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Food and Culture 2

2014 June 24
by Paul Mabrey
Picture from Soul Food movie, eating at the table

Soul Food and Harris’ piece “Deconstructing the Myth of the Dysfunctional Black Family in the Film Soul Food” offer us an opportunity to conclude our discussion of food and culture with reflections of our larger socio-political milieu – race, food and America. The movie Soul Food was intended, according to Harris, to offer representations of African-Americans that run counter to mainstream media portrayals of African-Americans and specifically African-American families. And Harris argues that the film did in fact offer alternative portrayals to dominate narratives of African-American individuals and families, women specifically. But if this is true, why does she suggest that “While the ethnic identity of the family is not addressed as the factor that distinguishes it from other family films, Soul Food is a film that challenges existing stereotypes typically associated with African Americans, African American women, and the African American family in particular.” (221) For me, this is the resonating tension regarding the role of food and culture after reflecting on these two pieces. What is unique about African American culture in this film and essay as it pertains to family, culture and food?  Could one substitute any family (Italian-American or Mexican-American for example) and still come away with the same or very similar narrative points? Picture of members of Cosby family eating around table, from the Cosby Show

However what does come through Soul Food and Harris’ essay on Soul Food is the importance of the familial dining experience for American culture, arguably African-American culture in particular. The family dinner is a shared experience in communication. The food symbolizes a ritualistic space for the sharing and negotiation of individual and family identities. Family members share everyday occurrences as well as play out larger family dramas. Soul Food and Harris are particular good at explaining how identities are navigated through the family meals, both in a literal and metaphorical sense.

What is interesting is that these experiences, these dramas seem to rarely play out in media representations like this around the family dinner table. It is not a coincidence that this movie was made in the late 1990s. Perhaps another tension being played out in the background of this film is the decline of the family meal. Not only are we experiencing individualizing pressures that hurt the success of the family meal but societal pressures are cutting into the family meal. With the advances of information and communication technologies, we no longer have the time to sit and eat together. Or if we do, we do so in our car as we enjoy fast food. Perhaps we can still engage in the rich exchanges, battles and negotiations over our McDonalds in our hunter green wood paneled minivan but I suspect not.

How is African-American culture portrayed through food and dining in these texts? Is there a case made for the uniqueness of this to African-American culture? Do other cultures take place in the same ritualistic experiences?

Is the family meal declining in American culture? What does this communicate about American culture? Vice versa? Is this unique to American culture?

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Maggie Roth permalink
    June 24, 2014

    While I cannot comment on the African-American culture, I can comment on the Italian-American culture, as I have grown up in a family that prides itself on being Italy. Food is an essential part of our day to day life, but more importantly it is the bond that holds our family together. Every Sunday (just like Josephs) my mom prepares a big Sunday meal and all of our family, and usually same neighbors come over and eat. This means typically last longer than most, and consist of everyone yelling over one another. While this may seem odd to some people, it is completely normal occurrence for any Italian family- just like seafood on Christmas Eve and lasagna and anti-pasta on Thanksgiving.

    So much of the time food helps to illustrate family roles, which can be seen in Harris’s article.
    Big Mama was the monarch of the household, and after she dies, there is a conflict between Teri and Max on who will take her place. While my grandmother was at one time the “monarch” of our family and organized and cooked at all our family functions, my mom begin to take over for her as she got older. Unlike the Joseph’s, our transition was rather peaceful.

    I think Paul asks some really great questions in his post–particularly regarding that of family meal time in the American culture. For me, mealtime was a quintessential part of my childhood which I hope to continue in my future children’s lives, but I do think it is being somewhat of a lost art. This “loss” of family time can even be seen in the article because once Big Mama dies and the new generation takes over, things get complicated. This has also slowly happened within my own family. Once my grandfather died, traditions that were once kept were more easily broken.

