University Food Culture (2)

Reading about the relationships between food categories and social categories I wonder about lunch habits of myself and of this university. Is our Dutch university lunchtime habit a meal? Lunch is, like breakfast and dinner, an indication for a specific type of meal. As Mary Douglas (1972) explains; meals and drinks are social events and they put a frame on the gathering, meals usually restricts alternative occupations. Meals also have an internal structure such as the need for contrasts, like something hot and something cold, or between bland and spicy. If there is only sweet food for example, this is usually not experienced as a meal.

Food taken outside the category of a meal is usually called by its name; have a sandwich or a glass of milk. This signals the line between food as a social category (meal) and food taken for private nourishment (the food item). I am eating my sandwiches with cheese right now, because I will do sports during lunchtime. I usually feel like wanting something warm – soup –  when I go down to the canteen with my colleagues to eat my home brought sandwiches. To have our monthly chairgroup meeting during lunch feels somehow strange.

The meal category is in fact a social category. The type of meal – its internal structure and its external boundaries – says something about work relationships on a continuum of distance versus intimacy. The manifold ways to eat at work, or the lack of one clear pattern with pressure to adhere to signals the individuality of work culture and/or Dutch culture. Eating sandwiches and drinking a glass of milk for lunch hardly contains enough structuring contrasts for it to be called a meal. We even often skip lunch all together. This doesn’t really bother us, only our foreign colleagues.