Eating Together: Food, Friendship and Inequality

Eating Together: Food, Friendship and Inequality

by Alice P. Julier

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An insightful map of the landscape of social meals, Eating Together: Food, Friendship, and Inequality argues that the ways in which Americans eat together play a central role in social life in the United States. Delving into a wide range of research, Alice P. Julier analyzes etiquette and entertaining books from the past century and conducts interviews and observations of dozens of hosts and guests at dinner parties, potlucks, and buffets. She finds that when people invite friends, neighbors, or family members to share meals within their households, social inequalities involving race, economics, and gender reveal themselves in interesting ways: relationships are defined, boundaries of intimacy or distance are set, and people find themselves either excluded or included.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252079184
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 06/05/2013
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 232
Sales rank: 1,181,167
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Alice Julier is an associate professor and the master's program director of food studies at Chatham University.

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Eating Together

Food, Friendship, and Inequality



Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-03763-4



Feeding Friends and Others

Like my mother, I like to know what everybody ate. My friends are constantly driven crazy by me because I want to know what they had for dinner. I want to know what they had and how they cooked it. I'm not very curious about what people had out. I'm interested in what people have in, because I'm very interested in people's domestic lives. I used to think I was fretting away my time, but the fact is, what is more interesting than how people live? I personally can't think of anything. Maybe war or death or something, but not to me. I like to know how they serve food, what they do with it, how it looks.

—Laurie Colwin, More Home Cooking

Drinks are for strangers, acquaintances, workmen, and family. Meals are for family, close friends, honored guests. The grand operator of the system is the line between intimacy and distance.

—Mary Douglas, Deciphering a Meal

"Putting Yourself Out"

When my partner and I began living on our own, our house was a place where friends visited often, especially during evenings or weekend days. I believed that people felt welcome because good food that they liked was readily available. Somewhat consciously I thought that if there was some appropriate meal handy, then our home would be a comfortable base, a place where my circle of friends centered. Creating meals became a way to draw people to where I lived, to interact socially, bringing together friends from across the various social groups we knew, from work colleagues to college friends to basketball acquaintances. Since I enjoyed doing this, I never questioned my actions until a friend began trying to mitigate what he called my "unnecessary work." He often encouraged us as a group to go out to eat or get take-out food. Finally one day he offered to get prepared food because he didn't want me to "put yourself out so much."

For a long time after he said this, I reflected on what my actions meant: what was I attempting to ensure in my household? What assumptions guided my activities? This seemingly small incident of everyday life became the springboard from which I began to think sociologically about what people do when they invite others into their homes to share food. In particular, I recognized that my so-called larger sociological interests—unequal access to resources faced by marginalized groups such as women, people of color, and poor or working-class communities—were not separate from my everyday concerns. Meals provide a landscape from which to explore all manners of cultural and economic dilemmas. Decisions about whom we eat with, in what manner, and what kinds of food are inextricably tied to social boundaries. The personal, after all, is political.

In the fifteen years since I began thinking critically about food and social life, the academic landscape has changed dramatically, such that this book does not need to begin with disclaimers or long explanations of why it's so important for social scientists to study food. The relationship between the material and symbolic dimensions of our lives still begs for serious analysis, but where once I could point to only a handful of important texts, the wealth of scholarship that supports this pursuit is now so enormous that Warren Belasco claims we have entered a "Golden Age of Food Studies."

Even so, I offer this as a partial and preliminary map of the landscape of social meals. Additionally, voluntary relationships—friendships, for lack of a better, all-encompassing word—are also an elusive topic, one whose analysis sits at the margins of mainstream sociology. Because these topics are not overtly political and public, it bears asserting that our understandings of inequality in America might benefit from looking at the domestic, where the seemingly private, mundane components of daily life unfold. While asserting the mainstreaming of food studies, Belasco also suggests that such work is inherently subversive, requiring scholars to cross boundaries and "ask inconvenient questions" (Belasco, 2008, 6). Like Laurie Colwin and Mary Douglas, I am profoundly interested in asking about people's domestic lives, particularly in the part that food plays in constructing social relationships. In a slightly different manner than my friend suggested, I am "putting myself out" to write this book about eating in with friends and others.

