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Cultural and Emotional Aspects of Food

Colleen is a psychotherapist retired from private practice, specializing in human relationships.

Why do we fixate on food?

Why do we fixate on food?

Our Global Focus and Fixation on Food

Often, when a friend returns from a trip, especially to a unique or exotic area, colleagues, friends and acquaintances ask to see photos, appearing to be intrigued by architecture, statuary, concerts and other avenues of artistic or historical value.

In truth, the question they most yearn to ask is, “How was the food?”

Ideally, this question will result in descriptions of visual appeal, aromas, flavours, and the ambiance of restaurants and cafes, the courtesy of service, and even the quality of the cuisine offered by local street vendors. The tourist’s response, once it has been gleaned, may well be a hidden factor in the inquirer’s choice of the next venue for an upcoming vacation.

Food and beverage are main topics of conversation for many people

Food and beverage are main topics of conversation for many people

Food and Drink Interwoven Into Day-to-Day Chat

Images dealing with food or beverages pervade our conversation, in all probability, to a greater degree than we are aware. Still, even a brief look at the frequency of our references to eating and drinking will express their significance:

“Food for thought” “the wine of first love”, “starved of affection”, "thirst for knowledge”, “salt of the earth”, “floundering for a career” “fishing for information” and “my bread and butter".

Types of endearments vary even between countries as interlinked as the U.S. and the UK. Overall, endearments tend to be connected with foods with a sweet taste. Various endearments derive from the word “sweet”. Still, words such as “sugar” and “honey” tend to be far more widely used in America than in the UK. Both sugar and honey are seen as foods, although TV and other social media have broadened their usage.

There is also a visual and audio appeal in certain fruits as pet names. In America, to describe an especially considerate person as “a peach” is still sometimes used. In addition, acceptance by an eminent university or the winning of a sought-after job may be described as “peachy

In America, “pumpkin”, often softened to “punkin”, is a tender way for adults to address children.

In France, “mon petit chou chou” is a term of tenderness. Still, its English translation, “my little cabbage” is the equivalent of calling a beloved “my little broccoli", “onion” or “cucumber", perhaps not the quickest path towards expending a courtship.

On a slightly irreverent note, Martha Barnette tells us in her delightful, informative book, Ladyfingers and Nun’s Tummies, a Portuguese dessert called “Nun’s Tummies”, made largely from layers of fluffy egg whites, acquired its name presumably based on the view that nuns do not always practice the abstinence from those fleshly joys they urge upon others.

Martha Barnette

Martha Barnette

A Nun’s Conundrum

During her early days as a novice, former nun Rachel Ethier Rosenbaum recounts in her memoir, The Unmaking of a Nun, written more than half a century after having left her convent, her amazement at being reprimanded by a superior for enjoying the fragrance of roses within the convent garden. One must, this superior said, renounce the slightest pleasures brought about by any of the five senses.

Though saddened and bewildered by this denial of enjoyment of flowers created by God, Rachel forced herself to submit and comply; a novice was not meant to question. Still, it did strike her as inconsistent with the encouragement, approaching coercion, to eat enough sweets to result in blatant weight gain. The visible signs of gorging, it seemed, were thought to show contentment, despite the largely pointless restraints imposed by the convent.

Rachel’s expanding size was mirrored for her during one of her mother’s first visits, when she saw the silent dismay in her eyes due to Rachel’s burgeoning girth.

According to Conventional rules, deliberate waste of any kind was viewed as a sin. Hence, when a large bowl of rice pudding found no willing takers, this “treat” was placed in front of Rachel, with implicit instructions to swallow its every last spoonful. Given her choice of becoming nauseated or disposing of this unwelcome dessert, she secreted it into the garbage bin.


Autonomy in Eating

Recently, lunching with a friend, I felt bewildered to hear him complain, while savouring his second slice of coconut cake,

“Ever since my vacation last year, the weight will just not come off.”

As chief accountant in a large firm, how could he fail to apply his strong knowledge of checks and balances to his increasing food intake? He sounded as if an enemy had undermined his willpower with a force so fierce he could no longer even try to combat it. While consistent overeating has been recognized as a form of addiction, like any other substance abuse, it must first be accepted and dealt with as such by its abuser.

Taking Responsibility Regarding Food

In her book, It Was Me All Along: A Memoir, Andie Mitchell explains the ways her life became almost inextricably intertwined with the gratification of eating.

As a consequence of her father’s increasing alcoholism, her mother’s need to earn enough to maintain subsistence grew crucial. Hence, she took on more and more domestic jobs for those with the wealth to pay for this service. Eventually, her meagre income and shortage of time meant family dinners consisted of the left-overs of the affluent or whatever fast food could be bought at the nearest location and lowest cost.

During her brief times at home, a tablespoon of cupcake batter would need to substitute for a hug, an intuitive ear, or words to spur hope during times of despondency. In time, a binge came to seem as essential to Andie Mitchell as water or oxygen, reaching beyond survival needs to pain generated by loneliness, lack of worthwhile stimuli, or simply habit.

However sparse its contents might be, the refrigerator was bound to contain some source of enjoyment.


