Eating with Strangers: Bringing an Anthropological Perspective to the Table

This entry is part 4 of 10 in the Anthropologies #22 series.

The anthropologies food issue continues! Up next we have an essay from cultural anthropologist Christy Shields-Argelès, whose current research focuses on the tasting practices of Comté cheese producers in the Jura mountains of eastern France.  She is an assistant professor in the Global Communications department of the American University of Paris.  You can reach her at cshields AT aup dot edu –R.A.

Anthropologists have long studied commensality as a means to gain insight into the life ways and worldviews of others.  Sitting at another’s table, mastering their etiquette and incorporating their cuisine are powerful ways to encounter and learn about other societies.  It is for this reason that I have long used commensal events as teaching tools in my anthropology classes at the American University of Paris.  A unique institution where Anglophone students come to study in the French capital – sometimes for a semester, though more often for their entire undergraduate education – AUP provides the perfect setting for a hands-on approach to learning the practices and perspectives of the anthropologist. In this short article, I want to explore commensality, and in particular welcome meals abroad, as a site for intercultural learning. 

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A welcome meal for visiting anthropologists at a village town hall in rural Ukraine. Photo by the author.

To do so, however, I will draw not only from my students’ experiences, but from my own as well.  This is possible because for a decade, while teaching at the university, I also worked as a consultant, applying anthropology for corporate and non-profit clients.  It is in this capacity that I traveled to Ukraine in 2011 as a member of a research team asked to study a farming cooperative project.  While most of my applied work had been realized in familiar contexts, in this case I carried out several weeks of participant observation research in a place that was entirely foreign to me.  In other words, I found myself in the same subject position as my students, one of the cultural novice, and this provided me with a new perspective. In particular, I was reminded of the emotional force of such encounters, the analytical potential of the meal, and of the ways anthropological frames and methods help us to deal with our feelings and transform them into pertinent questions and insights.

To Eat is to Feel

Of course, anthropologists know that intercultural encounters can be emotionally taxing. Introductory textbooks describe the manner in which anthropologists can experience any number of hardships while trying to fit in, and more than one ethnography begins with an emotionally difficult event.  In all these cases, however, emotions are worked through, if not moved past, over time and with attention to the more serious business of learning the local language, keeping detailed notes, conducting interviews, integrating theoretical frames and so forth. But what of those first moments, when the emotional tide is often overwhelming?

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Welcoming students at the Gite des Planches, Jura (France).

After many years of living in France, I had been lulled into the belief that my students’ often strong emotional reactions to encountering France – waxing poetic about a French meal or pinching their noses above a cheese platter – were, first and foremost, signs of their youth and “Americanness”, and thus, of our difference.  Then I traveled to Ukraine.  And whether it was getting teary-eyed at a village feast, feeling giddy while sharing a late-night snack, or suffering fear and nausea when offered a leathery strip of smoked fish and a shot of vodka at 11am, I experienced, to my surprise, a whole series of raw, uncensored subjective reactions of my own.  So, as it turns out, we (even professors) never really mature beyond being emotionally impacted by new encounters, especially those held at the table.  In such circumstances, eating must be understood as an act of incorporation of otherness:  a fundamental act in which “we send food across the frontier between the world and the self, between ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ our body” (Fischler 279).  These days, before pushing my students to move past their emotions, I ask them to acknowledge and, to the greatest extent possible, embrace them.

To Eat is to Feel and to Trust

One reason to embrace them is that the emotions felt and expressed when eating with strangers can help to establish relations of trust, an absolute necessity in the early stages of participant observation research.  Take, for instance, the “welcome meal”.  In Ukraine, each time our research team arrived in a village, we were welcomed with food and drink, and more often than not these occasions were highly ritualized.  My students experience similar kinds of meals: a first dinner with a host family, for example.  The purpose of such meals is to invite newcomers into the fold, be it a family, village and/or nation.  In this way, welcome meals can be understood as rites of passage (Van Gennep): they involve a series of prescribed activities organized in a set sequence of stages, but also a series of emotions (the strong feelings of communitas as identified by Turner, for example), which aim at moving the newcomer from the status of foreigner to guest. Thus, to feel moved during a welcome meal is, we might say, the whole point; and to express those feelings (albeit in an culturally appropriate manner) is central to the meal’s success, both for the newcomer and the community.