Food and the Social Order

In Deciphering a Meal, Mary Douglas writes:

Sometimes at home, hoping to simplify the cooking, I ask, "Would you like to have just soup for supper tonight. I mean a good thick soup—instead of supper. It's late and you must be hungry. It won't take a minute to serve." Then an argument starts: "Let's have soup now, and supper when you are ready." "No, no, to serve two meals would be more work. But if you like, why not start with the soup and fill up with pudding" "Good heavens! What sort of meal is that? A beginning and an end and no middle." "Oh, all right, then, have the soup, as it's there, and I'll do a Welsh rarebit as well." When they have eaten soup, Welsh rarebit, pudding, and cheese: "What a lot of plates. Why do you make such elaborate suppers?" They proceed to argue that by taking thought I could satisfy the full requirements of a meal with a single, copious dish. Several rounds of this conversation have given me a practical interest in the categories and meanings of meals. I need to know what defines the categories of a meal at home. (Douglas, 1972, 61–62)

What counts as a meal? Does it need to be cooked in the home? Include rice? Can it be cold? How much can come from cardboard boxes? What about popcorn eaten together while watching television? In The Migrant's Table, the Bengali Americans interviewed by Krishnendu Ray (2004) talked about miscommunications and misperceptions of meals (such as gigantic servings, plain pasta and salad, and hors d'oeuvres instead of a main course) when being invited over to the homes of white Americans (80–81). More critics are joining public health pundits to find fault within the food industry and convenience foods, portion sizes, and endless snacking when exploring American eating habits. Even though our understandings of what counts as a meal have some consistent cultural characteristics, it is also contested terrain. Within that landscape, I want to demonstrate how people construct meaningful everyday practices.

To begin, I explore some of the moral discourses and texts that shape our understandings of food and social life in the United States. The majority of this narrative is organized around stories told by a small sample of people who held dinner parties, potlucks, brunches, buffets, and other uncategorizable social meals. The meals and relationships they describe are tied up in particular understandings of difference and inequality, understandings that emerge from the historical and contemporary configuration of gender, race, and class. While other dimensions of experience might be salient, I find these to be the most powerful in shaping everyday life in the United States. Put simply, people with greater access to resources that accrue from gender, race, and class privilege have access to more variety and more nutritionally rich food and can focus on the meal as a social accomplishment rather than a necessity. At the same time, social networks of reciprocity provide people with different skills and relationships that are often specifically useful for their communities, since shared meals, like other aspects of cultural capital, are situated in historical and geographic contexts.

Despite a growing interest in everyday life as the site where inequality is made manifest, we know very little about what people actually do in their daily domestic lives, particularly the parts that are not primarily defined by familial obligations. Mary Douglas, who spent a large part of her illustrious career taking food seriously, outlined an unfulfilled agenda, stating,

Many of the important questions about food habits are moral and social. How many people come to your table? How regularly? Why those names and not others? There is a range of social intercourse, which is based on food, on reciprocity, on frequency of exchange and other patterns. We ought to know more about patterns of social involvement so as to understand rejection, since it appears undeniable that starvation and undernourishment are the result of social rejection more than of physical deficiency of food supplies. (Douglas, 1984, 13)

The material and social aspects of providing food are central to social life, but because it is routine, such activities often appear mundane. Yet, connecting food activities or "commensality" to larger social arrangements that stratify people demonstrates how choices about food and sociability are guided and constructed within a range of opportunities and constraints. Anthropologist Audrey Richards (1932) rightly claimed that food more than sex determines the nature of our social groupings and the form of our activities. Like it or not, the basic questions of human survival and of human culture are questions about food—how we acquire it, how we prepare it, and who is responsible for its distribution. Some would suggest that agrarian culture cemented the rise of private ownership and entrenched inequality. The capacity to preserve and store food has both freed and constrained human social development. As Amartya Sen (1981) demonstrates in his global exploration of famine, hunger is usually not about lack of food, it's about lack of entitlement and rights. Worldwide, women and poor people of color predominate in the production and provision of food—as agricultural workers, domestic servants, as farmers, producers, cooks, and servers in both domestic and commercial settings. To study food, particularly the procuring and preparing of food, is to study the nature of inequality in our culture. In its extreme outcomes, commensality exists alongside the possibility that people starve if not included in shared meals. In less dire, but equally determinant situations, exclusion from shared meals means isolation from important and useful social and cultural resources, or "capital" (Bourdieu, 1984). As historian and culinary curator Barbara Haber (2005) has said, if you want to understand the workings of a society, "follow the food" (65).

Deciphering Meals, Decoding Patterns of Social Life

Currently across the United States, people are eating out in restaurants more frequently. They also eat socially "on the go," ordering pizza while watching their children play sports or grabbing prepared foods (from sushi to soup to sports bars) on their way to or from work. Even so, domestic kitchens have not disappeared and the rhetoric of domestic mealtime and its social benefits remains constant. Activists concerned with everything from the "agro-industrial food complex," the "obesity epidemic," environmental change, and global food aid all invoke the significance of the shared table and the social organization of eating together.

Here, I examine only one particular type of sociable activity, the shared meal—and more narrowly, the shared meal that occurs in households and includes non-kin. Even so, the analysis is based on the understanding that such activities occur as part of a much larger pattern of sociable events with food based on temporal cycles, such as weekly meals, annual celebrations, special events, and changes across the life course. Mary Douglas (1984) argued, "a radical approach to food's place in civilization would require the whole range of food's social uses to be considered" (6). The study of shared meals needs to be situated among a larger body that examines rituals, holidays, ethnic and regional variations, global migrations, historical permutations, and prognostications about the future.

