The Role of Food in Human Culture

There are many things that set mankind apart from the animal world - our minds have allowed us to develop civilization, create incredible technology, and literally change the face of our planet.


With all the advances of the human race, we often forget that our uniqueness in the animal kingdom goes back even further and deeper, back to the very roots of our existence and to one of our most basic needs - food.


The human relationship with food is truly unique - from our ancestors first cooking food to today where we are literally changing food on a molecular level.


Beyond the technological relationship we have with food, humans are also unique in our emotional connection with food. In the rest of the animal kingdom, food is by and large simply a matter of providing nutrients to one's body. Animals eat out of instinct.


Humans, on the other hand, see food as so much more than just a nutritional need. In fact, we often use food in a destructive way - overeating and eating unhealthy foods - which negatively impacts our bodies instead.


For humans, food seems to sit on an emotional level first before being an instinctive need.


Mindless eating is a term used negatively in our world but when you stop to think about it, isn't that what most animals do? Why must we be mindful when eating?


The answer lies in humankind's deep connection with food. It is not just about mindless eating - it is about preparing, creating, discovering, exploring, inventing, and changing our food and food landscape. The role of food in human culture truly does separate us from our animal relatives.


Human connection with food vs our animal relatives


Part of our connection with food does come from our primitive animal brain. Having a strong desire and connection with food makes seeking it out a priority. Food is, of course, a necessity and anyone who has given a dog a treat understands that animals too get satisfaction and joy out of eating.


For humans though, it goes further.


Food is Love


We don't just use food to satisfy our own needs but to show an emotional connection with others. From mother's first milk to our grandmother's homemade stew, food is a way we connect and show love for others.


You know a relationship is getting serious when your partner invites you over for a home-cooked meal. When a neighbor or friend suffers a loss, we bring them casseroles and soups. When a best friend is dumped, we rush over with ice cream and cookies.


Preparing and sharing food with people you love solidifies the connection you have.


Food is Memory


Because we apply so much emotional importance to food in the moment, it only makes sense that it would also become an important part of our memories.


Studies have shown that humans recall memories more easily and clearly when they are attached to a physical sensation as well as an emotional experience. From the sounds of war to the feeling of first touching snow, when we use our five physical senses we create stronger memories.


Food’s connection to memory and history


No wonder so many memories are attached to food then.


Perhaps it is a memory of a great meal shared with close friends or just recalling the delicious crepe you ate while walking the streets of Paris on your honeymoon.


Food has the ability to activate multiple senses - smell, sight, and of course taste - to help us remember some of life's most meaningful and magical moments, whether large or small.


Food is Identity


The human species has always placed strong importance on cultural identity. In the beginning, being able to identify someone as belonging to one group or another was an issue of safety and security. The question of “are they a friend or a foe” did not rely on an individual person but rather their identity as part of a group.


Food, in turn, became a way of quickly identifying people.


Today, food is a way to connect to our heritage and to our own cultural identity, whether that means a bowl of ramen for a young Japanese boy in Tokyo or a new immigrant family in the United States making tamales for Christmas dinner.


Whether people stay home and learn the recipes of their ancestors - making old family recipes with their grandmothers - or move halfway around the world and still keep their cherished recipes "from the home country," food is a way to identify who you are, where you come from, and the history of your people.


Food is Connection


When you think about it, in the history of mankind, eating alone was never something truly normal. Perhaps a hunter would snack while out alone in the forest but meals were always something shared. Families and friends would gather together to eat. All major social events seemed to include food, from weddings to funerals.


Today, with the way technology and work culture creates physical isolation, eating alone is much more common but even so, people seek out others to enjoy a meal with - to connect with.


Connecting with friends and family around good food


While food is often used to separate us into different groups, it can also be used to connect us.


When you go on a first date, what is the most likely situation? Dinner, right? Or if not that at least a cup of coffee at a cafe. The picturesque image of the happy family always seems to show them sitting around a dinner table. Even in the business world, connections are made over coffee or a business meeting lunch.


Connection and inclusion is a important human need - isolation is one of the top causes of depression. Combining that need for connection with another basic human need - food - ensures not only our physical health but our emotional health as well.


Food is Understanding


As the famous cookbook author James Beard said, “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.”  


It doesn't matter if you are Black, White, or Brown - you eat. It doesn't matter if you are Christian, Buddhist, or Muslim - you eat. The foods we eat around the world are vastly different but the connect we have with food and the act of eating is something we can all relate to.


This universality allows food to create a true opportunity for universal understanding.


When you realize that a father halfway around the world just wants to provide and feed his children like any other good father, you can connect with him on a deeper level. You see this across cultures - the use of food to solidify an understanding between people. We literally speak of peace being created with the "breaking of bread."


When people come together over food, they can better relate to each other, whether that means a family trying to form better bonds of understanding or enemies trying to forge a new peace.


Food is Creation


There is a beauty in old family recipes. Passed down from generation to generation, these pieces of the past connect us with our heritage.


At the same time though, food for mankind has always represented progress, change, and invention. From the first days of agriculture to the molecular gastronomy trends of today's top restaurants, food has always shown the true ability of the human imagination.


Food as an art form and a way to express creativity and imagination


Think about it - what would Italian food be without tomatoes?  And yet, this crucial ingredient was only introduced to Europe a few hundred years ago.


The success of the human species relied on our ability to adapt, change, and create, especially when it came to food sources.


Food is both nutrients and art.


Today we continue to stretch our minds and abilities from the creation of new hit street foods to fine dining restaurants pushing the realm of what is food further and further to the future.


Food is Joy


This goes back to that primitive animal brain. Enjoying food makes sense - if we didn't have a strong drive to eat, we wouldn't have survived as a species. And yet, the joy humans get out of their food is so much more than an evolutionary trick of survival.


Food does not just make us happy and satisfied but often gives us true joy.


Throughout history, the wealthiest of society would display their wealth through great banquets and feasts. In the same way art and music would signify "the good life," so would food. Food was about living well and enjoying life. In reality though, the cost of the feast or the rarity of the ingredients mattered little.


Anyone who has enjoyed the sweet taste of a fresh peach or a hot bowl of delicious soup on a cold day knows the simple, peaceful joy food can bring. When you eat something that just tastes so perfect that it literally reminds you to stop and appreciate all you have in your life - that is the unique joy and magic of good food.


The joy of simple, fresh ingredients and homemade recipes


Food and food culture quite obviously makes up an important part of who we are, how we connect, what we value, and how we express ourselves as human beings.


As our world becomes more and more interconnected, as people move across the globe, and as Western culture becomes more and more dominate, the food and food culture landscapes of our world will continue to change and evolve.


Change is inevitable but it is important to honor and acknowledge the ways we have all personally grown and been shaped by our own unique food cultures.


Perhaps it is time to learn to make your grandmother’s famous pie or to write down the story of the first homemade meal you cooked for your spouse, even if it did involve burnt garlic bread or spilled red wine.


Just as we honor our past with stories and literature, let us preserve our food cultures with the memories they evoke and the recipes that bring them back to life.