Of course, lest we romanticize such encounters, welcome meals also test outsiders. Bloch argues that while commensal meals act to reinforce bonds of solidarity, they also function, when an outsider is present, to “find out how far the other is willing to engage in greater intimacies” (146). In this way, welcome meals often consist of “dare foods”, which provoke fear or disgust for the outsider, but are highly symbolic of, and greatly appreciated by, the community. My students, for example, can be served a pungent Camembert or rabbit stew by a French host, who then, along with the other guests, carefully observes their boundary-crossing consumption. In Ukraine, my 11am vodka was presented to me by a choir of women wearing traditional dress, with much of the village standing witness.  In such cases, confronting our fears and possibly overcoming our nausea are near obligatory.  “Is there any way to refuse the vodka?”, I whispered to our interpreter as the singing ensemble approached.  “For me, yes. I can refuse”, he replied, “But, for you, no. You must drink.”

To Eat is to Feel and to Be

Eating with strangers, and the feelings that accompany it, are also bound to social identification dynamics.  Understood as a continuous, dialogical process, rather than as a thing people possess, identity here has to do with the manner in which representations of “us” and “them” are not only integral to our own identity, but also constitutive of social interactions.  Maintaining and using our awareness of such dynamics is key to participant observation.  One important aspect of this, of course, is coming to terms with the ways our informants categorize us.  For example, Stoller and Okles, using a meal experience within the context of long-term fieldwork, examine Songhay social hierarchies by aligning their observations of the social sphere with an understanding of their location within it.  For newcomers, however, in the midst of a new encounter, analysis is a long way off.  Instead, paying attention to how our informants position us in their social world helps us to formulate pertinent (i.e. culturally or relationally situated) questions, temper our desire to raise (or erase) boundaries or draw premature conclusions.  In Ukraine, for example, we had to recognize that our welcome meals – from the elaborate feast that made us feel loved to the stoic offer of lukewarm tea and cold stares that made us feel invasive – were also addressed to us as representatives of the organization financing the cooperative project and our study.  We were also seen as French, of course, and anything from our comments about a dish to our small appetites were interpreted as signs of our Frenchness.  Similarly, my students are often surprised to find that their meal gestures can be seen as American, and associated with either positive character traits (informality) or negative ones (self-centeredness).  Many of them find it difficult to discover (often for the first time) that their identities are not solely a matter of individual choice, but can also be imposed upon them.

Maintaining awareness of identification dynamics also involves confronting our representations of others. My students always nod solemnly when I talk about this in class (as if to say “of course, I am not ethnocentric”), and yet find it more difficult to carry through in the field. Take my student “Jennifer” for example.  Early in her stay, a French waiter refused to serve her a Ricard with a cheese plate.  Feeling humiliated and angry, she proclaimed this to be an example of French elitism; and this had to be true, she exclaimed, because, first, she had experienced it (wasn’t that participant observation?), and, two, well, it was a known fact.  In other words, our emotions can push us towards ideas about others that we share with our home culture, and more often than not, these ideas act to reconfirm our sense of self.  (Jennifer, for instance, went on to contrast French elitism with American egalitarianism).  While at the table in Ukraine (listening to dinner speeches peppered with references to the Soviet past, for example) I was surprised to find myself inhabited by any number of images of the Soviet Union that I knew were probably not quite relevant, but I didn’t initially have anything to replace them with.  The experience underlined for me the fact that being open-minded is not a set character trait, but a process, which is not about denying emotions or preconceived ideas of others, but becoming aware of them and suspending, as best we can, the judgments attached to them.