According to Douglas and Nicod (1974), the meal is different from other food-related activities (such as eating a snack) because it is distinguished by having some kind of formal structure, including the types, order, and presentation of foods as well as the order and mode of consumption. These formats vary across cultures and historical timeframes, but they all adhere to some social rules (Murcott, 1982; Sobal, 2000; Meiselman, 2000; Wood, 1995). The meal is particularly interesting because it is both physical and social, both a "metaphor for communication" and "a physical event" (Douglas, 1984). Simmel suggests that eating together is a profound intersection of the social and the individual since "what the individual eats, no one else can eat under any circumstances" (Symons, 1994, 346). Symons explains, "we might sit down together at a meal, but we must understand what we share. We must accept that we never really share food" (344). Paradoxically, this individual material act of consumption may also be the very basis of sociality since the necessity to eat is something all humans share. This type of sociability is so important that political campaigns, union drives, and religious organizations rely on community suppers to create solidarity.

In contemporary American society, I found that what counts as a meal is a highly contested and ideologically charged question that is also filtered through people's biographies and social locations. Who people spend time with in a domestic setting and under what circumstances tells us about social boundaries. Consider the family meal as a site where fears of social disintegration get centered. Arguments about the kind of food that is created or served in people's homes often frames a debate between a powerful food industry and its vocal critics. In this chapter, I examine more aspects of these historical and contemporary discourses that fuel these questions and affect the choices people have in determining with whom and how to eat.

Staging and participating in such a food event requires that participants share some understandings of what activity they are engaged in. In Georg Simmel's terms, the meal is a social form, a way of classifying different kinds of social interaction. As Levine (1971) describes them, social forms "are the synthesizing principles which select elements from the raw stuff of experience and shape them into determinate unities.... And they are not fixed, and immutable but emerge, develop, and perhaps disappear over time" (xv). If everyday practices seem idiosyncratic and individualized, perhaps a focus on the social form allows us to see the common patterns of interaction and behavior that help organize the complexity of individual experiences. Consider the forms that seem most prevalent in American society: potlucks, dinner parties, brunches, and barbecues all express something about the relationships being enacted. Each involves different degrees of formality, different roles and social expectations for participants, and different divisions of labor in the actual production of the food, the event, and social interactions. People choose to participate in these events as a way of constructing close relationships that are not necessarily rooted in the obligations associated with kinship. These forms are not the only ones available to contemporary Americans—in fact, one segment of my analysis is dedicated to events that defy existing labels—but these particular events have both historical and cultural resonance for many people, such that their choice of social form reflects important insights into their social experience. But how do people choose which among these forms will constitute the stage for the production of these relationships? Which people eat out? Watch old movies and eat popcorn? Invite fourteen people for brunch? As I elaborate through people's stories, learning the role expectations and "rules" of various sociable occasions is not always a straightforward process.

Given the lack of sociological studies on this topic, I framed my inquiry with an eye toward larger questions that cannot be easily answered: How does the negotiation of appropriate forms occur among people who wish to arrange sociable moments? What discourses, cultural discussions, and ideologies do they draw upon in creating these events? To what extent are they constrained by structural conditions? What changes do we see across the life course? And how does the presence of food, in the ordered form and expectations of a meal, affect the choices, the interactions, and the meanings given? How is the cultural geography of space in households—the size of a kitchen, the privacy of bedrooms and bathrooms—implicated in the structuring of the event and the kinds of relationships that develop? Starting with a small-scale qualitative study, a starting point to suggest answers to these questions, I went on to map some of the language, concepts, and concerns that deepen our understanding of relatively underexplored topics.

Engendering Meals

By describing cooking as "putting yourself out," my friend perhaps unintentionally highlighted the gendered way I was easily recruited into this work, driven by a belief in the importance of shared intimacy over food (DeVault, 1990). Not surprisingly, at the time of his comment, I was immersed in the feminist literature on close relationships, family, and most importantly domestic labor, with scholars such as Dorothy Smith eloquently questioning the sociological understanding of "work" as something outside the realm of emotion, caring, or even pleasure. This relationship between work and care is intricately played out in the act of cooking and feeding others, and as such, is a critical component of gender as a lived experience and a set of social structures.

Excerpted from Eating Together by ALICE P. JULIER. Copyright © 2013 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

1 Feeding Friends and Others 1

2 From Formality to Comfort: The Discourse of Meals and Manners 22

3 Dinner Parties in America 54

4 Sweetening the Pot: The Shifting Social Landscape of Sociable Meals 104

5 Potlucks 146

6 Artfulness, Solidarity, and Intimacy 185

Notes 209

Bibliography 219

Index 233

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