If you walk into an American fast-food outlet this week, you’ll notice some seasonal specials on the menu. At Burger King you could try the Big Fish, at Wendy’s the North Pacific Cod, or at Chick-Fil-A (if you weren’t bothered by the company’s association with anti-LGBT politics) the special Fish Sandwich. The meaty chains are emulating the success of McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish, introduced in 1962 after a franchise-owner noticed slow burger sales on Lenten Fridays when his Catholic customers wouldn’t eat meat. Today it is just as popular (even iconically so) with Muslim diners searching for halal fast food, a culinary curiosity that illustrates the inextricable but complicated links between food and identity.
How and what we eat embodies who we are (or who we want to be), and also serves as an easy and universal way of identifying those who are different from us. Ancient and medieval religions separated themselves from others with dietary rules, while their social hierarchies also delineated different sorts of people through what kind of food they could eat. Food identities were amplified in the early modern period, when religious change and the beginnings of European imperialism led to increasingly stark culinary divisions between “us” and “them”. Protestants rejected Catholicism by eating sausages during Lent, Inquisitors hunted “crypto-Jews” by searching for those who rejected pork, and colonialists dehumanised indigenous peoples by demonising what and how they ate.
The imperial, industrial and global ages that followed have transformed our diets, and while we are now often far further removed from food production than previous generations, food’s relationship with our identities has not dimmed. Lent still accounts for a quarter of annual sales of the Filet-O-Fish, while in the UK, supermarkets, fishmongers and chip shops also sell more seafood on what were once called “fish days”. With identity an increasingly fevered focus for conflict in politics and culture, food offers a prism to refract debates that too often remain reductive. By cutting across different forms of identity – religion, race, class, gender, nationality – food forces us to go beyond binaries to ask deeper questions about who people are, and the emotional and embodied reasons why that is important.
The rejection or imposition of certain foods shows the way that structures of power and division intersect with layered identities. In China’s Xinjiang province, the Muslim Uighur population’s abstention from pork has been a focus of the government’s “re-education” policies, something emphasised during recent Chinese New Year celebrations for the Year of the Pig. Those who continue to refuse pork against official admonishment have been publicly denounced and intimidated, while those sent to “re-education camps” have been force-fed a food antithetical to their sense of spiritual and cultural identity. To avoid pork is evidence of “extremism”, of a refusal to conform and be Chinese; yet there is tellingly less concern about China’s booming middle class embracing global coffee chains over ancient tea culture.
In Europe too, Muslims have become a target of pork politics. Far right local governments in France have repeatedly tried to remove pork-free alternatives from school menus in a deliberate attempt to exclude Muslim (and Jewish) children from communal lunches. The Danish far right has gone further, not only campaigning to remove pork-free options, but to ban halal and kosher slaughter, and to make sure “traditional” dishes – most notably the national dish of fried pork (stegt flæsk) and pork-and-veal meatballs (frikadeller) – are served often in public institutions. “Integration” requires conformity, but only for those whose diversity is deemed dangerously deviant: there is no equivalent moral panic about white Europeans eating foreign food in upmarket restaurants.
In that, we see the interaction of food and class, an issue of identity particularly pronounced in a Britain increasingly divided by its food. While the affluent eat out for pleasure and cook for health and fashion, the poor face soaring food insecurity. Changes in the welfare system have increased reliance on food banks, while areas of socio-economic deprivation have become “food deserts” with limited access to fresh and affordable food, and a high concentration of fast-food outlets. This toxic cocktail amplifies both obesity (more prevalent in the poorest households) and hunger, as well as other inequalities of gender and race. Britain’s class-obsessed culture uses a shorthand of foods to identify – and demean or praise – different groups in this tiered food society: avocados for frivolous millennials, thrifty stews for the “deserving” poor, fried chicken for demonised urban teenagers. But from vegans to Ottolenghi fans to Nando’s diners, many also proudly self-identify by what they eat, showing how cultural choices and class identities can intersect.
Even when applied to the latest food trends, these codes have deep roots. From the sugar of slave plantations to the Corn Laws that defined Victorian trade politics, the British Empire was intertwined with food, and the high streets of modern Britain are full of cuisines from around the globe. Yet in their commercialisation of the food of former colonies, western chefs and corporations often show a lack of respect for the cultural issues behind what is often still uncritically called “ethnic food” – from Jamie Oliver’s jerk rice to Marks & Spencer’s biryani wrap – a disrespect that exposes a wider unwillingness to confront the realities of imperialism and racism.
Britain ate empire, and post-imperial Euroscepticism has long been queasy about the idea of eating European instead: 1970s Labour Eurosceptics decried how the European Economic Community would privilege fresh continental produce over the Commonwealth tinned food they believed the working class preferred. The prospect of a no-deal Brexit severely limiting fresh food supplies has been greeted with relish by some Leavers, with nostalgic references to the spirit of wartime rationing, while the Daily Mail reported cheerily on research suggesting the avocado on toast and banana smoothies of liberal metropolitans might have to be replaced with egg on toast and a glass of milk.
Brexiters promise that leaving the EU will be an opportunity for Britain to grow more of its own food and land more of its own fish, as if self-sufficiency would symbolise “independence”, liberation from the fashion for foreign fare that characterised an open Britain.
In Donald Trump’s America, food has become an emotive identifier in an increasingly breathless culture war. Recent suggestions that Americans reduce their meat consumption to improve public health and combat climate change have been characterised by Trump’s re-election campaign as a Democratic plan to “ban meat” and “take your hamburgers”. Trump has found expression for his populism by “treating” sports teams visiting the White House to feasts of bulk-bought fast-food (including Chick-Fil-A), meals that some black sports stars have avoided in protest at Trump’s racial politics. Eating meat has become a way for conservatives to physically reject the values of those concerned about social justice, with alt-right figures such as Jordan Peterson promoting meat-eating as part of a political identity that celebrates toxic masculinity, and Piers Morgan decrying vegan sausage rolls as the work of “PC-ravaged clowns”.
The divides of such dramatic performances, however, pale in comparison to those of race, class, and gender that define whose labour plants, harvests and prepares the cheap food that fills Western stomachs, and who profits from it in an age of rising global hunger. Thinking about identity through food forces us to consider not only how people define themselves and others, but also the intersections of power that inflect the inequalities between them. In the stories behind what we eat lie the deeper stories of who we are.
Christopher Kissane is a historian, author of Food, Religion and Communities in Early Modern Europe
- Abdullah Shihipar reveals the importance of the Filet-O-Fish to Muslim diners.
- Anthropologist Darren Byler analyses the recent celebrations of the Year of the Pig in Xinjiang.
- Italian journalist Angelo Paura shows how far-right leader Matteo Salvini uses food to push populist nationalism.
- Kelly Weill examines the American right-wing’s obsession with meat.
- My BBC Radio 3 Essay considers the history of fasts like Lent and Ramadan.
- David Remnick in The New Yorker on how Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is coming for your hamburgers
All photographs by Getty Images