Codes, Norms and Beliefs: How the Way We Eat and Drink is Changing – In Conversation with Véronique Pardo

ARENI spoke to Véronique Pardo, food anthropologist and director of France’s Observatoire des habitudes alimentaires (Eating Habits Observatory), where she heads two major programmes on food behaviours, cultures and human/animal relationships.

We discussed with her the values that eaters hold today and how the current crisis has changed some of the foundations of our food systems. How has human food become an object of such moral concern in Western societies? Are the criticisms of meat eating, and the trends towards vegetarian and vegan consumption redefining our food models and our vision of the world? If we are what we eat, what do our Western eating habits say about who we are?

The original conversation was in French and has been translated, condensed and lightly edited for clarity. The original conversation can be accessed in full through our podcast ARENI – In Conversation.

What is anthropology?

Anthropology is a human science which encompasses ‘the whole’, a holistic approach to human beings and to society. We look at man for what he is – an extremely complex human being. It is also a way of looking at the world and of approaching the world. We try to look at any society with an anthropological perspective, even if this society scares us. Anthropology gives us the necessary distance to be able to analyse in detail what is going on, and to understand the ‘why’ behind things; why such values, such systems are in place in one society and not in another.

How do our eating habits and behaviours fall within the scope of anthropology? Why is it interesting to study what and how we eat?

For a long time, talking about food and cooking was a ‘housewives’ issue. But the anthropology of food is, above all, a key to understanding a society. When we study food, we touch the intimacy of the home and the kitchen, but we also touch on what individuals want to transmit with their cooking: A little of themselves, a little of their culture, a little religion too.

“In the withdrawn space of domestic life, far from the noise of the century, we do so because we have always done so. Yet it suffices to travel to see that there we do otherwise, without further trying to explain it, without realizing the deep meanings of differences or preferences, without questioning the coherence of a scale of compatibility (sweet and sour; savoury and sweet) and the validity of a classification of the elements as inedible, disgusting, edible, delectable, delicious. “

Michel de Certeau, The Invention of the Daily.

A society can be understood through these categories of edible, what it puts in its diet, in what it incorporates, what it wants to make its own and what it rejects. We are not interested in the most flashy part of life; we are in the kitchen, in an intimate place, far from the big stories. We are going to look at the totality through little bits that sometimes give more information than the big stories.

Is France as unique in terms of food as we sometimes think?

French society is not the only one to give a lot of importance to its food, fortunately indeed! But in France there is something particular that we have called the French food model; modéle alimentaire francais. It is first and foremost a rhythm. The French food model is, first of all, three meals a day, at very regular schedules, and with a particular organisation within these meals. At three very specific times of the day, at 1 p.m. for example, more than 60% of French people are at the table. In comparison, in the United Kingdom, never more than 17.5% of the British have a meal at the same time.

Within these meals, and especially at lunchtime, the French model is composed of three different parts: Starter, main course, dessert, even if starters often disappear for ordinary meals.

The example of French food trucks is quite striking. Unlike their European counterparts, French food trucks set up and operate during meal times only, not all day as may be the case in the UK. And these food trucks offer a starter-main-dessert formula, thus replicating the typical chronology of a French meal.

Of course, this food syntax changes. It is not sclerotic – but the eating rhythms are stable. France is one of the few countries that stops, collectively, to eat at three key times of the day.

How is food syntax different elsewhere?

In Asia, the food syntax will organise itself between eating inside and eating on the street. We are not going to eat at the same times, the same things or in the same way, depending on whether we are inside or in the street. It’s fascinating to watch how it all comes together.

This notion of syntax and food language is very interesting, especially for wine, a strong cultural product which is identified, above all, by terroir, but which is also exported. How can we combine these two levels of language and national identity, and our need to adapt to a local food culture?

I will give you an example opposite to the world of great wines. McDonalds, country by country, had to adapt to local syntaxes, although their basic strategy was to sell the same everywhere. In the majority of countries, it couldn’t have worked like that. They had to adapt to something that came first: the local food syntax. For me, this shows that there is real dietary diversity which continues, despite globalization.

What are eating habits based on? What are the factors that influence our consumption patterns?

It is a very complex question and sometimes we do not have access to all the explanatory factors, but the main ones are as follows: First, the environmental factors. Where we live, through the filter of what we can grow or not, will anchor deep eating habits, still visible today in the era of globalisation.

Next, it is important to study eating habits from the perspective of generations. In France, for example, there have been so many changes in 40 years that the explanatory factors of 40 years ago are no longer those of today. We can speak of globalisation, but we can also choose to refer to it by opening up to the food of others. It has entered the depths of our eating habits with products, such as exotic fruits, that we did not know before.

The question of price and cost is important. All socio-professional classes do not eat the same thing and this is still true now, in all countries.

The arrival of migrants will also enrich the food repertoire, even if this repertoire is most often readapted and reinterpreted in the host territory.

Religious factors will be more or less important depending on the country, and depending on religious prohibitions. In France, there is a real difference between the relationship to eating pleasure in societies with a Protestant heritage and others with a Latin-Catholic heritage. The relationship with gluttony is different. Societies with a Catholic heritage accept gluttony and sweetness within the strict framework of dessert, which also explains the importance of pastry in France. This heritage influences the way we eat in the very long term, in a very unconscious way.

