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The politics of meals

Alice Julier
Food choices have become the centrepiece of asserting one's autonomy, needs and experiences

Lately I’ve been noticing the simultaneous acceptance and backlash around dietary preferences in the marketplace and in homes. A decade ago, Denise Copelton wrote about families with one member who suffered from coeliac or gluten intolerance and the complexities of navigating such issues at home, with friends, and in public. She concluded that such work constituted “stigma management.” 

While talking to people with coeliac today suggests that this has not entirely disappeared, the landscape has changed dramatically around negotiating preferences. The plethora of products, the entire supermarket aisle dedicated to gluten free is, unfortunately, not a sudden realisation of the health needs of a small group but rather a market niche connected to a larger diet trend and vilification of processed wheat products. 

What’s interesting for us as a society is how these reflect and reinforce other kinds of negotiations about eating together, feeding families, and constructing identities. To me, this signals a particular form of politicisation of intimacy and relationships.

We are what we eat

As any woman of a certain generation can tell you, family meals were not as ubiquitous or as easy as one might think from reading today’s advocates of home cooking in households. Aside from the prodigious work of cooking for others, meals included provisioning, the invisible labour of keeping track and planning, making sure people got along, and most significantly maintaining an awareness of individual needs and preferences (whether or not one accounted for them).

However, with the increasing politicisation of food and its relationship to health, wellbeing, and identity, food choices have become the centrepiece of asserting one’s autonomy, needs, and experiences. Not only is it harder for people to cook at home because of time demands (and a culture obsessed with convenience), but the ante has been upped, so to speak, so that a good provider must account for the free range, meat eating, vegan, gluten free, no nuts, ethical seafood, organic, and whatever framework of health and environment that family members take on.

The stories are commonplace now: children turning vegetarian or vegan in an omnivorous household or insisting on local, organic, free range, grass fed, ethically sourced products when the person cooking and providing the food sees this as unnecessary and expensive. The family food provider, usually but not always a woman, has to navigate and negotiate not only the actual material creation of a meal, but the feelings, the emergent politics of closeness and difference that such choices entail. 

Politics at the dinner table

The political landscape of food is generally a positive one for our societies – to think and act carefully and intentionally about how we (literally) sustain ourselves is a positive, forward-looking approach to social life. However, what fascinates me is how these negotiations of what is right, ethical, political, and culturally appropriate play out in the negotiations of familial and interpersonal relationships at home. 

Tapping into some deep-seated anxieties about change and political upheaval, reactions are fierce, suggesting that the past only contained one dinner option, one political reality, and that those who assert individualised preferences, whether for health, morality, or both, were upsetting the moral fabric of the future. Paying attention to the communal and the individual expectations of meals is both personal and political.

Alice Julier is Associate Professor and Director of the Graduate Program in Food Studies at Chatham University. She’s also a member of the Libertine100. Image CC Aikawa Ke

the ante has been upped, so to speak, so that a good provider must account for whatever framework of health and environment family members take on