It’s always a bit strange to ask someone about their eating habits and then requesting them to let you observe them. Sometimes it feels a bit cheeky as you would eventually be invited to eat; if you’ve warned them in advance, you’re potentially going to be in for an elaborately prepared treat! Alongside this is the more spontaneous, honest, everyday cooking. That isn’t to deny the honesty and normality of elaborate cooking. Wanting to prepare a whole meal is also very much an everyday practice. However, catching someone off guard offers a different side to this.

In the end, they have all had one commonality: they are ‘homely’. I could not find another way to describe it. As someone who has lived alone, I can relate to batch-cooking, making a quick soup or frying an egg as a meal. It is very familiar and no less ceremonial than the elaborate meals. Indeed, one seems more everyday than the other. Yet, the other also presents a type of ceremoniality (‘doing a ceremony’) and indeed becomes part of the everyday, routine nature of self-care and preservation through food.

On this note of the ceremony, I wish to present three instances in which food consumption was part of the meeting. Based on the variation in information provided, the nature of the meal changed, as one would expect. This variation in information provided related to the intended planning of the meetings. For example, in case 2 it was not intended that I observe meal preparation that day. Similarly, in case 3 shopping and preparation were not intended to be presented to me.

Participant No.

Shopping

Informed about need to observe a meal

Meal cooked by participant

Spontaneous?

1

Yes

Yes

Yes

Pre-meditated

2

Yes

No

Yes

Spontaneous, out of need

3

No

Yes

No

Part of weekly routine

In case 1, the meal was particularly prepared with me in mind, alongside an overlap of their own consumption practice. The shopping too was tailored to the meal. In the preceding meeting with the participant, when I asked what the individual was going to cook after our meeting, they said it was a dal (South Asian lentil dish). This was a practice picked up by the participant’s husband’s experience of living in South Asia. The Participant then offered to cook some for me as I said I had not had it in a long time. I am Luso-Indian/South Asian.

Image by author, Sinead D’Silva

In case 2, the meeting itself was organized around the need to observe the shopping process. As the participant must organize their shopping days carefully to incorporate personal mobility requirements, the shopping incorporated items needed on a longer-term basis. There was no list involved, and the individual had the types of food they wanted to buy in mind. This included staples (like pasta), snacks, and fruit and veg. One of the items purchased was because I expressed surprise when looking at the products on display – it was a different type of bread. When we got back, we continued to talk and eventually it was lunch time and we were both hungry, so we tried the bread with egg and a spread from their country of origin. 

Image by author, Sinead D’Silva

Finally, in case 3, I was invited to observe a meal-focused weekly practice in which the participant wished to present their everyday routine. It was also a revelation of the embeddedness of this participant in the local culture brought about in part by conjugal ties (the individual had married a Portuguese person). The food was therefore Portuguese, arroz do pato, as this included the participant’s extended family. It was not cooked by the participant. On a personal, regular basis, the participant cooks more simple food, with more vegetables. They also mentioned cooking curries often as their husband liked such food.

Image by author, Sinead D’Silva

The topic is the same: food consumption practice. They were all also women, accounting for gender. Yet, the ways in which individuals go about deliberating not just what to eat, but also what to present as their eating practices is telling of a social process of food involving a sense of symbolism as a medium of interaction.

Alongside these different ways in which individuals choose to present themselves or find themselves responding to a situation spontaneously, is a commonality in presenting the self and a sense of hospitality which cuts across cultures. As a result, I always left fed with food and stories.