You are what you eat: Food as a lens into identity

As a sociologist interested in farming identities, my focus has always been on those working with the crops or animals that end up on our plates. It’s not until recently that I’ve started to explore the interconnections of the food supply chain. Food stuffs can be evocative of memories, and storytelling around these parts of culture have become a research method to bring issues that matter to life.

The Sociological Imagination points to a particular way of thinking that facilitates an understanding of the social world, for example by taking an object and examining its significance in context, whether that be for society at large or from a personal perspective. Indeed, sociology connects these two aspects and examines the relationship between them. It dawned on me in preparing for a recent ‘show and tell’ conference session about food, that that was exactly what we were doing.

I chose a bag of British sugar for my show and tell. It dawned on me that this seemingly insignificant cupboard staple had pride of place in mine. For me, this humble bag connects both the production and consumption of food in a meaningful way.

Before it reaches supermarkets, the sugar comes from factories in the east of the UK which process sugar beet received from farmers like my father. It means that there is a possibility that any bag may contain sugar grown at the farm where I grew up and because of the labouring of my family. Somehow it represents an emotional proximity when physical proximity is not possible. I have fond memories of tussling a rogue sugar beet from the clasp of my Jack Russell’s mouth through fears of what damage his sweet tooth might do. I have gazed through the bedroom window at fields of leafy green tops which adorn these underground figures that resemble a bulbous version of a carrot.

It is also a question of the urban and the rural for me. When I am removed from that green vision which encapsulates the blood, sweat and tears of farming, I can feel connected through my consumption. Sugar is vital to my sense of identity as an avid baker. From a young age, I would bake with my grandmother as she showed me family recipes for traditional Scottish fare. Where the sugar is housed in my kitchen, namely the ‘baking box’, says it all about the distinction made from this merely being a garnish in a cup of tea, to a vital ingredient to the likes of shortbread. 

Ingredients are perhaps an apt analogy for the moments that make up the sense of who we are. Many sociological theories have grappled with what is meant by identity and the extent to which it is singular or plural, fixed or flexible. What has become apparent is that identity is not a solely individual phenomenon as we understand ourselves in relation to others, our relationships to individuals and institutions in society. After all, the sugar tells a story about the biography of my family experience, as well as the bigger picture of patterns of food production and consumption. 

How does food play a role in your identity?