5 Things @TCUSchieffer: What Makes Holiday Food the Best of the Year

A table full of Thanksgiving food, including turkey, yams and decorative pumpkins.

With the holiday season upon us, the discourse around food becomes commonplace as families and friends converse about and over meals. Based on her Food, Culture and Comm course, we spoke with Debi Iba, Ph.D., about how food is both a product of culture and a culture producer. From our conversation, we came up with five things to think about this holiday season as you enjoy your favorite holiday dish.

1. The way that culture and food intersect is called “Foodways.”

Food can be studied across disciplines, making it an inherently interdisciplinary topic. Foodways is the study of how cultures have historically viewed, accessed and used food. From a communication perspective, it looks at how meaning is attributed to these different facets of food and culture, such as the types of foods, the act of eating, etc.

2. Holiday foods influence who we are and want to be.

“We eat what we are exposed to,” Iba explained. “Historically, we eat what we have access to.” Sitting down for a Thanksgiving meal looks a little different across cultures and, at the micro level, families. Each person has a cultural idea of what they eat for certain holiday foods based on what has been done before. Some people in Texas include tamales as part of their traditional holiday meal. Others do away with the turkey altogether and eat ham. But people get passionate about what they consider to be “their” holiday foods. In this way, foods are identity-making and identity-affirming.

3. Enjoyment of holiday foods is more about the feelings they invoke.

The secret ingredient is love (and a little bit of cinnamon). Often, people will talk about their favorite holiday foods and how the food relates to them. Students in Iba’s class discussed how their favorite or comfort foods had less to do with how the it tasted and more with what it represented. It wasn’t just about eating pecan pie; it was about eating mom’s pecan pie or a cherished family recipe. The idea of comfort or joy came from who made it or what it represented in the holiday meal.

4. Holiday foods build community.

Commensality is the act of eating together or coming together over a meal. In food studies, the idea of commensality is fundamental as food becomes both a method of communication and a strategy for how communication takes place. Food and celebrations are tightly linked. The act of eating is an integral part of our culture, as well as our biological needs. Everyone must eat, why don’t we eat together? People often travel over distances or for occasions to see family and friends and food as an extension of that meeting.

5. Holiday foods help cultures transcend physical borders.

Historically, food has been used to integrate outsiders into a culture. Throughout history, there has been food diaspora, when a particular culture has been displaced outside its traditional homelands. For example, Iba explained that when people first arrived in the United States in the early 20th century, one of the markings of being “American” was the food you ate. This concept of the “New England Kitchen” taught immigrants how to cook correctly or how to create a meal to teach immigrants how to be “good moral citizens.” However, it backfired. Food diasporas show us that no matter how much a culture has been displaced, they will not give up their food as an expression of their culture. For these displaced cultures, food becomes one of the primary ways to connect regardless of their physical space. It is all about how we think about where we belong.

Happy holidays from Schieffer College!