December 2017

Ethnographic Analysis of a Social Meal: A Pedagogical Exercise

This assignment provided a great teaching moment to engage students in a critical analysis of the norms and expectations shaping what “traditional” means.

by Bonnie M. Miller

Since 2015, I have been teaching a course titled Food in American Culture at the University of Massachusetts Boston. This course enrolls 125 students per semester, with students of varying ethnic, racial, national, religious, and class backgrounds. While the course content introduces students to past and present-day food production systems and different cultural practices surrounding consumption, I designed an assignment to connect students with this material on a personal level, to make them think more deeply about the factors that shape their own food identities and relationships to food.

Inspired by a suggested assignment in Warren Belasco’s Food: Key Concepts[i], I require my students to act as ethnographers and analyze a “social meal” from their personal experience. Students are asked to report on their findings as “participant observers,” detailing the circumstances for the meal, the setting, the food selection, the preparation/cleanup, and the social rules of consumption. Thinking of the meal as a social performance, students consider the following factors with respect to the meal: the time, duration, seating arrangements, flow of courses, table design, ceremonial rituals, dress code, topics of conversation, expectations of manners, and post-meal rituals. In the final section of the paper, students analyze the meaning of what they observed, to explore the socially-dictated roles that shape the event from start to finish and if and how the meal expresses the identity and culture of its participants.

As research for the assignment, students must interview at least one other participant (preferably the host) in order to learn more about why certain traditions are included and to consider if there any differences in how different participants perceive the meaning of the event, the work involved, and all its social aspects. This project is designed to promote self-reflection, asking students to take notice of the division of labor and social dynamics within their family/friend networks that may have gone unnoticed or unacknowledged.

This Norman Rockwell painting, Freedom from Want, illustrates gendered elements of the Anglo American holiday meal. An older woman, still in an apron from preparing the holiday feast, carefully lowers a turkey onto the table. An older man, likely her husband, stands at the head of the table as if to supervise her efforts while their family talks and laughs in anticipation. Courtesy Wikimedia.

My students write about holidays and family traditions from around the globe. They share celebrations of birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Passover, Eid al-Fitr (Ramadan pre-fast meal), Eid al-Adha (“Sacrifice Feast”), New Year’s Eve, Easter, Fourth of July, Chinese New Year, Korean Lunar New Year, The Divine Holy Spirit (a Portuguese event), among many others. Some of the celebrations were more unusual, like one student who annually celebrates “Gotcha Day,” the day she first met her adopted parents, or another student who celebrated his “Golden birthday,” the day when his age matched his date of birth. Most students chose meals generally marked as “holidays,” while a few wrote about the meaningful traditions they experience during weekly family dinners that had become ritual occasions in their households.

The circumstances of these meals vary as widely as the events themselves, with experiences such as divorce, loss, feuds, new marriages or relationships, domestic and international relocation, military service, and aging hosts shaping their dynamics, for better or worse. Reading the papers is like taking a class in world cultures, but it is equally instructive in many universal aspects of the human experience—what brings social networks together and what tears them apart.

Since I first gave the assignment, I have been struck by an increasing number of students who report that their family or friends chose a restaurant to host their special occasion. In this case, I ask them to explain who chose the restaurant and how the bill got paid, which potentially raises tensions between family and friends of different culinary backgrounds and of varying financial means. Many students claimed that this preference enabled their families to consume food they do not typically eat and to escape the burdens of cooking and cleaning.

One student, celebrating his anniversary with his partner, gave this rationale for eating out: “This is our break from the hectic world. This is our time to enjoy ourselves.” He further explained that “if this were just an ordinary meal, either I would have cooked or prepared the food, and we would eat in the living room with the TV on.” Implicit in his comment is the acknowledgement that had they dined at home, the labor of food preparation would have primarily fallen on him, which illuminates why he may have longed for a “break.” He also idealized the restaurant as a technology-free space, allowing for a more intimate dining experience. As romantic as that notion is, it is likely flitting, given the proliferation and portability of cell phones and the inability of many family members, as students report, to be able to relinquish them, even for a family meal.

christmas story
Though this scene from A Christmas Story parodies the holiday meal with its racist stereotypes and unmet expectations that leave the characters laughing in disbelief, families often view a holiday meal served at a restaurant as desirable. Courtesy IMDB.