    • Brooklyn Steele permalink
      June 26, 2014

      I find it interesting how cultures are so different when it comes to food norms. My family often has Sunday dinners also, but my family is southern so Its usually something like chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans and always sweet tea to drink. My family is rather small though so we are always having one big conversation instead of little separate ones that would be in a big family. Like you family my grandma is the monarch. We always have dinner at her house and she always fixes the food, she’s that last one to sit down and the first one to clean up.

      I think sitting down as a family for dinner is very important. My parents and myself sat together every night for dinner. It’s where we talked about our day, what’s going on, and just took the time to bond. My American households don’t even have a kitchen table, or have a dining room table that never gets used.

      • Alina Clark permalink
        June 27, 2014

        Brooklyn, my family goes to my grandma’s for Sunday supper too! But I wanted to back you up on the notion that some families don’t have a kitchen table. My boyfriend’s family does not eat family dinners. And they do not even have a place in their house where you could all sit as a family and eat. Dinner is very informal – usually everyone is to fend for themselves [aka my boyfriend does NOT eat a lot of home cooked meals]. I think it’s a shame, and I see a clear difference in family dynamic between his family and mine.

  2. Frank Saunders III permalink
    June 25, 2014

    Family meal was always something that was imperative growing up. We never had “Sunday Meal” because we had every night meal. It was a way for our family to bond and reconvene after our daily expenditures. We used food as a way to connect to one another and it added to our closeness as a family. However, we did have a really big meal on Thanksgiving and Christmas in our sacred ‘dining room’ that usually involved extended family and close friends. To compare to Big Mama’s tragedy, when my sister first left for college back in 2001, a part of our family was no longer there for nightly family dinners. It affected our family dynamic and I got older, family diner’s weren’t as regular. The hypothetical ‘loss’ of my sister affected the nightly meals that we had, and now that I am off to college the ’empty nesters’ at the house eat dinner alone.

    This is just one example, but as Paul suggested I believe that there is a major decline in the concept of a family meal in the American culture. Families don’t use dinner or supper as a time to catch up and bond with their family, and this is something that is a bit sad about our culture. I feel like family dinners would decrease the amount of family problems that occur in our society today. In a way it communicates dysfunction, mediocrity, and inconsistency in our culture, and it further indicates our individualistic culture values.

    I also feel like the families are poorly educated about food and nutrition, which leads to less home cooked meals. Family meal time revolves around the food that is prepared and cooked at home. With the declining knowledge about food, nutrition, and cooking leads to less home cooked meals, and less importance given to family meal time.

  3. Lindsay Kagalis permalink
    June 26, 2014

    Frank, I have a very similar example of “losing” a family member during meal time. I too never really had anything like Sunday Dinner because we ate dinner together as a family all the time. We did, and still do, have big dinners for Thanksgiving and Christmas. When my sister got married, the entire dynamic of the family shifted, because she now needed to make time and sometimes miss our dinners in order to visit her husbands family who live out west.

    I personally agree with you Frank that meal time is declining. I also completely agree with what Professor Mabrey had to say about having no time to have a family meal. I think this is a big issue, especially in how other cultures view our society. When I studied in Spain, family meal was every day and was continued even as children grew up and were married with children. On the other hand, I also don’t really believe that this is specifically part of the American culture, especially as fast food has been taking over the world of food consumption. Instead, I think the decline in family meal is exacerbated in America because of our extreme need for instant gratification and service with a fast food restaurant on every corner to make the simplicity of fast food even more simple for consumers. I can understand how difficult it may be for two working parents to take time out of their busy day to make dinner for their children and sit down and discuss the day. But this is also due to other growing markets such as children’s need for technology, which pulls them away from communicating with other family members. It is sad to see children as young as 4 with an I-pad and a McDonald’s dinner completely shutting out everyone around them because they want to win the next level on a game. With the increase of technology, I think the best solution should be directed at our generation to show the important of things such as family meal and other forms of family communication in order to preserve this cultural perspective of food.

