In Judith Farquhar’s “Handbook of Material Culture”, she discusses the practice of eating, what role food plays in social life, how food practices vary across cultures, and the anthropological and historical discourses that are involved in the practices of eating. The author also discusses agency, and how interacting with food, and others through food, awards us this “agency” (145). Although the human diet has been meticulously researched and discussed for decades, Farquhar offers us a new perspective on diet and food: it creates culture and maintains kinship. Whether it be food taboos or family recipes, the power of food is evident in these instances in how it encourages certain social practices while dismissing others. Farquhar also describes how one’s experiences and childhood plays an important role in their food agency as adults. Although she suggested this may be the case because few are comfortable altering their food choices that have been with them since childhood, the author believes the shared kinship food awards to cultures and communities all over the world, connects us to the practices of our ancestors, thereby maintaining the traditional structure food operates within.
In order to present her novel ideas on food and its presence in our lives and shared humanity, Farquhar uses ethnography and the practices of many cultural groups to highlight how differently these groups approach food. For instance, her example of Middle Eastern tribal cultures and their food practices, suggest that there is a hierarchical structure connected to food/ eating practices. In commensal groups, the rankings of social groups determine who will eat with whom, and this according to the author, is an important example of how food conveys social and cultural messages. The research of Munn and Weiner also support the authors claims, as they present their findings on the food and eating practices of the Trobriand Islands where food is divided and shared ritualistically. Farquhar’s inclusion of Australian food practices thus supports her claim that food taboos and practices are “enforced by the social systems” in which a people exist (147). Although previous theorists cite knowledge and practice as influences of culture and social systems, Farquhar emphasizes that food and its practices are equally responsible in creating and maintaining social structures and systems of interactions.
By presenting various examples of food practices and how they impact the experiences of a culture or social group, Farquhar effectively supports her claims that food plays a far more impressive role than simply sustaining us. The examples she uses of food as creating kinship, social hierarchies, and tradition, strongly suggest that food’s presence in our lives is multifaceted. By including her own work in Beijing, Farquhar further asserts her experience and qualifications that led her to viewing food and its practices as forms of agency and the foundation of social identity. Previous studies on food were strictly historical or biological, however, Farquhar offers a new perspective by researching food with an anthropological lens. By challenging previous impressions of the role of food, Farquhar also emphasizes the “holistic, relativist, and field-based” anthropological discourses that allow such an interpretation (149).
Farquhar’s ethnographic examples are clear and encourage us to reflect on our own food choices and practices. Her discussion of food as a form of agency also suggests that food grants us autonomy, even while we cling to traditional food structures, social practices, and food taboos. Whether it be its production, consumption, or traditional importance, food plays an important role in not only maintaining cultural identity, but also in sustaining social, ethical, and political systems of knowledge and power (155).
A major takeaway from this article is the question of agency and whether or not we employ it during our everyday food choices and practices. Farquhar presents her readers with the technical and structural foundations of our own food-centered lives, while also considering the practices of other cultures and groups and how they vary. Leah Selim in her TED Talk, “Food is not only culture, it is diplomacy” also references the importance of the food experiences of others, and how this awareness allows us to recognize that food contributes to our knowledge and interactions with each other.
After reading this article, I have begun to question my own food practices and the food traditions within my culture, and recognize that these structures of knowledge allow me to identity and relate to others in my cultural group. Farquhar’s engaging discussion on food agency and food practices was also an important reminder that food is a form of social and cultural power, and we must be aware of this when presented with the food practices of cultures that are not our own.
Farquhar, Judith. 2006. “Food, Eating, and the Good Life.” InHandbook of Material Culture, edited by Christopher Y Tilley, Webb Keane, Susanne Küchler, Michael Rowlands, and Patricia Spyer,(145–160).