You Are What You Eat: Course Examines Sociology of Food

August 05, 2008

Summer's here, and the time is right for … going to class.

At the University of Virginia, about 4,500 students are taking advantage of the summer sessions to fulfill major requirements and take interesting electives. Among this year's notable courses is an examination of amnesia in film, a look at deafness in literature, the study of film noir, the sociology of eating, and exploring kinfolks, families and relating in the African diaspora. Look for  profiles of Summer Session courses here each Wednesday for the next few weeks.

August 5, 2008 — Food is culture.

So says Tara Tober, a University of Virginia graduate student in sociology who is exploring food as a cultural phenomenon in her summer session course, "The Sociology of Food and Eating."

"Sociologists have largely ignored food until recently, because it was seen as just biological, something we needed to survive," Tober said. "But it is very much social when you think about what we eat, who we eat it with and where we eat it."

Tober said that the surrounding society influences the development of individual taste, explaining why some foods are very much identified with nations, such as kimchi in Korea or tea in England or potatoes in Ireland. Some ethnic groups eat foods that other ethnic groups sternly reject.

The Chinese government, for example, has asked restaurants not to advertise dishes made with dog meat during the Summer Olympics.

"Taste and preferences are socially shaped," Tober said. "They are not as individual as people think."

Globalization has broken down some barriers and introduced people to new foods.

"In a town the size of Charlottesville, you can easily get Chinese, Ethiopian, Thai and Mexican food," she said. American tastes are likewise exported: A recent New York Times article detailed France's developing taste for hamburgers.

In her course, Tober examines food taboos, the politics of food and eating, food and gender, and the family meal, which was the topic of her 2007 master's thesis. Tober is currently researching the sociology of memory, especially in Ireland, where the Potato Famine plays a large role in Irish national identity.

A chance remark by the late U.Va. sociology professor Steven L. Nock launched Tober onto the sociology of food.

"It was just a throwaway line, but he questioned how much we would know about a family if we knew how often they ate together," she said.

Despite modern mythology, Tober said national studies show families have dinner together an average of five days a week.

Tober's class, which is full with 24 students, is fairly well divided by ethnicity, with 17 females. Each student might bring in food for one session, and they may go to a restaurant as a group.

Tober, a native of Buffalo, N.Y., enjoys cooking meat-and-potato comfort foods at home and has worked in the restaurant industry for many years. She plans to finish her Ph.D. within three years.