Family Meals Then and Now

We continue with our summer blog series “Perspectives from Anthropology of Food” with this post from Adrian Bresler.  This series presents work written by the students in the summer Anthropology of Food class (ML 641) in which they reflect on current issues, discuss assignments they have worked on, or address topics of particular interest to them.

In our “Anthropology of Food” class our evening discussion centered on family meals, on the definition of what constitutes a traditional family, and finally on how the overall perception of the family and the meals they eat has changed over time. We also focused on how these factors have been portrayed by the media in the United States over the past 40 to 50 years.  The supporting presentation used in class juxtaposed a photo of the characters of TV’s Leave it to Beaver family against those of Modern Family.  For those who are unfamiliar, in the former TV show, the Cleaver family of the 1950s comprised a working father, a stay-at-home mother and two school-age sons, all of whom sat down at the table together every night to eat a home-cooked meal and discuss daily events and family decisions.  On the other hand, Modern Family, a currently running TV show, depicts three related families that live in the same vicinity:  (i) a working couple with three children, (ii) a gay couple with an adopted child, and (iii) a non-traditional family consisting of an older, divorced man, a younger woman who is now married to him, both of them living with her son from her prior marriage, and the son that the couple has together.

Leave it to Beaver: ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

What is interesting is that despite the differences triggered by 50 years of cultural upheaval, these three families still sit down to eat together for celebrations. By doing so, they bring together those characters who bicker, those whose lifestyles are unconventional, and those who would not be connected to the rest in any way except for the fact that they are indeed ‘family’.  While the kinds of discussions they have are different from the ones that take place in the Cleaver household—some triggered by their differences, others by the changes in society over the last 50 years—there are a lot of commonalities. Some things never change.

Modern Family: 2011 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.

We went on to talk about the gradual shift in the way some people consider who else is to be included in their own families—those who are biologically related to them and those who are not, and the ones they share meals with and those with whom they do not.   In our readings we learned about societies that view the family unit as “elastic” or “expandable” (Bloch 1999) in that close connections between people are formed and then strengthened by sharing food.  Therefore, if you invite old friends to your house for dinner on Thanksgiving Day and treat them as if they are part of an extended family, on a day traditionally reserved for blood relatives, does biology really matter as long as the sharing continues? Can your definition of family expand for that day?

We also discussed the changing roles of various members of the family over the past 50 years. Since more women now work outside the home in demanding jobs, meals or portions of meals eaten at home may no longer be home-cooked but may be outsourced from local restaurants or supermarkets that offer prepared foods.   In other families, gender roles have reversed and the other person prepares the meals.  Perhaps family meals are eaten in restaurants more often.  For yet others, no meal is eaten in favor of snacking or grazing during the day.  The combinations are as endless as are the ways a family can be defined.

The way families share meals may have changed over the past 50 years and the sharing may be less frequent, but sitting down together to eat a meal still communicates the same messages of solidarity, shared values, and acceptance. Yes, families, however defined, can still argue about politics, money, religion, or baseball teams but the connection between people is reinforced by sharing food.  The discussions in class has made me think about the way my own family has shared meals over the years; the memories of those people linger long after the meal is finished.

Works Cited:

Bloch, Maurice. 1999. Commensality and Poisoning. Social Research 66(1):133-149.

Course Spotlight: Readings in Food History

Dr. Megan Elias will teach Readings in Food History (MET ML 633) on Wednesday evenings during the fall 2017 semester, and has prepared this overview of the class.

Pie cutting for Elias class
Lee, R., photographer. (1940) Cutting the pies and cakes at the barbeque dinner, Pie Town, New Mexico Fair. New Mexico Pie Town, 1940. Oct. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Every meal is a historical text, carrying messages about such things as global migrations, customs and trade routes. Because food has been both a constant and a catalyst in human histories many of the most important decisions made in the past depended on the need for sustenance or desire for new flavors. Paying close attention to food in world history helps to explain motives and strategies that shaped our world.

Megan Elias
Dr. Megan Elias

Through reading a selection of foundational and recent works in food history students will be able to identify and synthesize some of the major themes and arguments in the field. While dedicated food histories are a relatively new genre, food has always appeared in historical texts and these texts tell stories of their own that are sometimes left out of dominant narratives. We will consider some primary sources alongside our secondary texts to make sense of how food historians use their sources to build arguments. This work will help prepare students for Researching Food History, to be taught in the following semester.

Books we will be reading include the classic, Sweetness and Power by Sidney Mintz as well as more recent titles such as Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Japan by Eric Rath, Wine, Sugar and the Making of Modern France, by Elizabeth Heath, and To Live and Dine in Dixie by Angela Jill Cooley.


