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“…everything about eating including what we consume, how we acquire it, who prepares it and who’s at the table – is a form of communication rich with meaning. Our attitudes, practices and rituals around food are a window onto our most basic beliefs about the world and ourselves.” (Harris, Lyon and McLaughlin, 2005, pp. VIII-IX).
Anthropologists, folklorists, sociologists, historians, and food scholars often use the term to describe the study of why we eat what we eat and what it means. The term foodways, therefore, looks at food consumption on a deeper than concrete level and is inclusive of yet goes beyond sustenance, recipes and/or taste. Topics like social inclusion and exclusion, power, and sense making are explored under the umbrella term foodways. Further, the ways in which food shapes and is shaped by social organization are essential to examination of foodways. Since consumption of food is socially constructed, cultural study is also incorporated in the term.
Anthropologist Mary Douglas, explains: “A very modest life of subsistence contrasts with our own use of goods, in for example, the use of food. How would we be able to say all of the things we want to say, even just to the members of our families, about different kinds of events and occasions and possibilities if we did not make any difference between breakfast and lunch and dinner and if we made no difference between Sunday and weekends, and never had a different kind of meal when friends came in, and if Christmas Day had also to be celebrated with the same kind of food?” (1992, p. 23).
According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, the term "Foodways" refers to "the study of the procurement, preparation, and consumption of food". The website Foodways of Austin characterizes foodways as "the culinary practices of a people and land, historical and popular". The website facilitates people gathering around a meal table, sharing foods and stories—especially historical narratives of the origins of foods from diverse cultures. The reason Foodways of Austin focuses on the medium of food is because, according to its creators, food "plays a defining role in local and national cultures. What people eat and how they eat it reflects numerous factors, such as landscape, societal, spiritual, artistic, psychological, political, economic, and other conditions".
While in fields like anthropology, the production, procurement, preparation, presentation and consumption of foods have always been regarded as central in the study of cultures (see, for example Lévi-Strauss 1966, the use of the term foodways in popular culture is used as an oriented way of looking at food practices. In this sense, the term is a consumer culture expression that encompasses, in popularly understandable and debatable formats, contemporaneous social practices related to foods as well as nutritional and culinary aspects of foods.
The terms foodways also seems to be employed in the sense of "ways of food" of a region. For example, the website Michigan Foodways is devoted to "exhibitions and public programs focusing on Michigan's unique contributions to the national culinary tapestry". Similarly, the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut published the book Saltwater Foodways, focusing on the foods of New Englanders, both as seafaring people and when ashore. Southern Foodways Alliance, with links to the University of Mississippi, explores the foodways of the American South via oral history projects, films, sharing of recipes, and promoting teaching of foods and cultures of the region.
The Foodways Section of the American Folklore Society and the Department of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University bring out an annual publication called Digest: An Interdisciplinary Study of Food and Foodways. In addition to scholarly articles, this annual compendium carries reports of works in progress on food and foodways, including photo essays, course syllabi, announcements; and reviews of books, periodicals, conferences, exhibits, festivals, museums, and films.
Immigrant foodways also feature prominently in America. For example, at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, located in Southeastern Massachusetts which has a very large immigrant population from Cape Verde, Cape Verdean Foodways are described via recipes from these southern Atlantic islands.
In contrast to just anthropological treatments of food, the term foodways aims at a highly cross-disciplinary approach to food and nutrition. For example, the refereed journal Food and Foodways, published by Taylor & Francis, is "devoted to publishing original scholarly articles on the history and culture of human nourishment. By reflecting on the role food plays in human relations, this unique journal explores the powerful but often subtle ways in which food has shaped, and shapes, our lives socially, economically, politically, mentally, nutritionally, and morally. Because food is a pervasive social phenomenon, it cannot be approached by any one discipline". Launched in the late 1990s and publishing four issues annually, the journal Food and Foodways encourages multidisciplinary contributions by "anthropologists, biologists, economists, ethnobotanists, historians, literary critics, nutritionists, psychologists, sociologists, and others who use food as a lens of analysis".
In consumer culture research, contemporary and postmodern foodways are topics of interest. In an article in the journal Consumption Markets & Culture, from Taylor & Francis publications, Douglas Brownlie, Paul Hewer, and Suzanne Horne explore culinary consumptionscapes through a study of contemporary cookbooks, with chic recipes often turning intensely into a kind of "gastroporn", creating a "simulacrum of desire" as well as a "simulacrum of satisfaction."
Brownlie, Douglas, Paul Hewer, and Suzanne Horne (2005), “Culinary Tourism: An Exploratory Reading of Contemporary Representations of Cooking,” Consumption, Markets and Culture 8, (March), 7-26.
Douglas, Mary (1992), :Why Do People Want Goods?” in eds. Shaun Hargreaves and Agus Ross, Understanding the Enterprise Culture, Edinburgh University Press, 19-31.
Harris, Patricia, David Lyon and Sue McLaughlin (2005), The Meaning of Food, CT: The Globe Pequot Press.