Realization of Obesity

When Andie became a university student, the ostracism caused by her weight began to convince her of her need to overcome this potentially life-threatening compulsion. An amalgamation of counselling and a sponsor similar to those in other 12-step programs, often with agonized tears, gradually quelled her desire to binge.

Still, her determination was such as to aid her in finding flavours in healthy foods she had never discovered, combined with regular exercise. Her primary breakthrough came when she realized there are few foods which are, in themselves, good or bad; it is our choice how to deal with them.


Food as a Tool of Control: “I Ain’t Eating.”

It is well-understood that when parents are separated or divorced, the non-custodial parent, most often the father, views his absence from the home as, to some degree, blameworthy and shameful.

Hence, children soon learn the most effective methods of having their every whim gratified by the use of the guilt they often sense underlies their father’s compliance.
One such child found putting down his fork mid-meal and announcing “I ain’t eating” induced his dad to acquiesce to whatever he had initially said would be too costly, time-consuming or both.

For the most part, attempts to manipulate end when the strategy fails to succeed. Hence, I believe if this father had responded to such a tactic by removing his son’s plate and cutlery, making clear the boy would not be eating again until the next meal was served, would have proved beneficial.

Consequences of Well-Meant Parental Oppression

For several decades, centred upon the 1950s and 1960s, gospel singer/songwriter Pat Boone gained some acclaim, especially within the evangelical sector. Part of this adulation stemmed from his promotion of himself, his wife Shirley, and their four daughters, symbolizing the idealized, balanced American family.

Yet, just beneath this veneer, there lurked a deepening turbulence. According to the memoir "Starving for Attention" written by their eldest daughter Cheryl (Cherry) Boone O’Neill, she recounts the means by which day-to-day life, especially discipline, was based on profound Christian fundamentalism. This vigilance intensified as each of their daughters began to experience emotional and hormonal needs.

Excessive Use of Authority

In addition, Cherry Boone relates that her father, Pat Boone, utilized his self-proclaimed right to spank his daughters, until each of them reached age eighteen, for whatever behaviour he deemed exceeded parental boundaries. Paternal anger was quick to arise; both parents had rules as to the length of skirts, hair, use of cosmetics, and above all else, dating.

In her parents’ defence, Cherry concedes that as her father’s singing career expanded further into the ruthless show business world, young pretty girls did need some extra protection. Still, it began to seem this concern evolved into a pretext for absolute domination.

In time, Cherry’s sense of suffocation manifested itself in anorexia nervosa and bulimia. In hindsight, she believes becoming alarmingly thin via her refusal of food to be her only avenue towards controlling one aspect of her stultified life.

Eventually, after hospitalization, out-patient psycho-therapy and marriage to an empathic husband, she found the resilience to free herself from these compulsive agonies. Still, extensive dental work was required in order to counteract the near-destruction of 22 of her teeth, brought about by bulimia.


Adrenalin: The Food of Anxiety

Adrenaline can be both our most resilient ally and destructive foe. Known as the “fight or flight response”, it came into being when, perhaps even before humankind lived in caves, they needed to fight, as bloodily as need be, in order to obtain enough food to subsist even one more day. Alternatively, they might feel the need to flee from a predator, spurred by the same need to find their next meal.

Near the back of the brain are two areas called the amygdala. For convenience, it has sometimes been shortened to “Amy”. Its function is to process memory, emotion, and decision making and, if required, instruct the release of adrenaline when the body must take flight or fight or enter into a state of anxiety.

The link between food and adrenaline lies in that if we do not, every few hours, ingest some type of solid food or drink nutritive liquids, the Amy, having gone into famine mode, will command the release of adrenaline.

One need not ingest a great deal in order to quell the release of adrenaline. The primary need is to begin the day with some type of sustenance.

It is said that:

"Start the day with a fulfilling breakfast, and you will smile easily"

© 2016 Colleen Swan


Ann Carr from SW England on December 16, 2016:

Oh yes indeed! We have a great feast with my girls and their families, when all descend on us on the 28th. I love it!

Have a wonderful Christmas and I hope 2017 brings you joy.


Colleen Swan (author) from County Durham on December 16, 2016:

Hi Ann, Aside from its other uses as my nephew once said as a child, "Eating's fun." This season is a great time for that kind of fun. Hope you partake of it with joy, as I will. Colleen

Ann Carr from SW England on December 16, 2016:

A fascinating look into the world of food governing our cultures and emotions. The idiomatic language is wonderful, isn't it? Right up my street! But then food is a basic need so it's bound to influence many aspects of our lives.

Great hub, Colleen.


Colleen Swan (author) from County Durham on December 14, 2016:

Hi Ms Dora, You are so right in that people often fail to apply skills they have to their own life issues. I am always amazed by the self-justification used by some people, who at the same time are harsh towards the flaws of others. Thank you for taking the time and thoroughness to read this article.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on December 14, 2016:

"How could he fail to apply his strong knowledge of checks and balances to his increasing food intake?" Good question. Similarly, why would we all not apply how ever much we have learned about how our food influences our lives? You gave some very insightful illustrations that encourage us to consider the consequences of our attitude toward food. Thank you.