Q&A: Rebecca Rupp On How Food Shapes Society

Nov 26, 2014

Award-winning author and food historian Rebecca Rupp has written more than 20 books and published over 200 articles. Rupp lives in northern Vermont and recently published an article online for National Geographic Food called Eat, Drink and Be Merry. It examines the cultural significance of food and its power to bring people together.

Vermont Edition sat down with Rupp to talk about her new article and the historical importance of food.


Jane Lindholm: You write that humans are unique in the animal kingdom for how we’ve placed food on a pedestal, not just as sustenance, but as something that is a way to bond and to create culture. Why do you think that is?

Rebecca Rupp: Actually, I think food is fascinating in that it is social glue for us. We feed our pets in the morning and they will eat side by side and eat out of the same bowl, but we don’t get any of this eye-to-eye contact and chat like you get with people sitting around a dinner table.

"We're the only species that seems to have this communal, cultural and social relationship to our meals and I find that fascinating. Where did that come from?" - Rebecca Rupp, author and food historian

We’re the only species that seems to have this communal, cultural, social relationship to our meals and I find that fascinating. Where did that come from? Clearly, evolutionarily, it started early. We have hearths that date back hundreds of thousands – if not pushing two million years old, where clearly people were sitting around sharing food.

How do you think this has helped to develop human society? Is it significant to how we’ve developed?

I think so. Some anthropologists guess that everything we are may have come out of our habit of sitting down together at dinner, including kinship systems, ethics and a sense of right and wrong. You came home and divided up the food. There must have been some social jockeying to that. Technology. Passing around ideas at the hearthside.

You site studies that show children get better grades, they have better vocabularies, and teenagers are more likely to like their parents when they live in families who share meals. You take pains to point out that of course there are other factors at play here, but in families where shared meals are a part of the ritual, children seem to fare better and adults are healthier.

Basically, when you eat together, you tend to eat better. But there are also a lot of social and psychological benefits to sitting down for a shared meal. This isn’t to say that if you’ve got a wildly dysfunctional family, and you’re flinging plates at each other, just because you sit down and share a chicken potpie, it’s not going to solve all the problems. But usually, families that have the sorts of values and traditions that lead to home cooking and shared meals get a lot of benefits out of this kind of interaction. More communication. The kids learn better table manners. You bond and get to know each other better. And so the idea of the family meal has a lot more going for it than just vitamins and minerals.

"About 30 percent of American families claim that they eat dinner together every single night and I think its something like 50 percent say they get at least four meals together each week. So, we're still getting some benefits from family meals; we haven't completely fallen apart."

You also site that one out of five Americans now eats at least one meal in the car?

Right.

And one out of four is eating a fast food meal every day?

Absolutely. We’ve come a long way from the "everybody around the table every night" era of Leave it to Beaver. But still, about 30 percent of American families claim that they eat dinner together every single night, and I think its something like 50 percent say they get at least four meals together each week. So, we’re still getting some benefits from family meals; we haven’t completely fallen apart.

There are a lot of reasons for not being able to share meals. For example, families consisting of two working parents may not get home in time to cook meals and have everyone sitting around the table. But, there may be socio-economic benefits for that family that they wouldn’t be getting if they were in a position to share a meal each day. Do you think we’re losing something if we’re not having these shared, home-cooked meals?

I think the shared, home-cooked meals are wonderful, but there are zillions of other ways in which families become close to each other and communicate with each other. It doesn’t have to be a meal. Maybe it’s sitting around a bedtime story or family trips. But it’s amazing how much human social interaction has to do with food. One of our first instincts when you’re meeting somebody is “Let’s go out for coffee,” or “Let’s go out for a drink.” First date: "Let's go for dinner." So, food seems to be a common denominator that connects a lot of things.

"White bread used to be what you wanted to have on the upper class table. It showed that you were really wealthy. And now, artisanal brown bread is the status symbol and white, sliced bread is the peanut butter and jelly sandwich of the lower socio-economic groups."

In this piece for National Geographic, you write about food being a status symbol and a sign of wealth. There used to be a sense that eating meat was a sign of wealth. These days, local organic vegetables are a sign of status when meat is available cheaply at fast food restaurants.

Think of bread. White bread used to be what you wanted to have on the upper class table. It showed that you were really wealthy. And now, artisanal brown bread is the status symbol and white, sliced bread is the peanut butter and jelly sandwich of the lower socio-economic groups.

With fresh garden vegetables, certainly the idea was, if you bought your stuff from the store, you were wealthier than people who had to grub their potatoes from the back yard. Now, your very own organic potatoes are a plus.

Is it helpful at all to have a sense of the past when we look to our food traditions of today?

I personally find it fascinating just to the see the progression through time of how eating has changed, and how table manners have changed and how the way we approach eating has changed, especially when you think about how formal dinners used to be.

"I personally find it fascinating just to the see the progression over time of how eating has changed, how table manners have changed and how the way we approach eating has changed, especially when you think about how formal dinners used to be."

For example, in the Medieval period, eating was completely hierarchical. Where you sat was almost equivalent to sitting in alphabetical order in a classroom today, except by rank. And on Medieval tables, there was a salt cellar that was placed in the middle of the table, which wasn’t a small saltcellar. Often, these were massive, aquarium-sized things with gold, jewels, sculptures, and a little bowl for salt. Anyone who was above the salt was in, and anyone who was below the salt was servant class and out.

What do you think about as you prepare for Thanksgiving?

I think, “Oh good heavens, I hope nothing goes wrong this year.” There’s always a catastrophe.

What do you cook?

We’re fairly modern/traditional. We do turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes.

How similar is that to the original first Thanksgiving?

Rupp says the first Thanksgiving most likely consisted of venison, corn meal mush, foul and fish.
Credit Library of Congress

Not particularly. I think if we were all doing a traditional Thanksgiving, we’d be dining on venison and corn meal mush. There isn't a whole lot that’s written about what was eaten at the first Thanksgiving. There is a record that says some men went out fowling a couple of days before the feast, but not what they brought back. So, it was probably ducks, geese, swans, and probably passenger pigeons. In the 1620s, passenger pigeons were still thick in the air. Maybe some wild turkeys, but they didn’t make a big deal of it.

Turkey was not the centerpiece.

No. And cranberries were probably not very high on anybody’s list. The Wampanoag Indians had them and usually served them up in pemmican, which would have been dried venison fat and pounded cranberries. Cranberries all on their lonesome, as we all know, are pretty tongue curdling, sour and unpleasant berries. So, the Pilgrims probably didn’t really enjoy cranberries for another twenty years, when they got a source of sugar and honey.

You also write that probably some shellfish was involved. Lobsters, perhaps mussels, which we don’t tend to see on typical Thanksgiving plates these days.

No we don’t, and never eels. I’ve never been to a Thanksgiving dinner that served eels.

Are there different Thanksgiving food traditions in different parts of the country that you know about?

"For us, food is communication, it's friendship, it's connection, and I think we need that. I think we'll always appreciate that."

I think there are many different Thanksgiving traditions. I know there’s a sauerkraut tradition in Pennsylvania, which I learned from my husband.

You mentioned earlier that people are still making an effort to still have some family meals together. You started your article by saying that this is a feature that is unique to humans, it’s a part of human evolution and it’s a part of human culture. Is it going to go away ever?

I would say no. I cannot imagine that we will ever, even if it’s available to us, be happy with gulping one capsule [for a] meal. That’s just not us. For us, food is communication, it’s friendship, it’s connection, and I think we need that. I think we’ll always appreciate that.

You can read Rupp’s latest article Eat, Drink and be Merry online at National Geographic Food.