Food, Nation and Ethnicity

April 17, 1998

Hungry for change

Food, Nation and Ethnicity is one of the themes to be discussed at "The Nation's Diet" conference in London next Wednesday.

Anthropologist Pat Caplan's study serves as a reminder that discussion of nationality, culture and food all too easily lapses into an ethnocentric viewpoint that regards "ethnic" as a property of the foreign, exotic or strange, only concerning other social groups and not ourselves.

What people mean by British or English food also demands attention. Caplan, professor at Goldsmith's College, London, found a difference of opinion between generations. Older respondents in her study judged British food to be nourishing and healthy, plain and wholesome. By contrast, those under 50 described it in stereotypical terms, "meat and two veg", thinking it boring, bland and unhealthy. In Sally Macintyre's (Glasgow) study however, "British" gets further subdivided. Few would have anticipated that she and her colleagues would discover Scots perceiving advice on food safety or coronary heart disease to be English in origin. Furthermore, respondents knew that BSE was less common in Scotland than in England, so some Scots reported switching from English meat and meat products to buying Scottish, in the belief that those were safe. However, it was expected that certain dishes or selected foods would be important to a consciousness of national or ethnic identity. Younger black, British-born Londoners told Caplan's colleagues that though they may not eat African-Caribbean cuisine, such as salt fish and yam every day, some do try to have West Indian food at weekends to "keep a part of my culture". Foods also signalled national identity in Wales. But "ethnic" cuisines do not always appear in one manifestation. Welsh foods are evident in two versions: the first among farming families of West Wales where cawl (broth of meat and vegetables) and Welsh cakes baked on a griddle signal identity as Welsh and Welsh-speaking. In the second version, restaurants invent tastes of Wales for tourists, transforming cawl from a main course to a soup, and adding Welsh cakes to Welsh cream teas.

The second version is not, however, solely part of the leisure industry but also features on public occasions, such as school fetes and coffee mornings.

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