    • Stephen Klier II permalink
      June 27, 2014

      Your point about the American need for instant gratification is right on point. That plays a large part in what is killing our family meal times. Because if my family is out somewhere it is much easier and much less healthy to stop and grab food from a drive thru to eat on the way home instead of preparing a meal when we get home. Parents as well as children are increasingly busy and the consequences of neglecting of family meal time will be shown in the years to come as families will be formed that never know what family meal time is.

  4. Alina Clark permalink
    June 27, 2014

    I also have a family dining experience similar to Frank and Lindsay’s. Being the oldest child, I am ‘the family member’ that went away to college. My parents however, still maintain family dinners every night, as I have 3 younger siblings . Ever since I can remember my family has taken the time every night to eat down and eat ALL of our meals (with the exception of breakfast/lunch on the weekdays) together. On the weekends we sit for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Now that I am older and make arrangement with friends for meals I am not always present for family dinner, but even still my parents insist I be present for at least one family meal [when I come home for the weekend]. Sitting down for a meal is the only time in my house that my family is able to privately all be together and mentally present. We all live busy lives between work, friends, extra curriculars, etc. and sitting down for dinner everynight is something my parents always gave high priority to because it was the time they asked us about our lives, gave us news, discussed issues with us, etc. Further, dinner was a time for my siblings and I (who are 6,8,and 10 years apart) to bond.

    In regards to the questions posed by Paul, I personally don’t think that the idea of the importance of family dinner is unique to the African American culture. The text mentions one of the objectives of the movie as being to try and break the association between African American families and culture of being ‘broken’. I think was the main driver behind creating Soul Food, and does not at all imply this as being unique to African American cultures. In fact I think many [Italian-American, Asian-American, etc.] ‘non-white’ – for lack of a better term – cultures make a point to maintain relationships with family as a part of their cultural identity through use of family dinners.

    I do think that the family meal is declining in American culture.Let me explain myself. I think that many immigrants come to the Unites States with a high regard for family and close relations within a family. However in the process of living ‘the American Dream’ – some families/people lose sight of the importance of family communication. What does this communicate about American culture? We don’t live in the present. We are too busy thinking about everything else to sit down and have a nice meal with our families. In American we place a large emphasis on our time and not ‘wasting it’ – family dinner simply doesn’t make the cut.

    During my travels in Europe I noticed the exact opposite of what I think is unique to American culture. Everyone was very present, time was not of the essence. Punctuality doesn’t exist. And building relations over food is a cultural norm. It’s not always food, sometimes coffee – but nevertheless they take time (sometimes multiple times) out of their day to sit and enjoy the company of others over something to eat/drink.

  5. Cassidy Clayton permalink
    June 27, 2014

    The matriarchal structure of African American families, I think, is very unique. The female who holds the power in the houses and holds the family together by whatever means necessary, is Big Mama in the film, and without her Sunday Dinners, the family would fall apart. I can not speak for an Italian-American or Mexican-American family, however, I do believe that each race has had economic and social disparities placed on them at some point, evolving their culture to have the same kind of issues that the characters in Soul Food had to face. I believe that African-American culture is portrayed through food and dining in these texts, through the actions of the matriarch of the family, Big Mama, and her commitment to preparing a Sunday feast every week for her family in order for her family members to share a context within which open communication about current events can be shared. Also, the fact that the family continues the family dinner ritual after Big Mama passes solidifies the ritual into their culture. The sisters realize that Sunday dinners were not just sitting down for meals, but a weekly space where they could sit down with their family and communicate with each other which lead to tighter family ties and bonds. I would like to say that most cultures take part in these same sort of ritualistic experiences, however, the media does not portray other cultures as much as the African-American culture. In that case, I would say that these texts do provide a case for the uniqueness to African-American culture because as a member of a predominately White family, my experiences have been mainly patriarchally structured which makes their matriarchally structured experiences unique to me. With that said, however, I believe that every culture goes through disparities and hardships within families that call for family communication and rituals. I think what makes the African-American case unique lies in the fact that the family communication always revolved around food.

