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Levels and units of analysis

Several levels of units have been chosen in the research on culturally patterned food intake. The food item is the smallest unit of analysis and is the most frequently studied. At other levels of analysis, production and procurement decisions may be focused on, or cultural rule systems for organizing foods into dish complexes may be examined. Such rules are incorporated into recipes or rules of procedure for combining and segregating food items. Finally, the meal and the meal cycle are important levels of cultural rules for organizing food intake.

Menu formats are the patterns for the number and types of dishes to be served at a meal and the rules for presenting them. A cultural food system is composed of cycles of differentiated meal types which punctuate time and activities. This level of analysis is important in the organization of food intake throughout the daily, weekly, and annual cycles. For each of these levels, starting with the food item, we will discuss why the level is important to our understanding of food intake and how it has been studied.

It is important to note that all food systems are not structured in the same way. In some systems, individual food items may indeed be basic units that store and convey meaning, while in other systems dishes or differentiated food events and meal types may be most significant. In some systems, recipes may be open structures allowing "free" substitutions or additions, e.g. the open-ended nature of some stew dishes in North American cuisine. In some cultures, recipes may be rigidly content-specific and rule-bound. The way in which dishes are organized into distinct meal formats varies from system to system.

The way in which a food system stresses recipe rules or format rules influences the regularity and periodicity of food intake as well as the propensity for different types of change. For example, in a system that stresses continuity in rules for preparation, change often occurs through the substitution of one item for another in a standard recipe. An example of this is the substitution of pasta for beans in Mexican one-pot dishes, since pasta is seen as having properties similar to those of beans: it is a dried food that is cooked through boiling (DeWalt, 1979). In other systems, change occurs by adding a whole new format that is used for specific occasions, as when the Chinese of Penang adopted Malaysian curry meals (Anderson and Anderson, 1972). The Chinese food system seems to have strong continuity in food preparation rules, but great flexibility in the food items (vegetables and meats) that accompany the staple in these dish structures (Chang, 1977). Meal-format rules are also very flexible for the Chinese, while European format rules are rigid (Chang, 1977).

Staples, Focal Foods, and Super Foods

The structure of a food system is heavily influenced by the nature of its staples or focal foods. Such foods are those that are eaten frequently and that generally supply a large portion of a people's caloric intake. Staples have been measured in terms of both frequency and the proportion of caloric intake. Nicod (1974), for example, defined a staple as a food that regularly occurs at one or more meals daily. In order to discover the ubiquity of staples, Nicod did a survey of anthropologists to see how many of the cultures they had worked in had a staple. All the anthropologists queried could list one or two such staples, except for one whose cultural unit was a hunting and gathering society.

Hunting and gathering societies' dependent on seasonal availability, often rely on small amounts of a wide variety of foodstuffs. Farmers and herders, producing their own food and living in subsistence-based systems, often rely on a particular crop or group of crops that form a core of staples. Such staples are central to the diet and are imbued with affect and meaning. Often linguistic markers are used to indicate the significance of the core food, for example, the attachment of the generic term "food" to a particular item such as rice in China or anna (cereal) in Hindu gastronomy. Often, a food is present at every meal in a cultural system, for example, bread in the Mediterranean and Middle East region and maize in the agrarian New World. While we tend to associate the notion of staples with cereal or starchy root-crops used in farming societies, herding societies use meat or dairy products as staples. It is not unusual for a staple cereal to be served in different forms throughout the meal cycle, for example, as a beverage, a gruel, or a flat bread, at different food events throughout the daily or weekly cycles.

Staples can be analysed in terms of their frequency, the way they become integral parts of dish and meal structures, or the proportion of caloric intake they account for. It is possible for there to be different degrees of correlation among these measurements.

The movement away from a subsistence-based food-producing system to cash-cropping, market dependency, wage labour and urbanization has also led to a move away from food systems focused on staples. Such transformations lead to an increase in sources of food and types of food available. For many subgroups in such complex systems, there is a shift to a wide variety of foods. In order to deal with such shifts, the concepts of core and periphery were developed.