MET ML 633, Readings in Food History, will meet on Wednesday evenings from 6:00 to 8:45 pm, starting on September 6, 2017. Registration information can be found here.

Digital Field Work: A Call for Anthropological Research on Food’s Roles and Meanings in Social Media

Our summer blog series “Perspectives from Anthropology of Food” presents work written by the students in the summer Anthropology of Food class (ML 641) in which they reflect on current issues, discuss assignments they have worked on, or address topics of particular interest to them. Today’s post is from Gastronomy student Morgan Mannino.

Morgan's photo
Morgan Mannino

My life as a Gastronomy student by night has started to seep into my role as a Senior Social Media Coordinator at America’s Test Kitchen by day. This summer in particular, I am enrolled in MET ML 641, Anthropology of Food, and have started to observe interactions that are happening online and to think about my role as a content producer through an anthropological lens. At face value, the world of social media and anthropological research may seem planets apart. And when one looks at what has been written, there is certainly a large gap between the traditional anthropological approach to what constitutes fieldwork and observation and what is happening online. However, many of the same concepts we’re exploring in Anthropology of Food—food as a system of communication, food being used to signify social relations and construct identity, feasting and commensality, etc.—are being enacted on social media. Thus, I am starting to see that there is a wealth of anthropological information that can be observed and analyzed through food’s role in social media. So, this is a call for anthropological fieldwork and observation to begin to address the value in applying an anthropological lens to food on social media. To start, I will present two examples that could make great research subjects.


This past year at America’s Test Kitchen we started a private Facebook group. We wanted to provide a place for our paying members to connect with each other, share their favorite ATK recipes, interact with cast members and staff, etc. A group like this (or really any food-focused Facebook group) could provide a wealth of information to an anthropologist. In our members group in particular, food is being used to express identity and status. One example of this is a thread where members have begun to post images of their kitchens and kitchen gadgets. These photos project members’ status as cooks—the more expensive or “professional” the gadgets or kitchen, the more they are perceived as better and more skilled home cooks to the group at large.

Food trends on social media are also rich places for studying the anthropology of food. The recent trend of “rainbow food” or “unicorn food” is a great example. Using Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital, some questions to ask are: What does it mean when food transcends nourishment (or even taste-appeal or food-appeal) into pure spectacle? How is this trend gendered? How is status expressed through eating this food or even just taking pictures and sharing them? Here is a food map I created that begins to explore some of these questions about the trend of rainbow food on Instagram. In this map I used two variables: the y axis represents two poles of cultural capital, “high” vs. “low,” and the x axis represents two poles of material composition, “natural” vs. “artificial.” This is only one way to begin to analyze this trend, but already I was able to see how rainbow foods that are Instagrammed (the map also shows rainbow foods that aren’t Instagrammed to provide context) have high cultural capital, either because they are natural or, if they are artificial, their high cultural capital is derived from their exclusivity. This map help illustrates how rainbow food is a modern form of conspicuous consumption (on par with the sugar sculptures of Colonial England) and it is a fascinating example of identity and status being negotiated in food culture on social media today.Mannino_RainbowFoodMap

It’s also interesting, from the perspective of my work at America’s Test Kitchen, how meaning and identity are constructed through the rejection of food trends as well. Fans of America’s Test Kitchen in particular may shape their identity as cooks who are “above” food trends and instead look to mastering technical skills and/or iconic, classic recipes to inform and express their status as cooks instead.

In conclusion, there is wealth of information that can be learned by applying anthropological research practices to the ways we are expressing food meaning on social media. From private cooking groups to rainbow food, we’re negotiating identity, status, gender roles, and meaning through food images online.

A Father’s Day Perspective from Anthropology of Food

We continue with our summer blog series “Perspectives from Anthropology of Food” with this post from Gastronomy student Rebecca Nystrom.  This series presents work written by the students in the summer Anthropology of Food class (ML 641) in which they reflect on current issues, discuss assignments they have worked on, or address topics of particular interest to them.

by Rebecca Nystrom


char-grilled-swordfish-roasted-mediterranean-vegetables recipes plus co uk
image credit:

With Father’s Day only days away I’m sure many Americans are wondering what meal to prepare in order to encapsulate their appreciation for their special guy. Food is of course important to any holiday or large event but taking a step back from concerning ourselves over recipes, have you ever considered why? Food serves as a vehicle of expression, whether to a particular ethnic group, religious sect, or nationality. While these truths remain while feasting, commensal eating adds another layer of complexity. Commensal eating can serve to strengthen familiar or communal ties through various forms of cultural culinary expression bonding participants to particular culture. “This communal consumption therefore renders food a metaphor of we—the social group and often people as a whole” (Tierney and Ohnuki-Tierney 2012, 12). Communal eating additionally can serve to distinguish or create boundaries between socio-economic, cultural, or religious lines through the serving of unfamiliar items or meals that break a participant’s food rules or taboos. Who sits next to whom, the order of serving, the amount of food given, and the items served, can all denote aspects about family structure or larger cultural institutions (Nell 2015).

