In this chapter, the emphasis is upon the significance of food and eating within the private sphere of the family. Of course, adopting such a perspective does not imply that the private sphere is some kind of hermetically sealed microcosm that can be examined in isolation. The domestic world of the family is inextricably linked to the structures of the wider social system, and this is no less true of eating than of any other aspect of family life. In a sense, the sociological analysis of the family is pervaded by two apparently opposing themes. On the one hand, the family is seen in essentially positive terms, as an intimate, supportive institution. It is seen, at one level, as contributing to the continuity and stability of society as a whole, and at another level as providing the individual with a secure refuge from a demanding world. On the other hand, the family has been viewed in more sinister terms, as a locus of conflict, oppression and even overt violence, with the power differences between men and women, and parents and children, seen as particularly important. Both of these views will be reflected in the material discussed in this chapter, although we might sensibly regard them as two sides of the same coin, rather than mutually exclusive claims to absolute truth. Whatever the viewpoint adopted, however, there can be no doubting the family’s continuing importance as a unit of consumption and the powerful formative influences it continues to assert over its members.
Before our discussion proceeds, a simple but basic terminological point is worth making. The terms ‘family’ and ‘household’ are not synonymous. The nuclear family (parents and children) may or may not make up a household (which is a group of people sharing accommodation and, to varying degrees, pooling their resources). The intact nuclear family is only one type of household, and is characteristic of a particular stage of the life cycle. There are, of course, many other types of household, and nuclear families may be part of wider extended family systems. These rather obvious distinctions do have important implications for the issues raised in this chapter, as we examine the ways in which food can be used to mark and forge links across family boundaries, the ways in which food is implicated in differentiation within families and between families, and the long-term processes of change in domestic foodways which appear to be under way.