Food for Thought: You Are What You Eat
It was one of the pioneers of French gastronomic writing, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who penned the now famous observation:
‘Tell me what kind of food you eat, and I will tell you what kind of man you are.’
This was a more opinionated version than that in the Bible, to paraphrase Corinthians ‘your body is a temple’. On the other side of the world, Buddha was providing similar advice: ‘keep the body in good health’. This insight presents as a human truism; it is reasonable to surmise that from the beginning of time, primordial man would have been able to link good food with health (I know this does not reconcile evolution with the current obesity epidemic).
Importantly, there is a difference between recognizing that what you eat is what you are and that what you eat constructs who you are. We symbolically consume identity through our food and drink choices – more specifically, by what we don’t eat or drink.
Eating is an intensely personal act. What we eat communicates to others our beliefs, cultural and social backgrounds, and experiences. In the western world, testament to how we think about who we are, we increasingly join fashionable dietary tribes, where we temporarily graze within before moving onto greener fields. Who hasn’t tried on for size at some time being a: vegetarian, paleo, vegan, pescatarian, halal, Atkins, etc.; or my favorites, those that just hold their knife and fork high and find momentary solace in being a flexitarian?
All of these dietary choices have something in common; they all oppose being an omnivore. As apes, even very civilized ones, we are omnivores. In its broadest term, an omnivore will eat anything. Uniquely perhaps among animals, while we can digest the two main food groups (animals and/or plants), we have choice. All of the dietary-tribes above are defined by their rejection of some aspect of ‘everything’. There are many reasons why we exclude foods from our diet, from basic health needs to deep cultural and religious beliefs.
What is interesting is the role that food plays in constructing our identities. This is across psychological, anthropological thinking, and also semiotically, in how the meaning is expressed. Something that all humans share is also something that we use to differentiate ourselves on a daily basis.
‘Food is our common ground, a universal experience’. – James Beard