Have Humans Become Disconnected from Food: from Eating Together to Eating Solo?
My personal food journey began at nine months, whilst I was living in a Chinese orphanage. It was a time in my life where I experienced real hunger, a deprivation of nourishment; where rice and formula bottles were my only source of sustenance. The room I was in, was filled with metal cribs and other hungry babies. For all of us, eating was first and foremost a biological function, we ate to live and survive. Luckily, I was fortunate enough to survive and adopted by Dutch parents. Changing my environment from a lack of food to one with an abundance of food was an overwhelming sensation for both my me. My basic instinct was to eat and not stop, I was overprotective of my meals and refused to share my food. I was afraid that if I did not stop eating, I would have to go without food again. Food was and is my security.
According to sociologist Georg Simmel, “of everything people have in common, the most common is that they must eat and drink (Symons, 1994).” When humans eat and drink, it is considered a highly self-centred and individualistic act because for every item they consume, they are physically taking it away from another human being. “The exclusive selfishness of eating” conveys that individuals inherently cannot share food. But, beyond this basic biology, humans have found a higher ground in which they can share a common meal, thereby enhancing the collective and social experience (Fischler, 2011).
Commensality and Hunter-Gatherers
Commensality refers to the social practice of eating together. This food concept originates from the time of early humans. The hunter-gatherers established commensality and conviviality (amiability) through the combination of food, fire and social interaction (Lanchester, 2017). During these gatherings, social bonding, shared understandings and the basics of primordial communication were developed (BCFN, 2009). Anthropologist Levi Strauss believed that cooking by means of domesticated fire was “the invention that made human beings human (Ibid)” and fire gave them the power to eat rather than be eaten.
Hunter-gatherers were mostly preoccupied with hunting, foraging, and gathering their food. At this point in time, human beings were most connected to their food; from collection to consumption they were very conscious of their food activities and subsistence lifestyles (Dunbar, 2017; Lanchester, 2017). Fast forward several thousands of years and what has sustained throughout the years was commensality. The social act of eating transpired across continents and cultures into many different forms: from rituals to religious ceremonies, special holidays and celebrations, small or large gatherings, eating alone but together and the regular family meal.
Nevertheless, the second half of the 20th century showed a steadying decline in the conventional sit-down meal, whilst trends such as individualism and solo dining were increasing. The notion of eating alone goes against our very nature as social human beings, but it appears that this trend is gaining traction. However, will the rise of solo eating affect the social fabric of commensality? Have humans really disconnected from food, and if so can they reconnect? These are themes I hope to explore in this blog.
Benefits of Eating Together
A great deal of literature has been published on the benefits of commensality and the traditional family meal. For many families the family meal is sacred occasion, where the whole family sits down to reflect upon the week and celebrate the Friday Night Shabbat (Dillon, 2017). Alternatively, it is a daily ritual, the one meal a day that everyone gathers around the kitchen, exchanging food and stories (Marson, 2016).
The family dinner is a symbol of shared life within a household (Fieldhouse, 2015). Studies have shown that a predictable structure and a daily rhythm has positive effects on the children; eating together strengthens family bonds, it encourages communication skills, mindful eating and prevents overconsumption. Children who regularly engage in family meals are often less troubled, less likely to be overweight and have a higher academic record (Fieldhouse, 2015; Delistraty, 2014). This is something I can confirm in my own environment, my childhood friends from broken homes often lacked the social cohesiveness of the family meal and regularly came to my house to partake in the unspoken ritual.
Demise of Dinner Table
The slow demise of the dinner table and its representation started in the early 1950s, with the inception of the first fast food restaurant: McDonalds (BCFN, 2009). Unknowingly, Ray Kroc launched a restaurant revolution, the opening of McDonalds introduced speed and efficiency through the hamburger assembly line, it transformed the way consumers ate their food (quickly, with their hands and from the comfort of their car) and planted the seeds for obesity in years to come. Moreover, it became the symbol of the accelerated globalisation and spread of American fast food culture, as restaurant franchises swept across transnational borders and established their golden arches (Ibid). By 1974, the first McDonalds had opened in the United Kingdom (BCFN, 2012).
