• A
  • A
  • A
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • А
  • А
  • А
  • А
  • А
Regular version of the site

Fast Food Disrupts Family Ties

The family meal, a tradition which has for centuries helped strengthen family ties, is becoming a rare phenomenon, increasingly replaced by a fast food culture and various individual dietary strategies, according to Irina Sokhan, Associate Professor at the HSE's Department of Applied Political Science (St. Petersburg)

Gastronomic practices serve as markers of many social trends. A faster pace of life and the fact that more women are actively pursuing careers outside the home have both contributed to the popularity of fast food.

In turn, fast food culture has affected the traditional family system. The availability of pre-prepared food saves cooking time and changes the traditional role of women as «authors of the daily food» – this role is often delegated to anonymous forces in the food industry.

This situation gives rise to contradictions. On the one hand, fast food is gaining in popularity, but on the other hand, people are increasingly affected by ‘food scares’ connected with not knowing how their food is produced. In addition to this, today's fashion for having a lean body as a sign of success and high status comes into conflict with our culture of overeating. It becomes important to stay slim without denying yourself gastronomic pleasures.

«One cannot get a complete picture by taking a narrow approach,» says Sokhan. «For example, many researchers focusing on specific aspects of gastronomic practices struggle with producing meaningful conclusions despite having collected extensive empirical data. Instead, taking a philosophical approach provides a basic framework which facilitates, rather than prevents, further study of specific gastronomic practices.’»

Sokhan’s study included a review of publications about food in popular magazines for women, for men, and for the general public without a particular gender focus; the sample included publications intended for readers with high and middle incomes.

All magazines reviewed had a gastronomic column and, according to Sokhan, were fairly representative – in contract, for example, to culinary blogs expressing mainly their authors' ideas.

Snacks instead of Meals

Fast food today is not limited to ready meals or McDonalds; instead, it is a huge industry which has learned to exploit taste buds and to produce edible stuff from inedible things, ignoring the traditional gastronomic logic associated with natural cycles of food production. «Fast food requires no cooking other than reheating and is not usually consumed as part of a meal – indeed, it is the ultimate expression of the current “snacking culture”», says Sokhan.

She notes that classic utopias, such as Bacon's New Atlantis have long contained the idea of ​​this type of functional food, as did the famous Soviet Book of Tasty and Healthy Food, which was basically a cookbook for homemakers, but bragged about the Soviet food industry so extensively that it created the impression that its products were superior to homemade food.

Fast food, according to Sokhan, emphasizes ​​independence from nature and the idea that the human body is a piece of machinery and food is its fuel. She also associates fast food with American culture, as the food of immigrants who are under pressure to make it in America and avoid spending time or money on the unnecessary luxury of a formal meal.

Anonymity Destroys Tradition

Meals are associated with cultural codes which become rapidly erased when people switch to snacking – therefore, according to Sokhan, a preference for fast food has huge consequences, such as disrupting family connections. ‘It's a well-known fact that people socialize when they share a meal, and eating together plays a role in strengthening family ties,’ she explains.

People tend to have gastronomic memories associated with their family. Today, however, family meals are rare and mostly limited to big occasions bringing the entire family together around the table. «Fast food involves eating for merely functional purposes, either alone or in a crowd of strangers doing the same thing,» Sokhan notes.

She also notes a transformation of gender roles brought about by the revolution in eating culture. «Traditionally, the woman is the “author” of the daily food. Cooking is essentially a sequence of physical movements translating an unconscious intent into prepared food; in a sense, the woman offers herself to the family together with the meal and, by doing so, she influences her family,» Sokhan says. She notes that whoever cooks your meal and feeds you has an influence on you; it is therefore very important who cooks for you – yourself, a particular cook, or an anonymous force representing the food industry.

Women today are increasingly focused on careers other than homemaking. Home cooking has not stopped altogether, but it has declined, in particular due to the availability of prepared or semi-prepared food.

According to Sokhan, there is another trend, opposite to the reliance on fast food; people want to know more about food – from diverse world cuisines to the psychological aspects of certain foods. «This new knowledge often inspires women to come back to the kitchen to cook,» Sokhan says.

Another reason why people return to home cooking are food scares: people are concerned about how their readymade meals are produced. «According to a philosophical definition, food is something alien introduced into something we identify with. Consequently, a food scare is basically fear of an uncontrolled violation of our identity, of a new and dangerous physical experience,» Sokhan explains.

Memories of Scarcity and Gastronomic Temptations

Her study reveals that people today are quite inconsistent in their attitudes towards gastronomic culture and anything associated with it. Judging by the culinary columns in glossy magazines, many Russians are still affected by the collective trauma of hunger and scarcity. While high-end Russian versions of Western magazines focus on the aesthetics of food, those intended primarily for the average Russian consumer, according to Sokhan, almost inevitably make allusions to the Soviet past by revisiting the experience of scarcity and offering tips, e.g. on «how to cook a three-course meal from a cheap piece of frozen meat», reminiscent of advice shared by Soviet-era housewives with an emphasis on maximizing whatever is available and avoiding waste.

On the other hand, an industry offering every gastronomic temptation and promoting excessive consumption of various foods has long been established in Russia. «Its impact is universal and targets all social groups with the single message of intensive consumption – in this case, consumption of food. Surprisingly, McDonalds cuts across social hierarchy, being both a dream of the poor and a junk-food temptation of the rich,» notes Sokhan.

Promotion of excessive eating can vary from offers of cheap crackers in various flavours to advertisement of culinary tourism. «Messages of excessive food consumption are supported by visual representations of eating, e.g. in social networks – a new dimension to the phenomenon of visual gastronomy», says Sokhan.

The industry of gastronomic temptation uses a sophisticated approach by focusing on the symbolic aspects of food and depicting various foods as symbols of success, status, sexuality, and sensuality; they also appeal to gastronomic memories and the psychological aspects of food.

A Lean Body Compromise

But modern society places a high value on being lean, which comes into conflict with the food industry. «Fast food makes one overweight, while for most people today a lean body is a sign of high social status,» notes Sokhan.

She notes that in contrast to traditional cultures where being lean meant undernourishment, a slim body today represents power and independence from food. It is therefore important to stay thin and healthy while enjoying the widely promoted gastronomic freedom – an incompatible combination that drives people to alternative dietary strategies.


Author: Marina Selina, June 16, 2014