Over the last few years, I have found myself becoming more and more interested in the rituals and structures around eating; whether it’s for a specific holiday, daily family life, or comparing the little nuances of various cultures – the ones that are easily missed, when familiar with or a part of a particular community. Anthropologists are nothing if not the ultimate people watchers after all…
Last year, it was these observations that became the foundation of my contribution to the cookbook and cultural guide Hong Kong Diner, and it further encouraged my journey down the path of observation, namely how people gathered around the table, or gathered to prepare a meal.Recently I had the opportunity and pleasure to return to Hong Kong for work, and I happened to witness something seemingly insignificant at first, but one which has stuck with me since the trip.
We were out one Sunday morning for dim sum; a very traditional Sunday ritual amongst Chinese families. At the restaurant, which was heaving with people from different generations, all sharing a meal together (if not also ignoring each other like all families do by propping up their newspapers and pulling out their smartphones) I happened to spot a table of eight or so, all white-haired and clearly in their golden years, along with one very small little boy, no older than two years old- his jet black hair sticking out in contrast. The boy sat on the lap of one of the ladies, I presumed to be his grandmother. ‘Grandma’ and the others at the table would each take turns feeding the boy a spoonful of rice, or a bit of dim sum from their chopsticks, going round and round the table, absentmindedly yet seamlessly doing so as they all chatted and ate. Bite for the baby, several bites for me, etc. Within this group I couldn’t spot anyone who stuck out as splitting the difference in ages and could be assumed to be a parent, just grandparents (or grandparent-like people) and grandchild. By watching them all eat and enjoy each others company I thought about how this seemingly insignificant example really highlighted the role that grandparents play in Chinese culture.
As my step-mother-in-law (who is Chinese herself) has often pointed out to me, in Chinese culture grandparents often have a very direct, very hands on role when it comes to rearing and raising grandchildren, especially if the parents need to return to their full time work in order to support the family. What I observed as something special or unusual in this instance might have in fact been just another ordinary day for that family. What an interestingly mundane occasion to have witnessed.
What I wouldn’t give to be able to take such a view on my own daily activities and rituals, especially when it comes to those surrounding food. Growing up in a Jewish household, with a grandmother who talked about food at every possible opportunity, what we ate, how we ate it, or who we ate it with was at the core of any family gathering, as well as daily life. That said, I don’t think food’s importance in our family is necessarily pinned to being Jewish, as the same can be said throughout households from a host of backgrounds. How we eat, no matter the circumstance, gives insight into just about everything; from how we treat our elders, how autonomous we believe our children are (can they serve themselves or choose what they eat?), who is responsible for hosting, serving or clearing a family meal, what our socio-economic status might be, our religion, our exposure to other cultures, our feelings on our own bodies, what societal rules are placed around the formality in which we eat. How we sit down to eat together (or why we don’t) gives us insight into EVERYTHING.
In fact, I am becoming so obsessed with this topic that I might turn this into the ultimate social experiment, and become that seemingly awkward table for one out in public with a glass of wine, a good stare down and my notebook; participating in my favourite pastime… watching, writing, and thinking about food.