This year I've been writing about food and ritual here at Kitchn, and what I've learned is just how much food rituals rely on hope. We put up food for winter in the hope of survival; we pack a traveling feast, hopeful that the gods will bless us with warmth rather than curse us with rain; and sometimes we have to just keep hoping we'll return to a lost cookie ritual, and we might eventually get there.
See more of the kitchen pictured above: Mid-Mod Bungalow Style in North Carolina at Apartment Therapy
The advent of the new year is always a good time to talk about hope, and perhaps this year more than ever when so many are feeling hopeless. As the calendar flips over, we promise ourselves to be better and do more. And a lot of this forward thinking focuses on food. We commit to healthier eating. We swear we will cook more at home, invite friends to our table more often, or be more frugal and less wasteful by making better habits for meal planning and shopping. We put a lot of hope out there, but we need rituals to turn that hope into sustenance.
Why Do We Need Food Rituals?
When I started the column in February I asked, "Why do we crave food to bless a union, lavish a birth, or bury the dead? Why toast the future and savor the past? Why do we use bread and bones and salt and wine to tell the stories of ourselves and our people that cannot possibly be told in any other way? Because we like to give meaning to our food, and food to our meaning. Ask any anthropologist — humans like ritual."
Now, at the end of the year, I followed my own imperative and asked an anthropologist (or two) why food rituals are so important.
They're "a way of making sense of who we are," explains Arlette Martinez, who studies food as a method of intercultural communication. Speaking from Serbia, she told me about meals organized in Belgrade for Syrian refugees to share both their food and foodways with locals. That's what ritual is, says Martinez: "where we eat it, how we eat it, and with whom we eat it."
Even in very small ways, "food rituals can help you know where you are from and tell others where you are from," said Jesse Dart, a contributor to the Food People and the Planet project at the Sydney Environmental Institute. Like the way Londoners drink a milky coffee like cappuccino or latte with a savory lunch. It might seem minor, but as an American working in Britain, for Dart that seemed odd. "It signifies difference," he explains, the very kind of tribal insider/outsider distinction that goes into shaping so many food rituals. I tried to explain this with lamb cake at Easter.
"Christians have a god who can turn wine into his blood and bread into his flesh, but this deity is also a lamb. At Easter some people transform the holy trinity of flour, sugar, and butter into a heavy batter, shape it into a small wooly ungulate, bake it Sinai dry, and then bring it to life with a sweet buttercream hide, a coconut fleece, and two licorice jelly beans for eyes. And after feasting on ham and deviled eggs, we, the faithful, cut off its head and serve slices of the body all around, communing with each other and with our ancestors."
But rituals don't have to be monumental to have meaning and they don't have to have the weight of two- or three-thousand years of culture behind them. In college, Martinez and her roommates had a Sex and the City night: face masks and vanilla ice cream spiked with walnuts and triple sec. "If you look at it from an anthropological point of view, that's a ritual," she says. "Everybody can have their own little rituals and it's still a part of culture." Like coffee with friends every Tuesday morning. Or pizza and TV night. Or the disappearing department store lunch.
"Many lament the demise of the family dinner, but the real decline of civilization might be better marked by the disappearance of the department store lunch that was once a mark of a certain kind of independence."
Hope for the Future
If we had to rely solely on will or even necessity, we may never get to the table. But ritual helps make it happen. "Food is very, very useful for bringing people together," says Martinez. "My grandmother would say that you can have the worst enemies but present them with an amazing dish and you see how they get talking." That's hope. Hope that eating together might cement our bond or at least dissolve our differences. May 2017 bring you more of that hope — and more of the food rituals that feed it.