Another student, who described herself as “a struggling college student who is just trying to graduate and pay my bills… and move out of my mother’s house,” felt she could not pass up the holiday pay and chose to work on Thanksgiving for a restaurant that served Thanksgiving meals to other families. Rather than celebrate without her, her family decided to have their meal at the restaurant where she worked. Still, her grandmother protested the whole thing, refusing to accept that her granddaughter would opt to work on the holiday and longing for the traditional meal she was accustomed to preparing at home. The student wrote, “It’s interesting that my grandmother is so set in her ways that a home-cooked turkey dinner is what is supposed to be consumed on Thanksgiving whereas the next generation is okay with going out to eat and ordering steaks.” To the student and even her mother, the type of food consumed did not matter; there was no loyalty to the “turkey dinner” when other options were made available. “My mother chose the prime rib, my stepdad chose the ribeye and my stepbrother chose the filet mignon. My grandmother called them ‘un-American’ for getting steaks on Thanksgiving.”

Staying only about an hour, the family felt the social pressure to eat quickly and leave in order to make the table available for the next shift of patrons coming in.

This was not a traditional Thanksgiving, but it certainly is a modern one. Whereas her family typically said grace before the Thanksgiving meal at home, this tradition was skipped at the restaurant. For her family, the restaurant was not a space that lent itself to the same traditions that occurred in more intimate holiday celebrations at home, to her grandmother’s dismay, who consoled herself by drinking too much wine. Staying only about an hour, the family felt the social pressure to eat quickly and leave in order to make the table available for the next shift of patrons coming in. Her manager observed, “I’ve never seen people come in and out so quickly on a holiday ever.” Despite her grandmother’s disappointment, the student did not regret her decision to work, and in fact, she claimed that one of the best parts of the experience was that she and her co-workers shared their own Thanksgiving meal together after the restaurant closed, which she called a “family dinner.” Given the amount of hours spent working in the fast-paced restaurant, she felt a familial bond with her co-workers, suggesting that the time and demands of shared labor can create personal connections as meaningful as family ties.

Let me illustrate student response to this assignment with a few revealing quotations from students stating what they took from it:

“Culturally, when a daughter is married off to another family in Korea, they ‘belong’ to the husband’s family. So on holidays, it is expected that they serve their in-laws and I never truly understood that until my mom shared with me about how she really felt on this holiday…. So although this holiday is a beautiful celebration of a fresh, new start, it is also one that displays the culturally bound gender roles and expectations for married women.”

Restaurants in Boston’s Chinatown present food, often cabbages and oranges, to the ceremonial lions in the Chinese New Year Parade. Courtesy Boston Discovery Guide.

“After discussing the gender/age differences on these holidays with my mother, I see the roles in a different light. While I still think that it is unfair how much of the work is put upon the women’s shoulders, I also see that it has to do with pride. My mother does not want my father’s help. She knows that she can do a better job, and loves to hear all of the compliments on her food. For her, Thanksgiving is a day she gets to be in the spotlight. Who am I to fight against that?”

“This project really helped me self reflect…. It just made me realize how little we actually know each other. This holiday was the most disconnected I have ever been to my family.  I think economic stress and hardship does weigh on everybody…. We only see and verbalize with each other at holidays and like to pretend that we know each other…. It makes me think that blood lines do not quite matter but rather the quality of the relationship.”

“Thanks to this assignment, I was able to see Thanksgiving for more than just its food, and see that it has become much more than an American holiday. It has become an Asian-American holiday for us inside the home. Like other Asian holidays, we would have some traditionally Vietnamese dishes bringing people together…. We embraced the American culture that we were living in while staying true to our culture by eating these Vietnamese dishes alongside American dishes.”

“My perspective of family meals has changed after I moved to Boston. All those dinners that seemed mundane once are now fond memories for me that has strengthened my relationship with my family.”