Core and Periphery

In the 1940s, John Bennett (1942) studied the dietary structure of an agricultural region in southern Illinois, using limited ethnography (a few households were lived in by researchers and observed). Bennett was interested in commonalities within the region and the effect of ecological and economic differences on subgroups. Both direct and open-ended interviews over a three-month period were the basis of data collection. The major instrument was an itembased list for deriving evaluations, prestige rankings, frequency, and preference. The study, therefore, focused on reported information about the frequency of food-item consumption, how prestige and taste preferences were ascribed to particular items, and how the diet had changed recently.

Using report frequency of use (how often an item is consumed), he developed a description of a dietary structure consisting of:

  1. A core composed of subsistence crop staples, consumed frequently.
  2. A secondary core consisting of purchased staples, made necessary by a shift to cash-cropping; these were eaten less frequently but were important in the diet.
  3. A periphery, in which were placed recently available foods, including canned meats, commercial cookies, and occasional luxury items, which were not eaten frequently.

Foods included in the periphery were of several kinds: foods regarded as having prestige value because of their association with urban life and modernity; foods valued because of idiosyncratic personal sensory preferences; foods valued or avoided because of in-group or outgroup associations; and foods used as ceremonial markers for different occasions. Bennett's study combined reported item frequency and evaluation to describe the food system and its variations over time and place.

Table 1.

Food category Core Secondary Peripheral Marginal
Candy Candy/candy bar (variety) - - -
Casseroles Spaghetti and meat sauce      
  Macaroni and cheese      
Cereal products Dry cereal (variety)     Corn (white)
(bakery and non-bakery types) Enriched white bread Hot biscuits Pancake Blueberry muffins
  Toast Cream of wheat   Blueberry turnover
  Corn (yellow)     Hard rolls
  Corn bread     Waffles
  Rice     Fruit cake
  Oatmeal     Honey buns
Cheeses (natural and processed) American cheese      
  Cheddar cheese - - -
Desserts Jello - - -
Eggs Egg - - Baked custard
Fats Shortening - - -
  Butter - - -
Frozen ices Ice cream - - -
Fruit Apple - Fruit cocktail Figs
  Orange     Cherries
  Banana     Dates
  Watermelon (in season)     Blueberries
        Mixed fresh fruit
        Mandarin oranges
        Apricot halves
        Honeydew melon
Jams and jellies Jellies (variety) - - -
Legumes - Green peas Black-eye peas -
      Lima beans  
Lunch meats Lunch meat (variety) - - -
Meats and poultry Bacon (pork) Pork chop Ham Lamb chop
  Ground beef Beef roast Pork spareribs Turkey
  Chicken Chicken Beef liver  
Meat and nut spreads Peanut butter - - Spam spread
Puddings - - - Lemon pudding
        Butterscotch Pudding

Source: Jerome, 1975, pp. 106 108.

Jerome (1975) used a similar strategy to collect reports on food patterning from urban households in Kansas City. She studied 150 households using a pre-coded structured interview of 178 questions, plus a "supermarket simulator" (labels from 223 food items grouped in 35 lay categories, i.e. groupings used in supermarkets). Using her own frequency categories, she described the structure of the diet, both in terms of item frequency and in terms of the informants' statements about the foods. Foods consumed more than two to three times per week by 25 per cent of the households were classified as the core. These tended to be foods referred to in terms such as "common," "regular," and "must have." The secondary core consisted of those consumed once a week by 25 per cent of the households. The comments associated with these items refer to variety, fitting in with weekend or leisure activities. A third segment, the periphery, consisted of foods consumed a few times a month. These were expensive and had special social associations. Finally, a ceremonial, marginal segment consisted of foods eaten rarely, six times a year or less and usually reserved for special occasions like holidays and particular feasts.

Table 1 demonstrates the way items were distributed in several of the 35 lay groupings of food. Jerome hypothesized that the core of this urban American diet was relatively stable and that the periphery was where experimentation with new items and idiosyncratic preferences were significant. These dietary segments were, therefore, related to the process of change (incorporation of new items) in a mass market-based system.

The analyses of Bennett (1942) and Jerome (1975) were both based on data elicited away from actual food preparation and eating activities. They both created views of the diet as a segmented structure, based on reported item frequencies and item evaluations. The "core" of the diet was contrasted to less integral segments, the consumption of which is related to such forces as change in the food supply, individual preferences, prestige associations, and ceremonial occasions.

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