Saturday, May 8, 2010

Food and Community

We all live in communities of some sort—we have our neighborhoods, work environments, families, and friends. Beyond the people we see on a regular basis we also exist in what Benedict Anderson termed “imagined communities.” These communities spread out much further than our immediate circles and encompass other aspects of our lives. For example, we can be connected to people we don’t know through our religious community—creating bonds with strangers through a belief system. The nation we live in is also an imagined community. A man in California has perhaps never met a woman in New York, and yet they both identify themselves as Americans, bound together by imaginings of what it means to exist in this nation.

Food plays a vital role in strengthening such communities—whether it’s dining with a coworker or new friend to build connections, eating hot dogs at baseball games across the country to establish cultural norms, drinking sake during a Buddhist feast or consuming bread and wine at communion as part of religious ceremonies, or simply munching on popcorn in a theater filled with other popcorn-eating strangers.

Food strengthens the bond of both immediate and imagined communities through the processes of obtaining, cooking, eating, and even talking about food.

In the past we would have gathered or hunted food together, while today we go to the grocery store. We may make the shopping trip by ourselves or with another person, but during the actual process of obtaining food—squeezing the plums, selecting a prime steak, or determining which frozen pizza is best—we are surrounded by the extended members of our local neighborhood community. All these various individuals brought together by the sole purpose of procuring food. As woman in Florida reaches for her favorite brand of ketchup, so does a teenager in China. Although these individuals may never meet, their imaginings of what ketchup is links them together.

Cooking food also serves as a bonding experience when it is a collective effort. One person washes the vegetables, another chops, and another opens a bottle of wine. Cooking is often not an individual experience, but one to share with others to serve the needs of more than one person. At a potluck, even though the food is cooked by different people in separate homes, the purpose of cooking revolves around the need to feed various members of a community.

And, of course, eating is one of the most common activities that bind a community together. At the barbeque we gather around, drink beer, and look at pieces of meat. At a family dinner we reconnect over a homey dish that reminds us of the past. At a fancy restaurant we relish in the decadent food and splendid service. But ultimately, all these occurrences bring people together in the name of food. In a city people may come together to enjoy the superb sandwich spot, across the nation we frequent similar diners, and around the world we consume the same products—each experience strengthening various levels of our imagined communities.

Breaking bread with strangers can alleviate a potentially awkward situation. Food lends itself to conversation—everyone eats, and it seems that these days more and more people are interested in food. Whether one is concerned about where his or her food comes from, a proponent of vegetarianism, a lover of fast food, or a die-hard gourmand, everyone has something to say about food. Today we even spend time simply watching other people cook food, strengthening a larger imagined community not through traditional means but through television. And then, of course, there’s me (and many others)—writing about food and attempting to offer new ways to look at one of the most common human experiences.

Much of our lives revolve around food, so it’s no wonder it plays such a strong role in strengthening communities. Whether in procuring, cooking, eating, or talking about food, we need it to survive—not just physically but in our communities as well.

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