Rebecca Nystrom

For this Father’s Day my family is preparing a surf and turf of steak and swordfish with grilled vegetables. My Dad loves to grill and eat outdoors, so we try to create a meal using the grill every Father’s Day. So while you scramble to find the perfect recipe for the father or husband in your life, pause to consider the importance of eating together and what this states about you as a family.


Works Cited

Nell, Cornelia A. 2015. Commensality and Sharing in an Andean Community in Bolivia. In Commensality: From Everyday Food to Feast, ed. Susanne Kerner, Cynthia Chou, and Morten Warmind, 165-176. New York: Bloomsbury.

Tierney, R. Kenji, and Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney. 2012. Anthropology of Food. In Oxford Handbook of Food History, ed. Jeffrey M. Pilcher, 117-134. New York: Oxford University Press.

For a local experience in the Boston Public Market, look outside of it.

Our summer blog series “Perspectives from Anthropology of Food” presents work written by the students in the summer Anthropology of Food class (ML 641) in which they reflect on current issues, discuss assignments they have worked on, or address topics of particular interest to them. Today’s post is from Gastronomy student Marina Starkey.

When the Boston Public Market (BPM) finally opened in the summer of 2015, locals rejoiced. Touting a roster of popular New England vendors like Union Square Donuts, Crescent Ridge Dairy, and Stillmans Farm, foodies everywhere anticipated new, easy access to highly sought-after products.

There’s no doubting that BPM is a marvel. I have spent a fair number of hours roaming the aisles admiring the colorful, brightly-lit, organized displays full of expertly-branded products and produce. I’ve wondered which vendor was more worthy of the small amount of money I had to spend on lunch or a sweet treat. It always came down to who treated me with the most kindness and where I felt most comfortable, or how badly I was craving the macaroni and cheese at Jasper Hill (an absolutely gooey must).

Despite how much I love the place, I still can barely afford anything within it. It’s nice to browse, but I often find myself gawking at the prices: $6 for a bunch of small asparagus, $4 for a doughnut, $12 for an 8 ounce bottle of designer vinegar. BPM is popular among tourists for this very reason; when you’re traveling you’re more likely to splurge and purchase specialty items, because it isn’t everyday you’re in Boston. While the weekend turns tourists and families out in droves, during the week you’re more likely to see a lunch crowd of locals looking for a quick bite. Despite these few midday hours, you would be hard pressed to find Boston regulars at BPM religiously, every Sunday, purchasing what they need to feed their families.

This is where I think BPM fails to meet its lofty goals of making local, sustainable food & products more accessible. While these types of vendors all value these initiatives, their accessibility rests within the wealthiest people in Boston, despite many locals being students, people just starting their careers, and young families. While it’s nice to have these local products around, I find BPM functions more as a symbol of the elite.

An authentically local experience actually exists right around the corner from the BPM at Haymarket. Nestled between tourist centers the North End and Faneuil Hall, Haymarket hosts dozens of produce and seafood vendors in an open-air setting. And the character is colorfully local.

Early morning at Haymarket


You’ll hear it first. If it’s not the Frank Sinatra blaring from the central fish vendor, it’s the almost constant yelling and bartering that goes on between the rows and rows of produce from all over the world. Here you’ll find demographics as diverse as the fruits and vegetables: vendors from Italian, Hispanic and Asian descent, and consumers from every part of Boston and beyond. While it’s a bit more difficult to find out exactly from where your apples and oranges traveled, they’re cheaper than you’ll find in any supermarket. That same bunch of asparagus that I saw in the BPM? $2 for a bunch.

While you won’t find brown butter doughnuts or homemade vinegars, the character of Haymarket is lively and everyone feels welcome. Well, that is if you can deal with a few vendors yelling at you to get out of the way and make room for people actually making purchases. The atmosphere isn’t conducive to browsing or admiration. People are here to purchase produce to feed their families for the week at the lowest price possible. Regulars exist almost exclusively, and it’s not any place that would be of particular appeal to any tourist runoff.

So if you’re looking for an authentic local experience, it might not exist in the places that are immediately obvious. Sometimes you have to look in between the cracks of the city to find its liveliest, most authentic character.