Course Spotlight: Food and Society

Dr. Karen Metheny will teach Food and Society  (MET ML 712) on Thursday evenings during the fall 2017 semester, and has prepared this overview of the class.

»How do social institutions shape the way we think about food? Our ability to access food?

»How do work schedules and family dynamics shape or constrain the family meal?

»Do social classes and institutions affect the way we shop? The food we prefer?

In Food and Society, students will examine these kinds of questions and look specifically at how social groups, categories, and institutions shape, structure, or are structured by food-related practices. We will look at multiple contexts of food production, access, procurement, and consumption, including rural agricultural sites, urban homesteads, grocery shopping, CSAs, and food assistance programs. We will also examine the intersection of food practices with class, ethnicity, race, age, and gender.

We will engage in a range of exercises to explore methods (visual sociology, food chain analysis, surveys and questionnaires, interviews) that can be applied to a final research project. The research project offers students a wonderful opportunity to pursue in-depth analysis of key topics in food studies. A sample of past projects includes:

  • focused analysis of the role of ethnic food trucks as potential agents of taste expansion, authenticity, or cultural appropriation
  • food as cultural capital among millennials
  • a comparative study of Haymarket and Boston Public Market in the context of creating social well-being and a ‘sense of community’
  • the mission and sustainability of The Daily Table
  • the food landscape of Jamaica Plain
  • imagined kitchenspace
  • dinner on demand services as cultural capital
  • functional foods and grocery shopping through the lens of yogurt
foos and society
A sample from Gastronomy student Keith Duhamel’s project, “‘This Little Piggy Went to Market’: Developing a Sense of ‘Community’ under a Cosmopolitan Canopy.”

Students have utilized Pinterest, Snapchat and Instagram as sources of data, conducted surveys through Facebook, created photo essays and videos, and collected oral interviews to complete their projects. Students will also have the opportunity to hear from a number of area food scholars and activists, and we will work with Dr. Bob Cadigan from the Applied Social Sciences department to create and implement surveys and questionnaires. Hope to see you in class!

MET ML 712, Food and Society, will meet on Thursday evenings from 6:00 to 8:45 pm, starting on September 7, 2017. Registration information can be found here.


Night Markets and Cultural Identity

Gastronomy Student Celine Glasier shares this post in our series “Perspectives from Anthropology of Food.”


Raohe Night Market Taiwan
Raohe Night Market in Taiwan (image:

My grandmother lives in a very small town in the south of France called Montauroux. It’s a little, quaint community that is nestled on top of a hill. There are outdoor cafes in the town center where elderly men spend their days and evenings playing pétanque, bi-weekly farmers markets, and peach orchards near-by for warm weather picking. My memories of the summers when I’d come to visit her are filled with ice cream and swimming in the nearby Mediterranean Sea. But what excited me the most about my summer visits to my grandmother’s was the open air night markets that would take place in the adjacent larger cities. Every Thursday night in July people would come together to sell their goods and socialize with each other. Each town had a different location for their markets, but they usually took place along the waterfront, with an occasional short firework display. It was the way to celebrate the summer. I remember being seven years old and feeling excitement and anticipation all day long when my grandmother would take me. And as soon as we left, I’d ask to go again next week.

Sticky rice and sesame donuts

Researching global night market trends for Anthropology of Food, I discovered that many cultures organize night markets. Taiwan’s proliferation and popularity of night markets is especially interesting. There are hundreds of night markets in Taiwan, and each offers its own version of snack foods called xiaochi (or small eats). Xiaochi are considered one of the most authentic forms of Taiwanese foods, and like markets themselves, there are hundreds of them. They typically come fried, or in a soup broth, or on a stick, are small, bite-sized, and generously seasoned with condiments. A chef in Taiwan named Chuang Pao-hua is preserving the art of xiaochi and Taiwanese cuisine by teaching locals and foreign student how to cook xiaochi with gu zhao wei (the Taiwanese traditional flavor preserved through generations of recipes).

Deep fried fermented tofu, pickled chilies, cilantro and sichuan peppercorn

Xiaochi are unique because they not only represent cultural identity but, for the most part, they are found solely in night markets. The originating market to which they belong is also where you can find the most authentic version, and local towns or provinces are often named after the local xiaochi dishes they serve. You can go to a night market in Taipei, and another in Tainan, and find different and distinct versions of xiaochi that embody the local flavor.

