doctoral studies focus on moral education reform in “New Era” China, in which traditional values are shifted to meet the needs of the changing state. Much of my theoretical grounding from Western scholars revolves around Durkheim, Dewey, Foucault, Piaget, and Kohlberg, among others, to analyse the intersection of socio-political reform through a narrow scope of moral education. I currently host a blog and video channel sharing Western and Chinese baking recipes in Mandarin, hoping my small effort in culinary diplomacy may assuage declining relations and make a personal connection with those interested in learning and sharing cross-cultural food traditions. These two concepts recently combined in an artistic expression, created through the University of Cambridge’s Creative Encounters Program. The resulting illustration, created by talented illustrator Rob Cowan, depicts an intricate metaphor of a culturally bound Chinese tradition: mooncakes. Customarily eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival, mooncakes represent strong family bonds, happiness, and the bright, round moon shining over the fall harvest. Mooncakes are usually stamped with intricate patterns, sometimes offering positive phrases or greetings, and other times simply describing the salted duck egg yolk, red bean, or mung bean filling flavour. The resulting, delicious mooncakes are a tangible representation of China’s tradition and cultural values.

The Creative projects were made possible by Wellcome ISSF funding. Illustration by Rob Cowan

The illustration elaborates a visual metaphor where Chinese morals and values, developed through a combination of traditional Confucian ideology and contemporary political thought, are curated, stamped, and produced under the watchful eyes of China’s leadership. These value-laden mooncakes are quickly shipped out to schoolchildren across the nation, echoing the ongoing centralization of moral education curricula in China’s compulsory education system. New moral values are being produced, delivered, and consumed by schoolchildren in the social tradition of formal education; not unlike eating mooncakes during the Mid-Autumn Festival.

This year, the Mid-Autumn Festival falls unusually late on October 1st; the same day as the start of China’s week-long National Holiday which commemorates the establishment of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949. This coincidence aids the illustration’s allegory of the continued and purposeful intersection of cultural and political acts: mooncakes and moral education are a patriotic “social act.” The illustration’s “New Era” mooncakes are stamped with political messages, blurring the lines between the consumption of food as a physical necessity and individual moral identity as an educated choice. Rather, the two concepts are combined: one cannot live without food, and youth cannot grow without morals.

The sociology of food, although still an emerging discipline, nevertheless offers an essential vantage point to analyse our world. However, this discipline also can serve as a mediary between two disciplines, such as how to examine socio-political reform through a sociological lens. The sociology of food, by virtue of its omnipresence in global, societal, and individual life, is therefore a malleable and underdeveloped tool in all disciplines to “taste,” “feel,” and even “smell” the current pulse of human behavior.

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

Leigh Lawrence is a doctoral student at the Faculty of Education at St John’s College, University of Cambridge (UK). Leigh received her MA from Yale University (USA) in East Asian Studies and BA from Arizona State University (USA) with special affiliation with Nanjing University (PRC). Leigh was a 2019 US Fulbright Scholar and Visiting Scholar at Nanjing Normal University (PRC) and 2014 Boren Scholar to China (PRC). Outside of academic work, her passion is culinary diplomacy, which she encourages through her baking blog “Ping-Pong Pastries: Cultural Diplomacy through Culinary ArtsÔ” named after Nixon-era Sino-US rapprochement. Leigh feels strongly that the simple act of cross-cultural food, recipes, and traditions is a potent tool for positive diplomatic relations: one mooncake at a time.

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