Foodways: When food meets culture and history

Food traditions that have been passed through your family are more than just recipes – they’re windows into the culture and history of those who came before you.

Many people are pulling out or searching for family recipes during this time of year for holiday celebrations. We all appreciate the role the special foods have in our Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or New Year’s celebrations no matter how long those traditions have flourished. These foods help to connect us to a culture or history that has been handed down for generations. The intersection of food with culture and history is understood through the study of “foodways.” But it is not just those traditions around the holidays – all of the activities associated with food in our daily lives make up foodways.

According to the 4-H Folkpatterns series developed by the Michigan State University Museum and Michigan State University Extension 4-H Programs, foodways are “all of the traditional activities, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors associated with the food in your daily life. Foodways include customs of food production, preservation, preparation, presentation, gathering, marketing (both buying and selling), uses of food products other than for eating and food folklore.”

In many religions and cultures, certain foods are gathered and prepared in the same way for each celebration or at specific times of year. These traditions may be written down or shared through oral history. Whether those traditions involve potato latkes for Hanukkah or leaving cookies out for Santa Claus, we can gain a better understanding of the people who prepared and ate that food during similar celebrations throughout time. Foodways connect people to a geographic region, a climate, a period of time, an ethnic or religious group, and a family.

New foodways are being created or revived all the time. There is a renewed interest in canning and preserving as a result of foodways being rediscovered. Considering how foodways are alive in your life can help create an appreciation for the role and importance that food plays in our lives.

To learn more about foodways, the Michigan State University Museum has a wide variety of collected cookbooks and cooking tools in their permanent collection, and much of it can be viewed online. In the coming months, more foodways will be explored in articles from Michigan State University Extension.