But what really drew me to understanding night markets in Taiwan was the energy they epitomize and the transformation of local space through them. Because they are often hot, crowded, and loud, night markets generate an energetic quality known as renao. Renoa translates into “a manifestation of the human flavor that is generated through enthusiasm and human interactions” (Yu 2006, 132). It’s the collective human energy you get when the senses are heightened and life is being enjoyed.

Fried quail

In this altered atmosphere, people can ignore cultural rules for appropriate behavior, are allowed to act leisurely, and become renewed through experiencing pleasure in their daily life. People act at ease. Night markets provide a sensorial experience similar to that from participating in a religious space. In a church or temple, your senses are altered through incense or various smells, meditation, organ music, and colorful visual representations or statues. Night markets alter your senses as well, and stepping into one, you enter another world.

Night markets are also important because they serve as a place for public activity and socialization. The energy that transforms a space that’s designated for one purpose during the day serves a different purpose at night. In Taiwan, the night is a time for socializing. Walking through night markets is one of the most popular nighttime activities in Taiwan, as it is a chance to be seen by others and satisfy social needs. Through the experience of heightening the senses of taste, sound, and tactile heat, from cooking and from other bodies, night markets serve as a means of communicating Taiwanese identity, socialization and commensality. As an ethnic group, gathering communally allows for communicating traditions, folklore, values, and cuisine. Night markets are one way that Taiwanese culture has been able to create a divergent culture and preserve identity. Night markets and xiaochi are a way of proliferating and preserving authentic Taiwanese culture. They are for the people.

Celine Glasier
Celine Glasier

When I think back now on the night markets I went to with my grandmother, I realize that part of their appeal was the vastness and richness of colors and smells. The scent of roast chicken skewers, corn grilling, and fresh breads and sugary pastries mixed with the sea breeze, the sounds of people congregating and conversing, and the sight of colorful snack foods and icy summer drinks are all deeply embedded in my memory. It was a place in which I was allowed to indulge myself and forget the rules. So what if I had two desserts? Under the cloak of the night, and with my grandmother, different rules applied.

Works cited:

Yu, Shuenn-Der. 2004. “Hot and Noisy.” In The Minor Arts of Daily Life: Popular Culture in Taiwan, ed. David K. Jordan, Andrew D. Morris, and Marc L. Moskowitz, 129-149. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Xiao-chi images from

Food Mapping of Mini Social Media Mavens: Exploring YouTube with an Ethnographic Eye

Gastronomy student Corrine Williams provides another example of food mapping in our next post in our series “Perspectives from Anthropology of Food.”

In the age of the internet, social media seems to gain more cultural significance every second. Images have always been integral to media, and with Instagram’s popularity it’s clear people enjoy the content. The grouping and context are important for the meaning embedded in the images as well. Anthropologists and ethnographers have known this for decades and have used images that have been submitted by participants in studies to make connections about individuals’ realities and the larger collective cultural beliefs. Food maps are another tool that track food procurement and production of food. With social media the content is self propagated and can be the subject of scholarly study. People are performing these carefully constructed identities on various platforms to qualify and classify themselves, intentionally or unintentionally. In Food and Social Media: You are What You Tweet (2012), author Signe Rousseau states that food’s popularity has only been amplified by social media, bringing people together in new ways.

Using social media, YouTube more specifically, I studied a family that video blogs and applied my budding ethnographic eye to analyze their foodways. The food map of the ‘M’ family shown is an abstract representation of their home and the gendered space and labor within the household. Five videos are food-focused. One of the main videos showcasing the family cooking meals at home is a sponsored video by Hello Fresh; its effect is to show how the company makes cooking so easy that even ‘Dada’ can do it. The title of the video, “Dad tries to cook for twins,” insinuates that he is not going to be successful. In contrast, the title of the video with the mother at the helm is “The girls cook for the baby,” a more declarative positive, and a gendered message. This communication between the parents and the twins is a fun way to engage the girls, get good reactions for the camera, and help the girls learn, but it also reinforces gendered knowledge. In another video when the twins are being interviewed, there is a hanging question, and the response is my dad doesn’t know how to cook, only my momma cooks, my sister cooks and I cook.