To Eat is to Feel and to Question

A strong emotion, I now tell my students, can actually signal that you’ve hit on something significant.  So, write it all down, trying to clearly separate your feelings from a description of the event.  Test out theoretical frames, which for the newcomer doesn’t mean finalizing an analysis in the field but formulating questions.  And, finally, give it time, enough at least to find other examples of the event.  In Jennifer’s case, it was only after many more meals and interactions with French waiters, as well as a series of class readings, that she began to ask herself questions about her initial reaction. In Ukraine, it was only after my second or third trip – after we had traveled through three regions and eaten our way through a vast array of welcome meals – that I began to tentatively use them to reflect upon the farming cooperative project as a whole.  For example: in one village the mayor and his wife presided over a town hall feast; in another, the cooperative leader brought us to a chic restaurant that served authentic local food, as elaborated for wealthy locals and visiting foreigners; in a third, the cooperative leader served us tea and biscuits, and then proceeded, in her white lab coat, to perform a series of quality tests using clearly labeled machines and vials.  Therefore, seen also as symbolic acts that serve as metaphors of the collective self (Ohnuki-Tierney), these meals also told us something about the manner in which different cooperatives envisioned themselves as agents (and particularly agents of change), and as communities (as political organizations, businesses, or modern scientific laboratories), which, of course, also spoke to us of the way their leaders practiced authority.

Conclusion

Eating and feeling are not activities that we immediately associate with a college education or consulting research.  And indeed, students or consultants may not readily present them to others as such.  I doubt, for example, that my students explain to future employers that they learned about identity, power or change by eating with others in France (and, even if they did, would such claims really be heard?); and my own experiences at the table in Ukraine never surfaced directly in our client’s report (“how I learned about your project by breaking bread with its participants” didn’t seem the best way to establish our legitimacy as experts).  And yet, as I have tried to show here, when we bring cultural anthropology’s methods and perspectives to the table, eating and feeling with others can teach us a lot.  In regards to my focus here, as a newcomer at the table in a foreign land, I learned not only to be more empathetic with my students’ trials and tribulations, but also to better address emotion while teaching – and as an integral aspect of – the discipline’s research methodology.

These reflections also relate to discussions about the value of a liberal arts education and studying abroad.  Liberal arts education has been under attack in recent years, in part because it is perceived as failing to teach skills directly applicable to the global market place.  And yet, my experiences as both teacher and consultant find this logic to be short sighted.  Applied in the so-called “real” world, cultural anthropology allows us to gain insights where, to stick to our topic, others might only see a nice (or horrible) meal.  And I don’t think that it would surprise a practiced businessman – quite astute ones already know – that deals are often cinched at the dinner table and not in the board room; or that sometimes getting ahead in the professional world is not about knowing how to read an account sheet, as much as it is about knowing how to read a room. Studying abroad, on the other hand, is often celebrated today as an important means to develop a global perspective, and an increasing number of American students spend time abroad.  And yet all too often students abroad fail to engage in meaningful cultural learning and exploration.  Ogden contends – and I join my voice here to his – that ethnographic methods could be instrumental in providing students with the perspectives and skills necessary to build essential intercultural competencies like mindfulness, cognitive and behavioral flexibility, cross-cultural empathy and a tolerance for ambiguity.  Few of my students go on to become anthropologists, but many of them go on to work in international contexts, and so developing such skills in the classroom can only be beneficial.  Learning to approach intercultural encounters as interactive processes rather than the meeting of two static entities seems to offer any number of possibilities for smart management, as well as engaged global (or local) citizenship.

References

Bloch, Maurice. 1999. “Commensality and Poisoning.” Social Research 66,1:133-149.

Fischler, Claude. 1988. “Food, self and identity.” Social Science Information 27,2: 272-92.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. 1993. Rice as Self: Japanese Identity through Time. Princeton University Press.

