You Are What You Eat

As the French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote in his famous book The Physiology of Taste: Or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy (1825), “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are”.

boy eating bread

An Estonian boy eating rye-bread. Image credit: Estonian Agricultural Museum,

With this maxim, the author did not only reference the physiological aspects of eating, but something broader – he expressed the idea of food and identity being closely linked in culture as well. What is being eaten can reflect the eater’s economical situation and social status, but also his or her religious, ethnic, or national origin.

Food is an important marker of identity. Even more than this, food is a part of identity politics. We feel communion with those who eat meals similar to those we prefer; those eating different foods seem alien. Many researchers of the food culture of immigrants have mentioned that ethnic or national eating traditions remain important to families and communities even when speaking the native tongue fades away.

What is the food or flavour that Estonians living abroad have missed the most? — black rye-bread. A documentary on food businesses of Estonian immigrants in Toronto is a good example:

Throughout time, what is being eaten has mirrored the social status of the eater. It is known of medieval Europe that the wealthier classes were mostly carnivores, but the main foods of peasants were cereals and vegetables.

Historian Inna Põltsam-Jürjo stresses in her book From Feast to Famine: Eating and Drinking in the Medieval Tallinn that it’s hard to understand the culture of excess characteristic of medieval feasts without first knowing the meaning of famines in this period. Because of drought and wars, a big part of the lower ladders of society suffered from undernourishment, if not hunger. In Estonian there are many sayings about hunger as well. Even now, the maxim “An empty stomach is the best cook” is quite correct.

In modern food journalism, the main focus is on the culinary and gastronomic qualities of food; it leaves in the background the social classes of the people who are actually eating. But what we are eating is not simply a lifestyle choice.

In various religions of the world, one often sees deliberate relinquishing of certain kinds of foods due to taboos with strong symbolic meaning; however, health concerns are noted among the reasons for this. In Judaism and Islam, eating blood and pork is prohibited; there’s also a requirement that the food be kosher or halal (virtuous; allowed) by both the origin of its components and the way it is produced. Ayurvedic teachings from India take into account people’s individual differences and body types, resulting in the principle ‘You eat according to who you are”.

Periods of fasting, when the usual menu is given up, allow the faithful to cleanse both their body and mind. Here I would remind the reader of the Estonian Christian writer Valter Pabson. In his book What One Should Eat? (1939) he cautioned that vegetarian food is not only more natural, better for health and cheaper, but also more ethical. Eating veggie food leads one closer to a cleaner, more wholesome life.

At the German and Polish cultural evening in Tartu

Sharing ethnic food is an essential part of national cultural evenings at the University of Tartu. Photo by Andres Tennus

The thought that we are what we eat often comes up in modern public discourse on vitamins. In the media, not only do doctors and nutritionists talk about this topic, but many other people interested in conscious eating as well. Everyone has his or her arguments, values, and morals. Today we are aware of unsaturated lipids, gluten, etc, in addition to vitamins and calories.

We live in the paradigm of negative eating – we are taught since childhood that many tasty meals include foodstuffs that can lead to health problems when consumed in excess. In today’s society it is generally accepted that our health and well-being are inseparably connected to what we eat.

As a result of the global economy, the food industry, and both social and political developments, the variety of food in Europe today is enormous. Still, the fear of food is paradoxically almost as great as its abundance. We are afraid of poisonous chemicals in fruits, hormones, and antibiotics being fed to animals. Non-fat products or those with reduced fat content, advocated just a decade ago, are not popular any more – now “good fats” are valued. The reality of current industrial food production in Europe is critically examined by Austrian director Nikolaus Geyrhalter in his documentary “Our Daily Bread” (Unser täglich Brot, 2005).

Indian cultural evening in Tartu

Trying Indian food at the “Sanskriti” cultural evening in Tartu. Photo by Andres Tennus

The overwhelming amount of information available about food isn’t always enough to make people eat more healthily. Michael Pollen, an American journalist and apologist of healthy eating, has tried to conclude the food rules with seven simple words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mainly plants”. He encourages one to trust cultural traditions and the ancestors’ food-related wisdom that often has been proven by contemporary food science as well.

Ten years ago, Mine Sylow Pedersen performed a study in the field of applied anthropology that attempted to find out why young people who visited health centres used to eat French fries in nearby fast food restaurants after the training. By observing the youths’ behaviour and communicating with them, it turned out that the reason was not so much the taste, but the possibility to eat one portion together. There was a wish to differentiate themselves from younger people who had to eat with their parents as well. It turned out that when it comes to the eating habits of young people, important motivators are belonging to a group and social communication. One of the researcher’s suggestions to the owners of eateries was to start offering healthy food in such a way that the youth could share their meals.

Thus, individual eating habits reflect both our individual identities and the values of the society that we accept, whether we acknowledge it or not. The choices related to buying food and eating it can be ethical and planned, or individual and kind of random. In addition to providing nutrients, the act of eating remains a pleasure and a matter of social significance.

Ester Bardone is a lecturer at the Department of Ethnology of the UT Institute for Cultural Research and Fine Arts.

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