If you have any interest in food studies or food history in the United States, you will find the term “foodways” popping up all over the place.  There are books on the foodways of here, there, and everywhere, the most venerable academic food history journal is called Food and Foodways, and the annual meeting of the Southern Foodways Alliance draw hundreds of people.

So what are foodways? And where does the word come from? And why is it so commonly used in the United States and so rarely used in Europe?

This is the first in an intermittent series of short essays on words commonly used in the study of food. They’re more than a bit nerdy, I warn you, but I hope useful to other scholars wondering what vocabulary to adopt, and what they are buying into when they do.

Others coming up: food system, food chain, core and peripheral foods, cuisine, and gastronomy (I hope).


‘Foodways’ or ‘food habits?’ 1920s to 1940s

In the 1920s and 1930s, largely under the auspices of the United States Department of Agriculture, agricultural scientists and rural sociologists undertook various studies of “food habits,” usually of the rural poor, with an eye to changing them.  Parallel laboratory studies were carried out by psychologists.

With World War II looming, these efforts increased.  Those with information to share about different food habits were urged to contact the anthropologist, Margaret Mead, better known for her now-much-controverted Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), at the National Research Council.

Among those carrying out studies on ‘food habits’ with the support of the USDA were three University of Chicago Ph.D  students, foremost among them John W. Bennett (later to found the Anthropology Department at Washington University).

Off went Bennett and his two companions went off to the “bottomlands” of Southern Illinois, the fertile but frequently flooded area around the Mississippi.

In the bottomlands, they investigated three ethnic groups that they identified as Original American (Anglo in this case, not native American), German, and Negro.

These groups were as strange to them as the Bemba people of Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia) were to the British anthropologist Audrey Richards, whose work Land Labor and Diet in Northern Rhodesia: An Economic Study of the Bemba Tribe (1938), the three young men greatly admired.

Original Americans, Germans, and Negros all existed largely on white bread, pork, and potatoes. And their food habits seemed irrational, rejecting plentiful, inexpensive, and nutritious food such as fish.

Seemingly taken aback at this, the three argued:

“The illusion of and ‘economic man,’ searching out the most obscure foodstuffs from an unwilling Nature in the reasoned pursuit of complete fulfillment of his needs, must give way to the concept of a man conditioned by the preferences and prejudices of his neighbors, selecting only those foods sanctioned by the ‘culture.’”*

If the ethnic groups changed their food habits at all, it was to higher status foods. That is, food habits changed for cultural, not for economic or nutritional reasons.

Presumably this is why Bennett et al. dropped the term food habits and substituted foodways.

Foodways, which the trio did not define, presumably was intended to parallel or be a special case of folkways. Folkways, although coined in 1846 by the English scholar, William Thoms as an alternative to ‘popular’ literature or customs, gained currency in the United States following the publication in 1906 of Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals. The author, the pioneering social scientist, William Graham Sumner of Yale University, believed that societies, like species, evolved by natural selection.  Folkways, he explained, were established by use, not reason. Resistant to change, folkways were not easily altered by government intervention.

Likewise, foodways were not likely to change in response to well-meaning bureaucratic explanations of economic or nutritional benefits, concluded Bennett et al.  To change foodways, you first had to change the culture. A lesson that not all food activists have entirely internalized, by the by.

Foodways in folklife research 1970s—

The term foodways lay dormant for a generation.  It had a new lease of life in the late 1960s and 1970s, in folklife research.

In 1967, the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival began its long career. Although originally focussed on music, within three or four years’ food came to play a prominent role. Its website describes it as a “national and international model of a research-based presentation of contemporary living cultural traditions” and credits it with helping spawn the 2003 UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage initiative, of which food has also been an important part.

In 1976, on the occasion of the United States Bicentennial, the US Congress passed the American Folklife Preservation Act (P.L. 94-201).

As far as food was concerned, one of the most active folklorists was Jay Anderson, who defined foodways as “the whole interrelated system of food conceptualization, procurement, distribution, preservation, and consumption shared by all members of a particular group.” Here’s Jay Anderson talking about “Folk Cookery to Foodways.”

A shining example of the collection of foodways that resulted is The Minnesota Ethnic Food Book (1986) by Anne R. Kaplan, Marjorie A. Hoover, and Willard B. Moore. (1986).

Edit. A later spinoff was the foundation in 1990 of the Oldways Preservation Trust which aimed to inspire “good health through cultural food traditions.”

Anthropologists such as Sidney Mintz and E.N. Anderson did not, so far as I can see, adopt the term foodways, but used phrases such as food anthropology.