Williams Food Map ML 641
Food map by Corrine Williams

Dada can make coffee, which he does with the girls each morning. He uses the time while the coffee is brewing to teach the girls about various things; in the video, he shows them octopi. The title of that video is “Father teaches daughters how to make memories.” Coffee has a powerful smell, so the father is distinguishing himself as a coffee drinker, in opposition to his wife as a tea drinker. He is also establishing himself in the girls’ memories through the sensory activities of smelling the coffee as it brews.

Momma is doing her best to pass on an embodied knowledge and sensory memory too. She is communicating the importance of their shared cultural food. The three ladies prepare a Nigerian snack, chin chin, together. It is interesting to see that both parents have separate food production times with the girls; through these actions, each parent is trying to make memories, but also impart some of their identities onto the girls because they are half of each parent. The parents are establishing traditions and structure with food to make memories and allow the girls to express themselves and explore their unique multifaceted identity.

Corrine williams for blog post copy
Corrine Williams

On the surface, this family is making meals and memories and capturing these activities on video, but looking deeper, they are using media as a social construction, an action that speaks volumes about their values and how they choose to represent themselves to the world wide web. I really enjoyed this project. It encouraged me to look at everyday life and pull apart the layers of significance to understand the connections. Perhaps I will start a food vlog and talk about other food vlogs in this context. With my new mindset, I’m sure I will subscribe to the same themes and methods that I analyze other blogs for, and hopefully people will subscribe to my vlog to perpetuate this cycle. In the world of YouTube, videos speak louder than words and we should take them with a grain of salt.

Works Cited

Rousseau, Signe. 2012. Food and Social Media: You Are What You Tweet. Lanham, MD: Altamira Press/Rowman and Littlefield.


Cacao in Olmec Society

We continue our series of posts from the Anthropology of Food class (ML 641) in which students 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 Morrisa Engles.


Mayan dish showing a metate to grind cocoa. Choco-Story museum Brugge (Belgium) Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.


Cacao has carried deep cultural meaning since it was first domesticated. For the Olmec, an early Mexican Gulf Coast culture (1500 to 400 BC), this plant had geological, nutritional, spiritual, and economic significance. As the first society known to have domesticated the cacao tree, the Olmec found the crop to be spiritually and culturally significant in addition to being a healthful and delicious foodstuff. Theobromine (a chemical compound present in cacao) found in excavated Olmec pottery and at ancient burial sites revealed that cacao beverages were a staple in a variety of spiritual ceremonies (Powis 2011).

The question becomes, why cacao? According to the Popol Vuh, the Mayan creation text, the gods created humans from a combination of sweet things, maize, and cacao (Driess and Greenhill 2008, 18-22). In addition, many ancient artifacts depicted cacao offerings between gods such as the Mayan moon goddess IxChel and the rain god Chac who are seen trading cacao in an ancient Mayan depiction. This iconography rooted the tree’s capacity as a conduit of communication with the gods. Known as the “World Tree” or the “First Tree,” this crop became the tree of life and a cosmic metaphor linking the natural world to the spirit world. Thus, the offering of cacao functioned to symbolically connect diviners with the gods through ritual. The bounty of the cacao tree in Mesoamerica also created a metaphorical link to abundance, which was a request to the gods in agrarian and funerary rites. As Driess and Greenhill state, “Obsession with time and calendrical events fueled rituals during which cacao offerings helped to ensure the continuation of cosmic and agricultural cycles” (2008, 52). Cacao drinks were left in tombs and beans were used to adorn the bodies of the dead as it was believed that cacao had the power to energize the soul and aid in the transition to the supernatural world. The deep spiritual meaning of cacao catalyzed its importance in Olmec society.

Generally sought out for religious purposes by the Olmec, cacao didn’t become a food of conspicuous consumption until the Aztec and Mayan eras when cacao was served at feasts, weddings, birth ceremonies and other social occasions (Henderson 2015, 84).  As the crop gained exposure, demand was created and soon cacao was present at nearly every commensal dining event, becoming a staple in the Mesoamerican diet.  Popularly consumed as a beverage, the Olmec fermented the cacao with pulp intact.  In the early days, cacao beverages were produced solely from the pulp of the fruit.  The discovery of the more familiar chocolate drink might have been a happy accident as a by-product of the pulp brewing process (Edgar 2010).

