Food Ritual 2: Inclusion and Exclusion

WEDDING

Food is a means of including and excluding people.  The most inclusive groups of people tend to have the most liberal tastes in food.  Everyone is welcome at the table, and you are welcome to serve any food you like.

Jewish Rabbis in middle age Europe fought a constant battle to hold the faithful in their religion.  Young people who fraternised with Christians were at risk of marrying out.  So the Rabbis reinforced observance of the kosher laws to keep their congregations intact.  If you cannot eat with people, you do not keep company with them.

The Spanish inquisition saw this also.  When ex-Jews converted to Catholicism the church in Spain monitored their food consumption.   If they did not roast a leg of pork from time to time they risked being accused of back-sliding.

So you can be included, or excluded from a “tribe” by the food you eat.  Kosher, Halal, Vegetarian, Vegan, Fruitarian, Pescatarian, South-Beach, Atkins, Weightwatchers.

In societies with “untouchable” castes, there are strict rules guiding who sits at what table.  In societies where food is eaten with the right hand, as in many Arabic countries, if a thief has his right hand removed, it is a far more dreadful punishment than the loss of the limb.  He is now excluded from dining with other people.  He must eat alone.  He is banished from the table.

An invitation to the table is an inclusion in society.  In the middle ages in Europe you could tell the status of a person by where they sat in the Lords hall, what foods they were permitted to eat, what cloth they were permitted to wear, in which colours, right down to what type of bird they could hunt with.

It was considered a great sin and shame to breach the laws of hospitality.  A guest under your roof must be fed.  The poor regularly appeared at the homes of the wealthy to beg alms from a feast, relying on the shame factor of the host if they were sent away hungry.

Stories abounded of mean minded hosts or their stewards, who would refuse to feed the poor, or charge them a fee for the table leftovers.

In one story from Middle Age Ireland a man starved himself to death on the doorstep of his enemy, to condemn his enemy to a lifetime of shame for permitting a guest to die on his threshold.

It is very important, to have a place in society, to eat with others.  In modern western society a lot of old people end up living on their own.  Volunteers give their time and effort to deliver Meals on Wheels to these people.  But it would be better to deliver the person to the meal, than the meal to the person.

Dinner Guest: Me   by Langston Hughes

I know I am
The Negro Problem
Being wined and dined,
Answering the usual questions
That come to white mind
Which seeks demurely
To Probe in polite way
The why and wherewithal
Of darkness U.S.A.–
Wondering how things got this way
In current democratic night,
Murmuring gently
Over fraises du bois,
“I’m so ashamed of being white.”

The lobster is delicious,
The wine divine,
And center of attention
At the damask table, mine.
To be a Problem on
Park Avenue at eight
Is not so bad.
Solutions to the Problem,
Of course, wait.

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.