Foodways beyond folklife, 1980s—

In 1984, Steven Kaplan, professor of history at Cornell and esteemed historian of bread and politics in France, established the Food and Foodways, now at any rate subtitled Explorations in the History and Culture of Human Nourishment.  Nancy Jenkins used it as a starting point for an essay  in the New York Times in 1984 on the growing interest in and status of food history.

Around the same time, another mainstream historian who adopted the term ‘foodways’ was David Hackett Fisher in his Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (1989), including a very strange section of foodways. He acknowledged but distanced himself from Sumner arguing that folkways were cultural artifacts, often “the deliberate contrivance of a cultural elite.”

It’s not clear that Fisher’s book had much impact on the growing interest in foodways, increasing defined broadly and descriptively. Foodways, according to Kaplan’s associate, and now editor of the journal, Carol Counihan are “the beliefs and behavior surrounding the production, distribution, and consumption of food.”

Counihan’s definition is echoed by Elizabeth Englehardt, professor of Southern Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in  says in The Larder: Food Studies Methods from the American South, published by the Southern Foodways Alliance in 2013.  Foodways, she says, deals with “the study of what we eat, how we eat, and what it means.”

What do foodways studies look like today?

In general, because there are many exceptions, I’d say

  1. Most investigate contemporary groups
  2. The groups studied still tend to be rural and/or poor and in any case outside mainstream middle class America
  3. Investigators emphasize persistence, and although all acknowledge that foodways change, how when and why they change is rarely the centerpiece of the investigation.
  4. Most investigators do not try to generalize from their particular cases
  5. Similarly, most do not apply theoretical frameworks to their investigation

Personal reflections on foodways as a term

Without knowing the origin of the term foodways, I have always avoided it, in part because it did not seem to offer insight into why human food habits are so highly organized, in part because I am more interested in change than in long-term persistence of food habits.

Now that I know more about the origin of foodways, I still do not warm up to the term because for me it carries odd and unsettling memories.

As a child, my family were on the outer fringes of the ‘folk movement’ in 1950s Britain, so I was taken to folk music events. I adored the dancing but always felt slightly uncomfortable.

In retrospect, perhaps this was because I could not link the earnest sandal-shod participants with their handmade recorders with the ‘folk’ who worked on our farm.

The farm workers, ‘folk’ by any reasonable definition, liked to sit at home listening to Vera Lynn sing “We’ll meet again, don’t know where don’t know when” on the radio. Or, if they were younger, to join others on a ‘mystery tour’ put on by a local bus company, ending up at a dance hall where they could flirt and “rock around the clock tonight” to the exciting American music of Bill Haley or “love me tender” with Elvis.

The turn to the ‘folk,’ after all, has a long and complex and not always happy history in Europe. It might involve a search for national origins, as, to take an example I was working on recently, goulash came to respectability as a Hungarian folk dish in protest at the over-arching Austro-Hungarian Empire. Or it might simply be a love for Morris dancing, such as the father of one of my school mates had.  Or it might involve romantic attempts to return to some rural past, as Rolf Gardiner, who lived just fifteen miles away over the Wiltshire downs from where I grew up, attempted to do, tangling unhappily with Nazi movements.  So this left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

I prefer my grown up reasons. After all, folklore also has a perfectly respectable past and present, and for those who want to use it to describe their perfectly legitimate kinds of interest in and investigations into food, fine. It’s just that foodways does not fit with my particular interests in food.**

Edit.  On further mulling this over, I realize that I overstate this. My first book on food, The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Cultural Heritage (1996), which I researched in the late 1980s and early 1990s was, in fact, a culinary ethnography or foodways study.


*John W. Bennett, Harvey L. Smith, and Herbert Passin, “Food and Culture in Southern Illinois–A Preliminary Report,” American Sociological Review 7, no. 5 (October 1942): 645; John W. Bennett, “An Interpretation of the Scope and Implications of Social Scientific Research in Human Subsistence,” American Anthropologist 48, no. 4 (1946): 553–573.

**As I said, foodways is a widely used term. On the other hand, there are plenty who do not use it. ‘Foodways’ does not appear in the index to Warren Belasco’s interdisciplinary introduction Food: The Key Concepts (2008).  Nor does it appear in Writing Food History: A Global Perspective (2012) edited by Kyri W. Claflin, who teaches in the Gastronomy Program at Boston University, and Peter Scholliers, Professor of Contemporary History at the Vrije Universiteit in Brussels, Belgium.





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