Before women entered the labour market, women were the face of domesticity, the idyllic housewife who cooked, cleaned and cared for the children. Around the 1960s the female emancipation movement in the United States had been well on its way; women were donning their aprons in exchange for work attire (McCafferty, 2019). By entering the workforce and leaving the domestic household, this meant less time was available for household chores. As women were liberated from the moral obligation of cooking for the family, American food companies profited from this situation by inserting their pre-prepared (frozen) meals (Pollan, 2007). As a direct response to the new concept of time-poverty for women. The Dutch newspaper NRC coined convenience foods as emancipation tools, because it freed-up more time for women to work or demonstrate (Kamsma, 2020).
The aforementioned events coincided with the birth of the modern food industry in the 1970s, which was characterised by new technologies and appliances (the television meets the microwave), the establishment of large chain supermarkets, shifting away from cooking and more towards pre-prepared meals (BCFN, 2009). The television introduced a new method of information transmission and enabled the growth of rampant advertisements targeted to the consumer which provided onset for mass consumerism. Whereas, the microwave epitomised the ultimate luxury but lazy appliance, which facilitated the further declining of cooking (Ibid). The advent of the two new technologies introduced a new mode of consumption, the tv dinners. Eating frozen meals on trays in front of the television, thereby relinquishing any real connection to the meal, food and one’s surroundings.
Convenience foods meant people were no longer tied to a certain location or inanimate object to consume their foods, people could eat whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. Alternative places for eating became the sofa, in the car, on the move or al desko (at the desk) (McCafferty, 2019). The cheap, fast food phenomenon coincided with the ever-increasing fast-paced lifestyles leading to more consumption as well as isolated consumption (Johnson, 2013). According to the Barilla Centre for Nutrition (2009), the absence of a dining table became a metaphor for humans relationship to food and the disconnect between man and food.
The Slow Food Movement
In the midst of rapid developments and fast-paced changes, an Italian group of activists initiated the Slow Food Movement in 1986, as a sign of protest against the opening of a McDonalds in Rome (BCFN, 2012). The demonstration was a deliberate interruption and direct response to the rapid growth of Capitalism. Founder Carlo Petrini did not want Italy to be swept up in the global spread and domination of McDonaldisation, he wanted to preserve the sanctity of Italian food heritage, agriculture, gastronomic traditions and slow-paced lifestyles (BCFN, 2009; Slow Food, 2020). The small grass-root movement gained global momentum and spread across 160 countries in just two decades. Today, Slow Food aims to embrace a comprehensive and sustainable approach to food production, with the inclusion of all relevant stakeholders (Ibid).
Convenience First, Nutrition Second
Food journalist, Michael Pollan stated, that “the current generation do not eat, they feed themselves (BCFN, 2009).” This is a direct allusion to the compromise humans have found between convenience and proper food. Humans eat, copious amounts of empty calories (food) too but they eat mindlessly and without caution (Food Standards Agency, 2016; Nourish Life, 2018). The rapid industrialisation coupled with the growth of the food industry in the latter half of the 20th century meant the introduction of a wide array of convenient food options as alternative methods to cooking: frozen foods, instant foods, home deliveries, take-out, eating out, eating on the go and grazing (snacking in lieu of eating) (Pollan, 2009). Whilst we are eating these alternative foods, we dive into the behind our screens, which disrupts our eating process.
On the one hand, convenience is easy and time-efficient, but too much can be lacking and dissatisfying. One participant from the British Future of Foods study stated that convenience foods are often cheaper than cooking a meal from scratch, which means individuals are unwillingly nudged into making unhealthy food decisions (Food Standards Agency, 2016). On the other hand, convenience also comes at a cost: losing one’s social connection with food, its traceability from farm to fork and lack of awareness of what they are actually consuming (BCFN, 2009).
Reconnecting with Food
Connecting with food can be done at different intervals: production, purchasing, preparation and consumption. Understanding where your food comes from, where and how it is produced are important factors to take into consideration. I listened to a podcast the other day in which a spotlight was shone on the fact that most American children have a very limited knowledge of where their food comes from and believe to be grown in supermarkets. Stephen Ritz, is an urban farmer and South Bronx educator, he mentioned in the podcast that enabling children to see where and how their food is grown, changes their roles from consumers to producers, which gives them a more empowering and educated position (Dillon, 2020).