The nutritional strategy of a society also evolves according to the times, the great moralist currents and the progress of research.

Times Magazine produced these covers decades apart, driven by evolving nutritional strategies and moral trends.
From right to left: Time 1984 cover, Time 1999 cover, Time 2014 cover

So in the end, what does ‘eating well’ mean?

Eating well is a notion that does not exist in absolute terms. It depends on the time and the reference culture. Eating well in the 1950s meant eating a large quantity of meat, and having a high caloric intake, particularly via animal proteins.

Today, eating well means eating a balanced diet, varying your foods and sources of protein.

Eating well tomorrow may exclude certain foods in favour of others or, on the contrary, to rediscover foods that we no longer consume today.

A food culture is necessarily dynamic.

“We are what we eat”. If we are what we eat, what does our current eating pattern say about who we are as a society? What should we conclude from a world where the sign ‘suitable for vegan’ appears on the packaging of a carrot?

Several things. First, that our society is going through a period of strong identification, resulting in the multiplication of signs and labels. We make the packaging of our food carry our fears and our questions, which also means that some consumers do not see the carrot very well. A growing part of the population is cut off completely from the production of our food and needs to be located via packaging.

Without judgment on my part, it also means that there is growing confusion in the consumer’s mind about transformation and ultra-transformation. We no longer know what is transformed and how; we no longer understand all the processes. Thus, during the last five years, we have seen an explosion of explanatory packaging, sometimes to the point of absurdity.

There is growing confusion in the consumer’s mind about transformation and ultra-transformation. We no longer know what is transformed and how; we no longer understand all the processes.

Véronique Pardo, food anthropologist

Finally, it is also part of a great questioning that emerges around the notion of ‘naturalness.’ For example, we confuse vegan and natural, which is not quite the same thing; vegetable steaks are the very illustration of this.

One of the big changes that we also have observed is that eating well is no longer the responsibility of society, of the school which gave you the glass of milk and the piece of chocolate at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. In a way, it made you less responsible for counting calories. The individual now has new responsibilities, which can lead to fear and confusion.

Absolutely. We are a time where, for both food and morality, many consumers are searching by themselves, and are redefining the notion of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ when it comes to food.

What are the major trends, influences, or moral currents that will impact our consumption patterns in the future?

The pandemic has exacerbated trends that we saw slowly emerging before: A turn towards the local; traceability, with the need to know the origin of the product; the search for the natural and healthy, which we now see for the majority of social classes, which only concerned a minority of eaters before Covid.

We are moving towards a trend where all that is natural is healthy, all that is local is healthy. We are seeing the arrival of food trends that include the notion of ‘purity’, of purified food. All of these words are strong ideologically and politically. The corollary is that anything that comes from afar is not healthy, or is seen as dangerous. These trends are very interesting to observe for what we will be tomorrow, what we will eat tomorrow and what we want to become.

“We are moving towards a trend where all that is natural is healthy, all that is local is healthy. We are seeing the arrival of food trends that include the notion of ‘purity’, of purified food. All of these words are strong ideologically and politically.”

Véronique Pardo, Food Anthropolist

The decline in out-of-home catering has also led to changes in food preparation habits. In France, as in Europe, we have observed a return to basic products (sugar, butter, milk, flour, meat, unprocessed fruits and vegetables) to be cooked and processed at home. This trend has continued between the different lockdowns, but it is still too early to say whether this is a structural or cyclical change.

The economic question is also very important for the food of tomorrow. The health crisis has generated an increase in the number of poor people in the sense of appeals for food aid. In Europe, there are a growing number of people who resort to food aid for food, and it is not known to what extent this will last.

For wine, it seems to me that we are at an interesting crossroads. Wine is made of alcohol, but it is also a very strong cultural and social product. Our society is facing a crucial choice and must decide what will take precedence in this rise of purity and the healthy: The promotion of health through abstinence, or the celebration of culture and the importance of joy.

Meat is in the same situation. We are at an interesting crossroads: Meat seen as a healthy product because it brings flavour and satiety, or meat seen as evil because animal death is seen as impure. This debate between new morality and pleasure/culture – that’s a real choice for society. The answers are likely to be very different from one society to another.

This debate between new morality and pleasure/culture – that’s a real choice for society. The answers are likely to be very different from one society to another.

Véronique Pardo, Food Anthropologist

We also observe that we have moved from the notion of society to the notion of community. Does this have an impact on the evolution of our eating habits and on the language of food?

Absolutely, we also see the rise of this notion of community, with the great relative question of the inclusiveness or exclusivity of these communities. Because ultimately what is community? The community is a reassuring “between us”.

Whether this ‘between us’ is made up of five people – as defined by a region, a country or a subculture – ultimately what matters is that this ‘between us’ is always more reassuring than ‘the other’.

There is a real question today on how the transition from our community to that of our neighbour will be managed, the communities around us being more and more numerous, some very closed and others much more open.

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