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 finding the little nuances of various cultures – the ones that are easily missed. 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 has 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. I happened to witness something seemingly insignificant at first, something that has stuck with me since the trip.
Whilst in the city, we went out one morning for dim sum; a very traditional Sunday ritual among Chinese families. At the restaurant, heaving with multi-generational crowds, 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 spotted a table of eight, white-haired elders, along with one very small little boy, no older than two; his jet black hair sticking out in contrast. The boy sat on the lap of one of the ladies, who 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 dumpling 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 themselves, 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 many grandparents play in Chinese culture.
As my Chinese step-mother-in-law has often pointed out to me, grandparents often have a very direct, hands-on role in rearing and raising grandchildren, especially if the parents need to return to their full time work to support the family. What I observed as something special or unusual this particular Sunday morning, might have in fact been just another ordinary day for that family. What an interesting and beautifully 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, my grandmother talked about food at every possible opportunity. What we ate, how we ate it, how she prepared it, how her mother used to prepare it, and who we ate with were all core topics of any family gathering. Since then I have concluded that how we eat, no matter the circumstance, gives insight into just about everything. From how we treat our elders to how autonomous we believe children to be. Gender roles and perceptions are immediately flagged up by observing who is responsible for hosting, serving or clearing a family meal. We can gain insight into the socio-economic status of a family or community by what foods are served- there are signs that point to it all. From our religion to our exposure to other ‘outside’ cultures to our feelings about our own bodies…how we sit down to eat together (or why we don’t) gives us insight into EVERYTHING. So next time you sit down to a meal, put away the smart phone or newspaper. You might be surprised by what you can actually see when you really look.