Thinking rather more like our premodern ancestors than the postmoderns that we often fancy ourselves to be, we alternate between the hope and the fear that we will somehow come to resemble what we eat. Apprehension of the unknown invariably colors the hope of bliss. Inescapably, fear of pain colors our expectations of delight. At the same time, as the Bronx Zoo poster reminds us, we do a lot with what we eat, and on all levels. Transformation, not addition, supplies a more appropriate model for what humans do with food, from digestion and defecation to symbolization, which is why food has so much to do with constructing our identities. Individually and collectively, though in a very complicated way, we are indeed what we eat.
We are also how, where, when, and why we eat. Humans eat many different foods in different venues, on different occasions, and for different reasons. Our most fundamental physiological needs convey relatively little about our social selves. Fully as much as standard analytical variables such as work, education, ethnicity, or class, our delights tell us and others what we are. The pleasures that we practice offer signs to the ways in which we construct our selves and how we connect to the worlds around us. Pleasures loom all the larger in our readings of the social world because they limit fully as much as they liberate. More than any other single factor, this fundamental duality, and the ensuing ambiguity, transforms our pleasures into a privileged setting for the production of social identity. Put another way, our needs and constraints force us to think about our pleasures as one definition of well-being. Making and remaking social worlds with every bite we take, we eat what we are and to become what we’d like to be.
A fundamental element of social as well as psychic construction, no pleasure more than our encounters with food defines us more, offering as it does great opportunities for conflict and communion. As a literally incorporated foreign substance, food offers up an emblem of the individual’s relationship to the outside world. At once intensely individual and vividly social, our oftenconvoluted relationships with the food that we consume allow, even invite, us to reflect on the dynamic interrelation of the private and the public, the individual and the communal. A total social phenomenon, food is also a “total sensory phenomenon.” It addresses the baser senses—the tongue, the nose, and the palate—along with the traditionally nobler eye and ear. The two totalities are intimately connected. To survive, every individual, every society must discipline that sensory experience and put it to social account. The production, enactment, and expression of that discipline inscribe this totalizing pleasure in an evolving economy of both use and power.
What we do with food, therefore, how we think about it and use it, inheres in what we are, as societies and as individuals. To understand how food operates in an economy of use and power means understanding food as a source of pleasures as various as they are complex, passionately experienced, and ambiguous. The many roles food plays in society reflect as they reproduce this complexity and this ambiguity. A material product that engages the senses and appeases appetites, food is at the same time a symbolic creation tied to the intellect and the spirit, as an end in itself and a means to any number of other ends. Like sex, to which it is insistently compared and invariably linked, eating grounds us in the terrestrial and points us to the divine. We taste the beloved and also the fruits of divine love. The closer edibles come to the volatile, mysterious realms of desire, the more they identify us, individually and collectively. To reach beyond the singular to the collective, beyond the individual to the social order, these antitheses have to be negotiated. Or, rather, we must negotiate. The ephemeral, irremediably private nature of the material culinary product confines actual consumption to the individual. After all, food must be destroyed to be consumed, and in rigorously alimentary terms, consumption is strictly individual. To gain cultural currency, to circulate in society, the material artifact has to be recast in an intellectual mold.