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Big Question: Why do we bond over food?

As we enter the season of feasts and family gatherings, Marquette Magazine posed this question to Dr. Jane Peterson, associate professor of anthropology. Here is her answer.

As humans we hunger for more than food. Meals are about much more than feeding our bodies. Our deeply felt needs for security, happiness and love are essential parts of our relationship with food. This is nothing new.  

Archaeologists can identify evidence for shared meals dating back to the Upper Paleolithic, when Homo sapiens first emerged. By the time groups in the Near East settled into a farming routine nearly 10,000 years ago, meals involving large groups of people and large quantities of food were commonplace. Today, there simply isn't a spot on the globe where people don't gather together over food and drink to celebrate special occasions.  

We feast for a variety of reasons. Sometimes we use special meals to build and maintain political rapport or demonstrate political clout (think State dinners). Cross-culturally, feasts are occasions when key values are communicated and reinforced. Household feasts, like Thanksgiving, resonate with thoughts of family, comfort and hospitality. They are events where we act out what 'home' means to us. Feasts can also be occasions to re-enact our larger, national narratives. As school children we all hear the 'feel-good' story of the Native Americans sharing the fruits of their harvest with the Puritan Pilgrims. It is a story that communicates a spirit of racial harmony and cooperation that aligns with our national rhetoric, even if it falls short of historical fact.  

So why do we bond over food? Why are feasts such an important part of the human experience? The answer to those questions is tied to the power food has to nourish and sustain our bodies, and also the compelling symbolic associations embedded in our food habits. At some level, we all understand the language of food.

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Comment by Peg Fennig at Nov 16 2011 11:02 am
Bonding over food brought back memories of sitting around my family dining room table and talking for hours. My Dad (MU Dent '14) always said that several Sacraments centered around the table. When homes began to be built without dining rooms, he felt that civilization would suffer.
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