Ogden, Anthony. 2006.  “Ethnographic Inquiry: Reframing the Learning Core of Education Abroad.” Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad 13: 87-112.

Stoller, Paul and Okles, Cheryl. 2005. “Thick Sauce: Remarks on the Social Relations of the Songhay.” The Taste Culture Reader. Ed Carolyn Korsmeyer. London: Berg. 131-144.

Turner, Victor, 1974.  Dramas, Fields and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Cornell University Press.

Van Gennep, Arnold. 1960. The Rites of Passage. University of Chicago Press.

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Ryan Anderson is an environmental and economic anthropologist. His current research focuses on the social dynamics of coastal development and conservation in Baja California Sur, Mexico. He is currently a post-doctoral researcher in the department of anthropology at the University of Kentucky. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

2 thoughts on “Eating with Strangers: Bringing an Anthropological Perspective to the Table

  1. A very nice piece. I add two ethnographic observations for further contemplation.

    First, during our fieldwork in Taiwan (1969-71), my wife and I observed that at Chinese banquets, the host frequently pressed food on guests, whose proper response was to resist, either indicating that they were already stuffed or, more cleverly, invoking Chinese medicine, e.g., “Sorry, I can’t that’s too yin (or yang) for me.” This was an important discovery for us since several of our predecessors had told us about the after effects of eating everything pressed upon them. Learning to refuse gracefully was part of our acculturation.

    Second, there is a wonderful scene in Itami Juzo’s Tampopo a film in which two truck drivers become confidants and guides to a woman whose goal in life is to establish the world’s best ramen noodle shop. Part of their explorations involve seeing how other types of noodles are consumed, and in the scene I have in mind we are shown the dining room at a deluxe hotel, where a “sensei” is teaching other Japanese women how to eat Italian spaghetti. She warns them against the Japanese habit of noisily slurping noodles and demonstrates how to use a spoon to twirl a small amount of spaghetti into a ball. As she ends her explanation, the camera pans to another part of the dining room where a foreign businessman is served a plate of spaghetti and proceeds to slurp it up with gusto. Observing his behavior, the student ladies relax and follow his example.

  2. Dear Ryan
    Thank you for an interesting article!
    I would like to confirm that in my research, often involving radical auto-anthropology, there is no way to exclude emotions and their effect on research. Then I also found that a researcher is always a guest in the field and that in order to conduct proper research adherence to the rules of hospitality is absolutely vital.
    To add a refinement by looking at hospitality from the host’s point of view, which is a most neglected focus in tourism/hospitality studies, the strong feelings within the rites of passage of the face-to-face hospitality encounter maintain a hierarchy – that of host and guest(s). Although the aim is to ‘equalize’, or rather ‘balance’ the encounter with, the guest(s), hosts and guests never share the same series of emotions as the guests amongst themselves. Therefore guests amongst themselves can be completely equalized and we talk of communitas as identified by Turner, while the host is like the master of ceremonies who ‘facilitates’ communitas between the initiates (guests), but maintains a different status. The fact that through commensality guests can be ‘tested’ by the host/host community clearly indicates this hierarchy. Along these lines I have identified that the social bonding between host and guest(s) maintains an inherent power inequality and hence I have introduced the term nexilitas to define this. Within the hospitality ritual it is the nexilitas factor which indicates the (possible) social bonding between host and guest, while at the same time guests experience communitas with each other.
    References:
    Von Lengeling, VHC (2011). The Nexilitas Factor; Host-guest relationships in small owner managed commercial accommodation facilities in contemporary South Africa. MA Thesis, Rhodes University, Grahamstown.
    Von Lengeling, VHC (2016). Borderline Hospitality; Homestays as a commercial hospitality development project in Grahamstown East, Eastern Cape. PhD Thesis, Rhodes University, Grahamstown.

    Kind regards
    Volkher

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