Food Ritual

Spit roast

Social carnivores have strict hierarchical rules for access to food, to reduce fighting and limit injury caused by fights for access to meat.  The Pride leader eats “The Lions Share”.  Hunting dogs, wolves and Hyenas all maintain an ordered approach to who eats and when.

Jane Goodall in her studies on chimps observed how the eating of meat from a hunt was different in nature from the “normal” grazing behaviour of the animals.  Chimps have a highly ordered tribal society.  This organisation is most important during the hunting process, where male chimps must co-operate if the hunt is to succeed.  When a hunt is successful the meat is portioned out by the alpha male and it is used to cement loyalties, reward service and exclude those who may challenge the status quo.

In primitive human hunter-gatherer society we can see a similar dynamic at play.  Gathered foods are unremarkable staples.  A large kill, on the other hand, is a cause for celebration and feasting.  Tribal leaders or the leader of the hunting party apportion out the prime cuts according to a complex mix of societal needs.  They decide who gets the desirable cuts of offal, and how the meat is apportioned.

Fast forward to modern society and we still celebrate our feasts with a big “kill”.  It may be a Turkey or a Goose for Thanksgiving or Christmas, in the South Pacific it is more likely a suckling pig, in Muslim countries a sheep or a goat.  Nothing quite sets up a festival like the sight of large animals roasting over an open fire on a spit.  It speaks of plenty, it says there will be something for everyone.

We have different rituals around feast meals than we have around our daily fare.  And what is most interesting is that a ritual surrounding a food makes it taste better.

For a food marketing company, the secret to the success of a product may be to design a ritual for its consumption.

In one experiment, Kathleen Vohs from the University of Minnesota and colleagues explored how ritual affected people’s experience of eating a chocolate bar. Half of the people in the study were instructed to relax for a moment and then eat the chocolate bar as they normally would. The other half were given a simple ritual to perform, which involved breaking the chocolate bar in half while it was still inside its wrapper, and then unwrapping each half and eating it in turn.

Something about carefully following these instructions before eating the chocolate bar had a dramatic effect. People who had focused on the ritual said they enjoyed eating the chocolate more, rating the experience 15% higher than the control group. They also spent longer eating the chocolate, savouring the flavour for 50% longer than the control group. Perhaps most persuasively, they also said they would pay almost twice as much for such a chocolate.

This experiment shows that a small act can significantly increase the value we get from a simple food experience. Vohs and colleagues went on to test the next obvious question – how exactly do rituals work this magic? Repeating the experiment, they asked participants to describe and rate the act of eating the chocolate bar. Was it fun? Boring? Interesting? This seemed to be a critical variable – those participants who were made to perform the ritual rated the experience as more fun, less boring and more interesting. Detailed analysis showed that this was the reason they enjoyed the chocolate more, and were more willing to pay extra.

So, rituals appear to make people pay attention to what they are doing, allowing them to concentrate their minds on the positives of a simple pleasure. But could there be more to rituals?

In his book, The Symbolic Species, Terrance Deacon claims that ritual played a part in human evolution at the transition point where we began to acquire the building blocks of language.  The point when we rose above chimps to become humans.

Deacon’s argument is that the very first “symbols” we used to communicate, the things that became the roots of human language, were extended and complex sequences of group behaviours, rituals. These symbols began as family groups shared the spoils of hunting. Early humans needed a way to tell each other who had what responsibilities and which privileges; who was part of the family, and who could share the food. Rituals were the answer to the conundrum of connecting human groups and checking they had a shared understanding of how the group worked.

So, according to this theory, our love of rituals evolved with our need to share food. Primitive humans who performed rituals had less in-fighting and more offspring. We programmed ourselves to enjoy food ritual.  As a result, foods with rituals are more enjoyable.

Feast;  by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I drank at every vine.

The last was like the first.

I came upon no wine

So wonderful as thirst.
I gnawed at every root.

I ate of every plant.

I came upon no fruit

So wonderful as want.
Feed the grape and bean

To the vintner and monger:

I will lie down lean

With my thirst and my hunger.

Needs & Wants


The meme above is doing the rounds in schools at the moment, which shows Maslow’s hierarchy of needs with an extra box drawn on the bottom.  The text in the box says “Internet” or “Wi-fi”.   Teenagers identify with a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that places Internet access at the very base of the triangle.  Kids who have never seen a day without sustenance and shelter actually think that wi-fi access is more important than food.

It neatly introduces the subject of needs and wants.  I grew up in the age before the internet, before the mobile phone.  I grew up in a household with seven kids and three adults.  Don’t get me wrong, I never went hungry for a day.  But when I was a kid a treat was just that, a treat.  There was no magic cupboard constantly refilled with popcorn or sweets or chocolate bars.  A jar of jam was not a staple.  There was NOT a constant supply of fresh fruit.  Even dried fruit was in short supply, purchased for the purpose of making cake, and any spares were quickly nibbled away by deft young fingers.

Shop-bought biscuits were very much a treat.  Deserts were home-made.  There were far more deserts available when free produce came into season.  Rhubarb in spring, cooking apples in the autumn, stewed and served with custard, made into tarts or sponges, baked stuffed apples.  We had a vested interest in picking blackberries, because they translated into tarts and crumbles.

If we were hungry between set meals there was always (within reason) bread and butter, milk and tea.  Nobody starved.  We knew the difference between Need and Want.

When I was teaching marketing in college the earthquake hit Haiti.  When we looked at Maslow I told the students to imagine the following situation.  There is a Haitian doctor, a pillar of the community, living in a fine house with his family.  One day he is mulling over a decision to replace his car.  Does he want something more racy and sporty, or something more conservative to reflect his status in the community?  His wife is tired of the curtains in the living room and is idly flicking through a catalogue for ideas.  His daughter is moaning that her mobile phone is so last year and all her friends have better ones.

The earthquake hits.  They run into the street as their house collapses around them.  The house falls on the car and destroys it.  They are left standing in the street, in the rain, wearing the clothes on their back.

The mobile phone no longer works because the network has been destroyed.  They have no cash in hand (if anyone would take it) and the bank machines will not work because the electricity is gone.

They have dropped from Self-Actualisation all the way down to Physiological needs.  The way Maslow works you need to satisfy base needs before you can move up to the next level.  The four bottom rungs of the triangle are all Needs.  Only Self-Actualisation is actually about Wants.

It has been said that any society is only three meals away from anarchy (I can’t get an original quote on this).  It is a valid contention.  Strip away the foundation of Maslow’s hierarchy and society cannot stand.

Our Haitian family have moved from decisions about curtains, phones and cars to a point where they would be happy with a sheet of plastic to keep the rain off, and a mug of soup to fill their stomach.

The next time you can’t get a wi-fi signal or you lose your mobile phone, remember, though it may seem so, it is really not the end of the world.

Any problem that can be fixed with money is never as bad as it seems at the time.  You may not have the money to fix it, but someone does, and you can find them if you look hard.  As long as nobody was killed or seriously injured our Haitian family can start to ascend the triangle until they get back to self-actualisation.

Desire; by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Where true Love burns Desire is Love’s pure flame;

It is the reflex of our earthly frame,

That takes its meaning from the nobler part,

And but translates the language of the heart.