An Aztec woman generates foam by pouring chocolate from one vessel to another. From the Codex Tudela, photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

After fermentation, cacao beans were mixed with water, vanilla, cinnamon, and sometimes a red chili.  The beverage is generally made by women who dutifully raised the foam on the drink before consumption.  The foam was thought to contain the essence of the wind god P’ee and still today, the amount of foam raised is a measure of a woman’s worth.  After the drink was prepared and the foam was raised, the cacao beverage was ready for use in ceremony or prescribed as a remedy for ailments.  Cacao was used to cure skin conditions, fever, seizures and in the most severe matters used to coax illness out of the body by appealing to the spirits with an offering of beans or a blended concoction containing the fruit (Dreiss and Greenhill 2008, 136).

Over time, chocolate has become a beverage enjoyed by cultures all over the world, but cacao was an incredibly significant crop to the Olmec during the Formative Period in Mesoamerica. The abundance, healing, and nutritional properties of the crop made it seem a true gift from the Gods, and created a foundation for its integration into the cultural identity and landscape of Mesoamerica.

Works Cited

Dreiss, Meredith L., and Sharon Greenhill. 2008.  Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Edgar, Blake. 2010. “The Power of Chocolate.” Archaeology 63(6): 20-25. Date of access, June 20, 2017.

Henderson, John S. 2015. “Cacao/Chocolate.” In Archaeology of Food: An Encyclopedia, Karen Bescherer Metheny and Mary C. Beaudry, eds., 84-87Blue Ridge Summit: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Accessed June 20, 2017. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Pool, Christopher A. 2007. Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica. Cambridge World Archaeology. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Powis, Terry G., et al. 2011. “Cacao Use and the San Lorenzo Olmec.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 108(21): 8595-600. Date of access, June 20, 2017.


Poison and Food Taboos

Our summer series, Perspectives from Anthropology of Food, continues with this post from Gastronomy student Madoka Sasa.

Blowfish-pot as part of a family new year dinner.
The center of the dish is skin of blowfish. (photo credit: Madoka Sasa)

In the article “Anthropology of Food,” R. Kenji Tierney and Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney (2012, 118) describe blowfish consumption in Japan:

Not all objectively “edible” items are regarded as food for a people, even in times of severe food shortages. For example, frogs are abhorred by the Ainu, while the French consider them a great delicacy. Some Japanese men relish blowfish, whose poison can kill instantly, not necessarily for its taste but in order to demonstrate masculinity.

I was impressed. This is the first time I had read that Japanese men eat blowfish to show their masculinity.

According to a brochure issued by the Japan Fisheries Resources Conservation Association (2002), Japanese people have been eating blowfish since the Jomon period (14000 B.C. – 4 B.C.). Nowadays, due to advances in processing technology, if you eat blowfish that is properly prepared, you will rarely get poisoned. However, blowfish poisoning has caused a lot of deaths throughout history, because there are different poisonous parts depending on types, and there are some types of blowfish that are difficult to distinguish from each other.

In researching food rules, preferences, taboos, and avoidance, many scholars have pointed out that accepting an invitation to a feast may not only be an act of solidarity but the invitation itself may also be a test of loyalty for the community (Bloch 1999; Carlson 1990; Nell 2015). Considering the question of why Japanese people continue to eat such dangerous fish, it seems reasonable to suggest that it is a show of masculinity rather than consumption for taste. As we know that there is a possibility of poisoning, this is a pretty serious test showing masculinity and loyalty. But this story leads me to ask another question. For whom did they eat blowfish? In other words, for whom did they take such a risk?

Indeed, it seems that the blowfish eating habit in Japan has sparked many such discussions over its long history. For example, in the brochure of the Japan Fisheries Resources Conservation Association (2002), it is said that Toyotomi Hideyoshi issued a ban on eating blowfish, as many samurai who gathered in Shimonoseki (a famous city for blowfish) were poisoned. In the Edo period (1573–1603), many feudal domains decided to ban eating blowfish. According to the Association for Japanese History and Travel (2014), it is said that when the head of a family died of blowfish poisoning, the family had its lineage abolished by the daimyō feudal lord, because “the head had lost his life due to his gluttonousness, though he was supposed to serve the daimyō at the risk of his life.”