    I definitely believe that the family meal is declining in American culture. Just listening to the way my parents speak about always having dinner together with their families growing up compared to my memories of growing up and eating dinner together, I can see some drastic changes. The family meal experience creates such a interesting bond between family members. The idea that no matter where or what you get yourself into during the day, you can talk about it and work it out with your family at family dinner that night creates a sense of protectiveness that doesn’t much exist these days. I know that growing up if my family wanted to all sit down for a dinner, we would have to plan it in advanced because if we didn’t, we would probably all eat dinner on our own or in groups but not all together simply because of how busy all of our schedules seem to be. There has been a shift in priority within American culture. The priority is no longer sitting down and eating dinner with your family, but rather families are staying in touch through digital communication and no longer view food as a means to connect. I think this is unique-ish to American culture because I think that European culture and Asian culture are the same way when it comes to being more involved with their technologies in order to connect than food. I think this communicates that American culture is ever-changing and can never be defined because trends and ways of communicating and connecting and forming meaning are forever changing in our world.

  6. Robert Bamsey permalink
    June 27, 2014

    Personally, due to my sister having moved out and myself for nine months of the year, family dinners are usually planned in my family and involve going out to eat. When I was younger though, family dinners were daily and frequent while at home. I do feel that the speeds at which Americans want their food has increased but I think that I have a skewed perspective when I also say that I think the idea of a family meal has declined in America. But portrayal in media still portrays family meals in shows like Modern Family to be normal and frequent, so the only way to know would be to know the actual numbers. At the same time I really do believe that with increasing need for speed of food coupled with possible longer working hours/commuting due to a tougher economy may have led to a decrease in the family meal in America, so I guess I could argue for either side. Overall I believe this communicates to the world that the American culture has possibly become impatient and unhealthier while still trying to portray that the American family hasn’t been effected too much.

  7. Carolyn Girondo permalink
    June 27, 2014

    I’ve talked about the tradition of food and my family in some of my other posts, it is definitely something that bonds my family. I wanted to touch on the question of whether the “American family meal” is declining. I definitely think we are losing the tradition of everyone sitting down together as a family. In my family specifically it was normal that we would eat dinner together almost every night. When I was younger, we would come home, play outside, and wait for a holler out the front door when dinner was getting prepared and we needed to come in and help get it ready. As my brother and I got older and had more commitments these dinners got cut shorter but we still made a big effort for them to happen. Once I started working in high school, I was almost never present at dinner. I would go from school, to cheer practice, to my waitressing job and scarf down a cliff bar or eat a late dinner at the pizzeria I worked at after my shift. This started becoming the norm as my brother started working too, which caused all of us to kind of do our own thing and we lost that time together. When I went to school obviously the whole dynamic of our household changed. In a way it was good because the rarity of being able to sit down together as a family and chat over dinner made us cherish the times we could do that. Enerytime I came home from JMU we would make sure we made time to eat together. During that time, I would do the cooking because now my mom, dad, and brother are working and I would be on a break. It brought us back to our roots of how we grew up and made us appreciate that time together.

    Unfortunately I do think there is a major decline in family meals. It seems every generation is even more involved in school, organizations, sports, jobs, etc. more and if dinner isn’t on the go, it probably isn’t happening. Maybe it is our individualistic culture that leads us to be this way? We are constantly surrounded by the idea of being better, doing more, and achieving our goals. All of those things are great and important but I believe everything is best in moderation. If we are too busy to eat with the people we love – whether that be your family or maybe you have a close group of friends or extended family/guardians that are more your family (everyone’s home situation is different) – than where do our priorities lie? Are we losing meaningful development, relationship skills, and communication skills by skipping out on this time?

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