Muslims and Meals: The Social and Symbolic Function of Foods in Changing Socio-Economic Environments

By Kifleyesus, Abbebe | Africa, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Muslims and Meals: The Social and Symbolic Function of Foods in Changing Socio-Economic Environments


Kifleyesus, Abbebe, Africa


ABSTRACT

This article is about ideas and practices concerning the production, distribution, preparation and consumption of food among the Muslim Argobba of Ethiopia. Food among the Muslim Argobba of Ethiopia is an essential idiom, both for drawing a hierarchy of in-group/out-group distinctions and for expressing relationships within groups. The in-group/out-group relations are typically expressed in terms of what foods are consumed by the Muslim Argobba and their non-Muslim Amhara neighbours, by the Muslim Argobba and their Muslim Oromo and Adal neighbours and indeed

by some wealthy trader Argobba families and poor Argobba peasant households. Food preparation and distribution, on the other hand, express relations internal to the group, either in terms of gender within the household, as in who serves what to whom, where and in what quantities, or in informal exchanges, as in establishing social links among men and women. Nowadays fewer and fewer Argobba are producing the food they consume, and many are drawn away from their rural homelands either as merchants or as wage labourers. The article examines how Argobba consumers have become accustomed to foreign foods and new modes of preparation and distribution and how such changes have also altered the ways in which food has expressed social relations in terms of class, ethnic and gender identity. It investigates the relative importance of the social and symbolic function of Muslim meals, and discusses the material life of cooking and cuisine in changing socio-economic environments.

RESUME

Cet article porte sur les idees et les pratiques concernant la production, la distribution, la preparation et la consommation des aliments chez les Argobba musulmans d'Ethiopie. La nourriture y est un idiome essentiel, aussi bien pour etablir une hierarchie de distinctions d'appartenance/non-appartenance au groupe que pour exprimer les rapports entre les groupes. Les rapports d'appartenance/non-appartenance au groupe s'expriment generalement a travers les aliments consommes par les Argobba musulmans et leurs voisins Amhara non-musulmans, par les Argobba musulmans et leurs voisins Oromo et Adal musulmans, ainsi que par certaines familles aisees de commercants Argobba et les foyers paysans Argobba defavorises. En revanche, la preparation et la distribution des aliments expriment des relations internes au groupe, soit en termes de distinction homme/femme au sein du foyer, comme la question de savoir qui sert quoi a qui, ou et combien, soit en termes d'echanges informels, comme l'etablissement de rapports sociaux entre les hommes et les femmes. De nos jours, les Argobba sont de moins en moins nombreux a produire les aliments qu'ils consomment, et nombreux sont ceux, commercants ou ouvriers, qui s'eloignent de leur region rurale d'origine. L'essai etudie la maniere dont les consommateurs argobba se sont habitues a la nourriture etrangere et a des nouveaux modes de preparation et de distribution des aliments, ainsi que la maniere dont ces changements ont aussi modifie la maniere dont la nourriture exprime les rapports sociaux en termes d'identite de classe, ethnique et sexuelle ; il examine l'importance relative de la fonction sociale et symbolique des repas musulmans, et traite de la vie materielle de la cuisine dans un contexte socio-economique en mutation.

The anthropological literature is saturated with references not only to the persuasiveness of food symbolism in social life but also to the meaning people attribute to foods deriving from production, reproduction and consumption, and to the ways in which people find value in foods and foods give value to social relations. (1) It is not my intention to unravel or review all these perspectives and many others not mentioned here, but through a series of discussions geared towards making a broader theoretical point I instead aspire to describe the popularly proclaimed Argobba culinary practices anchored by the social aspects of meals; the composition of ingredients and preparation and processing methods; commensality, identity and boundary relationships; the great variation in food preferences, both between and within Argobba populations; and the contrasts between plenty and scarcity, tradition and modernity, food familiarity and novelty, hunger and satiety, and finally change and continuity. …

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