On the other hand, Matsuo Bashō, a famous haiku poet in the Edo era, wrote a poem about blowfish (Japan Fisheries Resources Conservation Association 2002, 15):

Awanu koi Omoi kiru yoru  Fukuto-jiru.  (逢わぬ恋 思い切る夜 ふくと汁)

This is a poem about a broken heart. The speaker says, “I decided to give up because I cannot meet you. As I am so desperate, I will eat blowfish soup tonight.” It can be said that it is a poem that expresses a very disappointed feeling. But at the same time, it is somewhat humorous, implying that a broken heart is an excuse for eating blowfish soup, which is delicious but forbidden.

In addition to this, Bashō says, “You also have a relish of red snapper, but you go out of your way to eat blowfish. I will only just say that you are unwise” (Japan Fisheries Resources Conservation Association 2002, 15). It seems that we have no choice but to be amazed by the insatiable desire for eating blowfish among Japanese males, despite the serious danger of dying and becoming unable to fulfill our obligations.

From these descriptions, the following conclusion can be drawn. While there is a ruling class that prohibits people from eating blowfish to prevent them from dying, people in general cannot control their desire to eat. According to the Japan Fisheries Resources Conservation Association (2002), eating blowfish was pretty popular among ordinary people in the Edo era. In other word, regarding the question “for whom are they eating blowfish?” it seems that the answer is “for myself.”

To “eat to be happy” is too obvious. But I imagine that eating blowfish and showing masculinity is also a way to feel happiness, or even to pursue a better life. I can sympathize with the feeling that “I cannot resist eating my favorite food, even if it is not good for my health,” whether 400 years ago or today. In the same way, the act of showing masculinity by eating puffer fish is an act that I can understand as reasonable if I know when, who, and under what circumstances it occurred. And this resonates with one of the themes of anthropology, understanding other cultural perspectives. For example, the people of Malagasy, observed by Maurice Bloch (1999), ingest an “antidote” when they have to eat with people from different villages or distant relatives. This helps eliminate discomfort and stress caused by unintentional shortening of the distance with a person who is not close. Although their culture is quite different from mine, the situations where people feel stressed are similar. In other words, even though the act of other cultures seems to be unusual, I think the feeling underlying the act is often understandable for us: making good relationships with others, satisfying self-respect, or relieving stress. So it is very interesting for me to find the similarity of mind beyond time and culture, and to see each culture’s interpretation of the world that is used to make life more comfortable.

Madoka Sasa

It is well known that various cultures around the world have “food” that is “good to eat” which is unacceptable for people in other cultures, for example, clay, dogs, insects, dolphins and so on. However, the reason for eating them could be something which many people can feel sympathy toward. It makes me more interested in thinking about food rules, preferences, taboos, and avoidance.




Association for Japanese History and Travel. 2014. “Shimonoseki ni Fuku wo Maneita Fugu.” Accessed June 29, 2017.

Bloch, Maurice. 1999. “Commensality and Poisoning.” Social Research 66 (1):133–49.

Carlson, Robert G. 1990. “Banana Beer, Reciprocity, and Ancestor Propitiation Among the Haya of Bukoba, Tanzania.” Ethnology 29(4): 297–311.

Krögel, Alison. 2009. “Dangerous Repasts: Food and the Supernatural in the Quechua Oral Tradition.” Food and Foodways 17 (2):104–32.

Nell, Cornelia A. 2015. “Commensality and Sharing in an Andean Community in Bolivia.” In Commensality: From Everyday Food to Feast, edited by Susanne Kerner, Cynthia Chou, and Morten Warmind, 165–76. New York: Bloomsbury.

Nihon Suisan Shigen Hogo Kyokai. 2002. Waga Kuni no Suisangyo Shirizu: Fugu. Accessed June 29, 2017.

Tierney, R. Kenji, and Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney. 2012. “Anthropology of Food.” In Oxford Handbook of Food History, edited by Jeffrey M. Pilcher, 117–34. New York: Oxford University Press.