By removing oneself from the cooking process of the food equation, one foregoes the knowledge of what one is really eating and disconnects themselves from the food (BCFN, 2009). Cooking your own meal, means you are an agent of your actions and you are responsible for the flavours and spices, but it means you have more control over the outcome of your dish. Cooking also has a rewarding element, by sharing food that you have cooked, the product of your labour is always a gratifying feeling and (usually) homecooked food tends to taste infinitely better than pre-prepared or instant foods. Michael Pollan (2009) is encouraging men and women to get back into the kitchen and start cooking. With the availability of online resources (podcasts, videos, tutorials), cookbooks and deliverable food boxes (HelloFresh), cooking has never been easier.
Lastly, I believe the consumption element is also of crucial importance when it refers to connecting with food. Eating food should be a pleasure and an enjoyment, and when possible in the presence of other people. It should not be time-bound nor restrictive in any form, it should not be behind a digital device. I am personally not a religious being, but something I always find compelling is when people express gratitude for the food in front of them. I believe it helps people be more present, thoughtful and aware of their food and personal consumption (Johnson, 2013). In line with this thought, Zen Buddhism advocates mindful eating because appreciating our own food consumption is understanding our unity with nature (Rappoport, 2010).
Rise of Individualism and Complete Foods
As individualism continues to rise, it directly affects commensality: where food is consumed more individually, quickly and conveniently (BCFN, 2012). Individuals are spending less and less time on their food habits, which leads to less preparation and cooking time which results in higher levels of snacking. Alternatively, there are a group of people who are more aware of their food intake and healthy consumption, but they care less for preparation and cooking. Food should be functional, and this is where complete foods such as Huel, Jake and Queal come in (Marson, 2016). Dutch Filmmaker, Mattijs Diederiks conducted an experiment in which he spent a whole year ingesting liquid complete food. The outcome was a documentary called 12 LIQUID MONTHS, which was broadcasted in September. During his journey, he did find his health improved as a result of the shakes, but his ultimate conclusion was that shakes can never entirely replace food (Diederiks, 2020). Being a part of the group is also an aspect of commensality and depriving oneself of solid foods means detaching oneself from the social experience.
Transformation of the Solo Diner
Despite eating alone being considered anti-social, which explains the stigma around it (Fischler, 2011), the concept of solo dining has gained traction in the last few decades. Statistics conveyed that between 2014-2018, solo diners in New York increased by 80%. This conveys that people do want to indulge in good food but not put the effort in preparing it themselves. A few years back a pop-up restaurant in Amsterdam opened called Eenmaal, which only have had space for ten individual covers. The purpose of the restaurant was to showcase the positive aspects of solitary dining and offer customers a refuge from the hyperconnected lifestyles by disconnecting and simply enjoying a delicious meal (Patowary, 2015). A ramen restaurant in Japan is also experimenting with solo dining, they are convinced that eating alone enhances the overall dining experience because you are fully immersed in your food (McCafferty, 2019). Food Inspiration Organisation want to emphasise that a food experience has the ability to be meaningful, even if it not shared with others (Steenbergen and Kong, 2018), food also has the ability for the individual to reconnect with him/herself.
Another form of solo eating is dining alone together. Whilst the number of solo covers have increased, so has the need for shared dining (de Reeuver and de Schepper, 2018). This amalgamation of merging solo dinners into shared experiences, provides an enhanced experience. The Internet is a great tool to facilitate commensality in a new way, introducing food sharing initiatives that brings together locals and the community would help combat the rise of loneliness and foster greater social interactions (Cretella et al., 2019).
Commensality will Survive
The decline of the traditional family meal is disappearing, as family structures change, and people live more fast-paced, individualistic lifestyles. However, this does not mean that the concept of commensality is disappearing, it is simply adapting to the needs and wants of the current generation. Moreover, the onslaught of digitalisation and online activity are also impacting the way people are eating and interacting – in which people are actively seeking digital detoxes, refuge in solo eating or the return of meal-sharing but in the form of Sunday lunches or brunches. All in all, commensality will persevere, it is what innately makes us humans, human.
I started this blog with expressing my early relationship with food and the inability to share food. Fortunately, I have grown up and my socialisation with food amongst my family have helped nurture and develop my relationship with food. One of my biggest joys is cooking for friends and family and partaking in the meal collectively. Being part of the minor has inspired me to pursue a career in which I hope to make a difference for the next generations future of food.
- Meemee Ploem