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Class, Power, and Meaning, with Biscuits

© Aditya Kok |

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As many of you already know, I recently was awarded a research development grant from my university to study the relationship between motherhood and family dinners.  I’ve been doing a good bit of reading on the topic and expect that I will be doing a good bit of blogging about the topic as I think the ideas through, though I already seem to write about the topic often.  I seem always to be working through ideas about the family dinner—my experiences of it growing up, my trials and triumphs with it as the primary cook in our house, my concern as a mother over what meanings my children take from our “table.”  Recently, I read an article* by cultural anthropologist Richard Wilk about the dinner table as a context for meaning-making.  He talked about the very different points of view that he and his wife bring to the table about meals, about how these points of view were rooted in the practices of the separate families in which they grew, about how they have recurring conflicts over how meals should be served, and about how the serving of meals, as with any issue related to food, is knotted up with a host of other things—social class, control, personal identity, to name a few big ones.

Mealtime is a way that people, to play with scholar Dwight Conquergood’s phrase, “interpret themselves to themselves.” It is a stage on which they play out various roles, figure out who they are, communicate beliefs and needs, embody or resist social codes. What we do at the “dinner table,” whether ours is literal or figurative–our lap in the car or the edge of the counter at which we’re standing, or the desk where we’re working—serves multiple functions that go far, far beyond the taking in of nutrition and plenty of times, of course, it scarcely does even that.  “If you dig even deeper into the meanings of the many different ways to serve food,” Wilk says,” you find really basic moral differences about the way people should care for each other.”

I grew up in a lower income family whose mealtime practices were  kind of transplanted from southern Appalachia with its own distinct cultural codes.  When I was growing up, we oscillated between full scale meals when my father was home from the fire department and on the Sundays that we ate with my maternal grandparents.  Every third night though, when dad was at the fire station, we had “whatever,” which often meant leftovers from those bigger meals, each child’s plate looking a little different, depending on how much was leftover of this or that, and maybe some food preferences or hankerings.  The meanings culled from these practices were many.  When we sat at the dining room table (we had a kitchen counter with stools for children, and a dining room table proper with chairs for everybody; no kitchen table) we had a host of rules to guide behavior, most especially that of the children:  no talking with mouths full; napkins and non-dominant hand in laps; knives across the top of the plates; no dragging teeth on utensils; passing dishes around in the same direction; responding to someone’s request for a bowl to be passed around (not handed across) if you were closest to it, while not daring to grab a spoonful first; being mindful of your 1/6 share while recognizing that dad’s sixth is not the same as your sixth.  Children were rarely included in the conversation; they were to be seen, watched even, but not heard, and they were to be at the table when dinner started or face consequences.  Everyone had to eat everything on their plates; I remember my brother, the only boy and the only child of my mother and stepfather together, having much more leniency on this note, though as my own children have grown I’ve come to take childhood egocentric memories with a grain of salt.

We almost always had leftovers from those dinners, I think, and we regularly had a refrigerator full of them.  From either a Cultural Anthropology or a Communication perspective, these components of our meals were ways that we interpreted ourselves as frugal but not broke, able to perform upper middle class norms even though we were not members.  We were simple people who would travel long distances in the back of a pickup truck with a “camper” top and eat sausage gravy and biscuits, and once that I can remember very simply hoecake and gravy (my mother still makes she best gravy no matter the kind), and people who had a pop-up camper and a trailer at the lake for vacations.  We were people who picked and snapped and canned their own green beans but who could also catch their own lobster and eat it with drawn butter by candlelight.  The dinnertable also enforced the hierarchies in our home—that of the parents and that of the patriarch, even if the latter’s power came almost solely from discipline or threat of it; my mother held all the rest of the power.  She had to work for hers in ways he never did, though I remember dad as always employed in two jobs, even if under his father-in-law, which appealed to him not at all.  So his power, too, came at some price.  Our dinner practices were one of the ways that we negotiated dual spaces for us in both working class and middle class cultures.  It was how we embodied our roots in the Black Mountain range of North Carolina and at the same time practiced the etiquettes of more upscale families, in case we were ever in the company of them or, more hopefully, in case we ever became them.  It was a complex affair, negotiating these spaces.  And it is intriguing to look at the enormous constitutive and  communicative and creative power in something as everyday and taken-for-granted as dinnertime. So much to discover there.

*Wilk, Richard. (2006). “Serving or Helping Yourself at the Table.” Food Culture and Society, 9:1, pp. 7-12.


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