“She [my mother] said that the main purpose of them [their family dinners in India] is to maintain the solidarity of our family. According to her ‘family is all’ and ‘family always comes first’. She said that she wanted my younger brother and me to learn to prioritize family.… She said that a family can bond best when they break bread together…. My perspective of family meals has changed after I moved to Boston. All those dinners that seemed mundane once are now fond memories for me that has strengthened my relationship with my family.”

“Interviewing my mother gave me a different perspective on the preparations and traditions that go into making Eid-Al-Adha a celebratory holiday. It made me realize that all of my wonderful memories of past holiday traditions are primarily because the women in my family worked so hard every year to bring the traditions to life.”

Portland-area Muslims celebrate Eid-Al-Adha in Fitzpatrick Stadium. Courtesy Portland Press Herald.

Because the paper came due at the end of the fall semester, the majority of students chose to write about Thanksgiving, and many characterized their food as “traditional” holiday fare. This provided a great teaching moment to engage students in a critical analysis of the norms and expectations shaping what “traditional” means for, as I show them, the “traditional” looked strikingly different in different social settings. Some students defined those norms based on what they imagined the first Thanksgiving looked like; some based it on the foods their family prepared time and again; some students defined it as a blend of “special” foods from various ethnic, regional, or national cuisines. Each family created their own brand of “traditional,” even those that self-consciously embraced the “un-traditional,” out of their own distinctive cultural heritage through the seemingly insignificant decisions they made, from what spices to use to what plates to serve upon.

The assignment illuminates how the consumption of food in a shared meal setting helps to produce and solidify conceptions of “family” and “friendship” and of the ways it can make fissures in these relationships more visible. Students see that what they had observed on this individual occasion is effectively a microcosm for the broader social dynamics of gender, age, class, ethnicity, religion, and nationality at play amongst members of their nuclear and extended family networks and between friends of varying backgrounds. It aims to help students become aware of their own social identities and to give greater appreciation for the people in their lives who do the labor of sustaining these “traditions.” It comes at a critical point for most of these young adults, as they are on the cusp of independence, poised to decide what traditions in their life they seek to preserve and what new ones they wish to create.

Bonnie HeadshotBonnie M. Miller is an Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Her book, From Liberation to Conquest: The Visual and Popular Cultures of the Spanish American War of 1898, came out in 2011 with the University of Massachusetts Press. Her current research interests are in the field of food culture studies. She recently published “The Evolution of a Fast Food Phenomenon: The Case of American Pizza” in Routledge History of Food (2014). She has an article forthcoming with the Southern California Quarterly on the pure food movement and the exhibition of food at the San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915. She has also published on other topics such as the Omaha world’s fair of 1898, the visual dimensions of old time radio, and the visual culture of American warfare. At present, she is serving as Treasurer of the New England American Studies Association.

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[i] Warren Belasco, Food: The Key Concepts (Oxford: Berg, 2008), 17.  Additional sources on the social context of holiday rituals are Mary Douglas, “Deciphering a Meal,” in Carole M. Counihan and Penny Van Esterik (eds.), Food and Culture: A Reader (New York: Routledge, 1975): 36– 54; Amitai Etzioni, ed., We Are What We Celebrate: Understanding Holidays and Rituals (New York: New York University Press, 2004); Margaret Visser, The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991); Michael Dietler and Brian Hayden, eds., Feasts: Archaeological and Ethnographic Perspectives on Food, Politics, and Power (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001); Martin Pitts, Danny Dorling, and Charles Pattie, “Christmas Feasting and Social Class,” Food, Culture and Society 10.3 (2007): 407– 24.

2 comments on “Ethnographic Analysis of a Social Meal: A Pedagogical Exercise

  1. Cory James Young

    Thank you for sharing this piece, Bonnie. My own family has several rules that I had not really considered until reading this, namely that my parents sit at opposite heads of the table at home and that we all have to order unique dishes when out to dinner (yet it’s okay to all order the same thing when out to breakfast; apparently we don’t share at breakfast).

    Happy holidays!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s a great assignment for a class. I’m going to want to think more about that idea.


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