How would you define a good lunch? Some of us might say a healthy kale salad, others a delicious burrito, while some may point to the locally raised beef in their burger. But in Martha Sif Karrebæk’s experience, such a question crystallizes the way that language and culture add layers of meaning to what’s on the plate. It’s not just what food we eat that matters, but how we talk about it.

A linguistic ethnographer at the University of Copenhagen, Karrebæk became interested in food while studying language use in a kindergarten classroom. She was struck when the Danish teacher asked an immigrant student what was in his lunchbox. The implication, Karrebæk says, was that the boy’s flatbread wrap wasn’t a “good” lunch because it wasn’t a traditional Danish one featuring rye bread.

The divisive immigration debate that has been in the headlines across Europe in recent years had leached into the everyday talk about a school lunch. And that isn’t a surprise, say Karrebæk and fellow linguistic anthropologists Kathleen Riley of Rutgers University, and Jillian Cavanaugh of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University New York. Food and the conversation around it are key signifiers of culture, identity and politics, they say.

The three recently considered the research on food and language in the Annual Review of Anthropology. Some American parents, they write, “engage in intense negotiations over sweets and desserts, which are presumed to be (and perhaps therefore become) children’s preferred foods.” In France, studies show, children are taught to critique food; in Sweden, it’s important that “all family members eat the same food” as a symbol of egalitarianism; in non-Western nations such as Java, meals may offer a no-talk zone.

Recently, the three researchers discussed their work and why they believe that talk about food reflects global debates on public health, the environment, and individual and cultural values. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you become interested in language and food?

Martha Sif Karrebæk: I did field work in a Danish kindergarten, looking at whether immigrant children brought other languages to school and how teachers and students engaged in language socialization. I noticed particularly how one teacher saw food as an important area of socialization, which she would use to introduce and enforce particular traditional norms.

In Denmark, children usually bring food from home to schools, and this meeting of school and home norms may be difficult for children, particularly if their norms aren’t in accordance with traditional Danish culture. Over the course of the year, the children were explicitly told to bring rye bread for lunch. If they didn’t, their teachers called their lunch unhealthy.

It had less to do with health as such and more with conforming to a standard. Danes know rye bread to be a special Danish type of food, but many don’t recognize their bias and that other people may not share the idea that rye bread is the best alternative for lunch.

It can be damaging when people don’t recognize there are other equally good ways to practice moral behavior — in this case, eating healthily.

Kathleen and Jillian, what about you? How did you start studying how people talk about food?

Kathleen Riley: I was supposed to be studying Marquesas culture in French Polynesia and how people spoke French. I assumed I’d record the Marquesans sitting around at mealtimes, but that didn’t happen. Instead, I followed them around as they gathered and cooked food.

Then I was involved in farm-to-school projects getting healthy food into schools, and I became interested in how children are fed messages about food. When people of a certain socioeconomic class are told their food is “bad,” the message is that they’re bad people with bad values. It’s a way that powerful people make others feel stigmatized. I realized that to have an impact on health, you have to make messages around food appealing, non-judgmental and positive.

Jillian Cavanaugh: My first research project was in the Italian town of Bergamo, looking at how attached people were to the local language, which some call a dialect but that I view as a distinct language. I was interested in how the people stayed connected to their past while still being modern. It turned out to be really complicated. Food is another way people do this.

How do the ways in which we talk about food help shape our values and understanding of the world?

MSK: I’m finishing a paper on the changing meanings of pork and pig in Denmark, which is a good example of this. Pork is a traditional food in Denmark and in the last 10 years or so, it’s become associated with a type of banal nationalism, an explicit sign of Danishness.

Some years ago, some preschools decided to remove pork from their menus in what was seen as a response to globalization and immigration, and this caused a disturbance. Some politicians saw it as an unwelcome global influence. A municipal council voted for a suggestion that preschools should offer “Danish food.” A member of the populist Danish People’s Party added that this includes pork, meaning pork should be served regardless of the religious affiliation of the children. The rye bread push was based on the scientific-sounding “health,” while the pork was seen as tradition, with the clear subtext of anti-immigration, and in particular anti-Muslim, sentiment.

And in 2016, Denmark’s Ministry of Cultural Affairs invited citizens to write in with suggestions of what constituted core Danish values. The minister was expecting abstract responses, and yet pork was mentioned a number of times.

These cases point to pork going from an unnoticed example of what Danes eat to a symbol of what it means to be Danish. In extension, now if you do eat pork, you risk being seen as making an active statement against immigration. 

On the other hand, Denmark is a big producer of pork, so people are also discussing how it’s ruining the environment, and this is reflected in everyday language. In Danish, the word svin is traditionally used for the pig and the meat, and another word, gris, which apparently has a nicer association, is only used for the animal. Gris has replaced svin in commercial settings because svin has changed from a neutral word to one with more negative connotations.

Image shows a variety of meats for sale in the window of a butcher shop in Copenhagen, Denmark. In the discussion over Danishness and accommodating Muslim immigrants, food culture made headlines as people argued over whether nursery schools should serve pork.

A Copenhagen butcher’s shop shows a number of pork products, which are traditional Danish foods. Eating pork has been politicized in the public discourse about immigration over the past years. Arguments, dubbed the “meatball wars,” broke out after a former prime minister criticized some preschools for dropping pork from their menu in consideration of Muslim students.


So food has become political, but it also seems it’s become linked to identity. Is language around food becoming more about the self and less about the wider culture?

JC: Once upon a time, it was less what you consumed, and more your job, that defined you. More recently, there’s been a shift, and consumption is much more at the heart of how we define ourselves. The result has been that what we do matters less than what we consume. With the explosion in food media, there’s so much variety and potential for differentiation, so many ways to eat healthily, that it can be overwhelming.

MSK: Food has always been used to show identification with one community and dis-identification with another. Being vegan doesn’t mean you’re special or unique, it just means you’re part of different group — all those who are vegan. Today we are able to choose the community with whom we want to identify, and we can choose different communities based on food behavior, orientation, physical exercise, our clothes. Sometimes these communities fit together but sometimes they don’t, and we can choose different groups for different aspects of our everyday lives.

One of the first settings where food and language converge is during family meals. How does this differ from country to country?

MSK: Research shows that in the United States, families talk about whether the food is healthy, whereas in Italy, they talk about whether it’s tasty, which is ironic since there are so many health problems in the US with obesity.

KR: Eating together is not the norm in all cultures. Those who do have family meals often don’t talk while eating — it’s considered distracting. What they want to represent to children is an attentiveness to their food and gratitude for it. In the Marquesas, I found that talking happens while procuring and preparing food, not at meals.

JC: We think of the family meal as something everyone does, but it is closely related to class and race. Those who can afford to, and people who work 9 to 5, can have regular family meals. But not shift workers, those working two or three jobs, or those who come from different cultural traditions. It’s become a moral issue too — the message is that if you don’t do it, you’re missing a really important socializing moment with your children. People are made to feel like they’re failing.

MSK: It’s put up as an ideal today but, at some time in history, children weren’t supposed to eat with parents or talk at the table, so this idea of the family meal as an eternal institution that’s crumbling is wrong.

For those who have family meals, do conversations merely reflect cultural differences, or do these conversations actually help shape culture?

MSK: Sometimes you do find reflections of what goes on in society at large; for instance, a Swedish study documents that egalitarianism is installed in the family meal. I think it’s both a place you see culture in action, and a place where people learn how to be good citizens.

Is this changing in a globalized world, in which communities are becoming more culturally diverse?

MSK: The family meal isn’t insulated, and the decline of the family meal (and the moral panic around that) isn’t necessarily a sign of globalization, but of changing eating habits. What we eat at home reflects the availability of different types of food, and these do change with globalization. But the two bigger impacts on the family meal are industrialization and convenience foods. In many places, and in the US in particular, people can buy finished food and heat it up, so even if they are sharing a table, people may be eating different things at mealtimes. That is a big change.

What about eating in the workplace?

MSK: Food can mark the change from a work activity to a socially oriented one, and can be used to create community. My student looked at food in workplaces, and one conclusion was — among academics in Denmark, at least — cake is a big thing. Everyone is talking about cake, while also trying to show themselves as healthy and good people. In offices when there’s cake, everyone’s running for it! Cake is something people can all agree on, it seems to be a huge unifier in workplaces.

You name technology and the Internet as major drivers of change in terms of food talk. How are they changing things?

KR: When people look at their devices and send photos of their meal on social media, instead of talking to each other while they eat, they lose so much of the multi-sensuous aspects of food.

There’s also an emphasis now on not only getting groceries delivered to the door, but an entire meal through a meal-kit delivery service. These glorify the cooking process and give the message that it’s important for people to slow down and put a meal on the table themselves. I wonder if these adverts are really trying to inspire people to slow down, or if they’re giving us a new quick fix and commodifying the idea of slowing down itself.

Image shows a smart phone hovering over a plate of eggs, toast and salad. The phone is taking a photo of the meal.

Pulling out a smartphone during a meal can take attention away from the full experience of the food, says Rutgers’ Kathleen Riley. And sharing food photos on social media can interrupt a mealtime conversation.


MSK: I’m also worried, because people follow a variety of diets today, diets which they can easily get validation for through the Internet, no matter how obviously unhealthy they are. This destroys the more easily obtained sociality around the meal, where we meet and eat the same thing together and thereby practice and create community. Eating disorders are a growing problem, and the line between a disorder and normal behavior is getting blurred on an everyday level.

You argue that the production and consumption of food is increasingly a morally loaded issue. What do you mean by that?

MSK: One example is how we use the word authentic. The ways in which food travels is invisible, and the word authentic is used to create less distance between producers and consumers. This is one area where industrialization has had enormous influence on the way we speak about, and create value around, food.

Could this be interpreted as a backlash to industrialization?

MSK: It’s a reaction to large-scale food production; among well-educated middle and upper classes especially, there’s concern about the consequences of this. Farmers’ markets and small-scale production are seen as ways to create value for products that we can buy an infinite number of in supermarkets; we want something special. Authentic is a way to create value and assert difference within a moral value system.

KR: In the 1960s there was a sense of getting back to the land, being respectful to the people who aren’t messing up the world the way we are in the globalized north. It got upended into a brand and co-opted by the corporate world.

Where are conversations around food heading in the future?

KR: I’m feeling pessimistic. To turn things around, we have to make messages around food tastier and feed ourselves better language to get people to care again. I want to make healthy and sustainable food delicious, accessible and affordable.

JC: Discussions are headed toward sustainability — environmentally, biologically and socially — encompassing climate change and population growth and obesity. And the trend of wanting to know where our food comes from will become more normalized.

MSK: I’m worried too, because the gap is growing between the well-educated, well-meaning and economically stronger population who is aware of pollution, sustainability, overproduction, processed foods and the overuse of additives, and the rest of the population, who can’t engage with these issues in the same way for various reasons. This adds to other differentiations in society in which one part of the population is seen as less morally healthy and less capable.