1This paper explores family relations and their maintenance through the practices of everyday life. The modern family is often discussed in terms of crises. Rising divorce rates, family abuse and disputes involving children are all front-page news, stoking widespread concern about the family and raising questions about public policy and legislation. In sociological theories of modernity, the destabilisation of the family is analysed within the framework of individualisation and choice. Stripped of many of its functional aspects, the family has essentially been reduced to a centre of emotional satisfaction. This accounts for its instability and fragility, paving the way for high divorce rates and serial-monogamy (Giddens, 1992; Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 1995).
2The instability of the modern family is well-established and statistically documented. From an anthropological perspective, individualisation is too broad a framework to serve as a starting point for a study of the European family. As argued by recent anthropological kinship theories, the ethnographic particularities of relatedness need to be studied within a specific cultural context (Carsten, 2001; Franklin and McKinnon, 2001). The construction of kinship and relatedness is likely to vary cross-culturally, even across the European continent. Empirical investigation should not only try to identify the centrifugal forces that threaten to split families apart but also what constitutes family relations in everyday life. Studying kinship “in the making”, the processes by which people build social relationships, means taking a detailed look at everyday practices in search of the exchanges and interactions that shape and maintain relations on a day-to-day basis. It also means paying attention to “agency” (purposeful action), to the differences between givers and receivers, and to the power relations existing between the various actors involved.
3The aim of this article is to explore ways of constructing relatedness through food, based on the role of food in shaping relationships between family members in the Czech Republic. From other cultural contexts we know that food is central to forging kinship relationships. It helps to bond infants with a group, integrate adopted children into a new family or even maintain relations with the dead (Rival, 1998; Hutchinson, 2001; Carsten, 2004; Vogelsang, 2004). Food may actually be key to achieving sameness among family members. In many cases, forging the right kind of personhood and relationships depends on one particular kind of food or substance (Kahn, 1998; Counihan, 1999).
4What about everyday life in a modern European context? What roles do the provision and sharing of food play in interpersonal relationships within the family? Who are the providers of food and who are the decision makers on food-related issues? What is the role of food in creating the family as a collective “we”, in constituting the family as such? Is any particular kind of food more important than another where family integration is concerned? The article will start by examining the role of meals in everyday family life, later addressing questions of individuality and taste as well as gender relations and power.
- 1 In the period 1990-1995, I spent a total 15 months conducting fieldwork in the Czech countryside. I (...)
5Before going into ethnographic detail, I will present a brief summary of my own research background and interest in the matter and sketch a few characteristics of the Czech family in the European context. My research in the Czech Republic started in 1990, in the South Bohemian countryside.1 Food issues caught my attention from day one: the plentifully-stocked gardens; the caged rabbits destined to become the main ingredients of a delicious meal following long and intense conversations about what to prepare and how to go about it (Haukanes, 1993, 2004). Czech agriculture was entirely collectivised under socialist rule but people were allowed to farm small plots for their own consumption. This form of intensive subsistence farming, based on tiny plots and the use of simple technology, has continued into the post-socialist era. It provides an important input to the family diet as well as being a source of pride and enjoyment (Haukanes, 2004).
- 2 The research was supported by a grant from the Norwegian Research Council.
6In the 1990s, I worked on various aspects of the post-communist transformation process, until a research project called “Food, gender and environmental risks in East Central Europe”2 brought an opportunity to focus more closely on food-related issues. Conducted in 2001, the research was based in the South Bohemian village where I had originally carried out fieldwork in 1990/91, as well as in the city of Plzen. The research relies on semi-structured interviews with 24 women aged between 25 and 67 (11 urban and 13 rural), all responsible for the preparation of family meals. Supplemented by a short questionnaire, the interviews probed into daily food practices as well as into issues of health, gender and nation. All except one of the interviewees were married with small or grown-up children. Fifteen were employed outside the home, two were unemployed and the remaining seven were either mothers with small children or pensioners. In socio-economic terms, most of the interviewees were manual labourers (cooks, agricultural workers) or white collar workers (secretaries, shop assistants) from working- or lower middle-class backgrounds. All of the interviewees lived in nuclear families with the exception of a 67-year old woman who shared the house and meals with her husband as well as her sister and brother-in-law.
7The interview findings provide the basis of the present article, supported by more general comments on the structure of meals, eating habits and gender relations that draw heavily from my previous fieldwork experience.
8The Czech Republic, and Bohemia in particular, was, as we know, highly industrialised and modernised prior to socialist rule (Musil, 1980; Sayer, 2000). This included a prevalence of nuclear families combined with late marriages and single-generation households. This pattern changed under socialism through a process often known as the “demodernisation” of the Czech family. Early marriage and childbirth became the norm and intergenerational economic dependency was reinforced and included a rise in two-generation households (Možný, 2003). Where gender relations are concerned, the socialist regime insisted on the integration of women in the paid work force; employment was made compulsory for all women except those with very small children. However, unlike in many Western countries from the 1960s onwards, the liberation of women was not part of a sexual revolution. On the contrary, pre-war (and, for the case of the Soviet Union, pre-Stalinist) debates about sexuality and gender roles in the family seem to have been silenced by the communist regimes. The ideal woman was the wage-working mother, although the emphasis on “mother” and “worker” tended to differ depending on the region and historical period (Heitlinger, 1995; Verdery, 1996; Rotkirch, 2000; Bridger, 2001). The lack of public debate about gender roles together with the stress placed by official (i.e. State/Communist Party) discourse on women’s “special qualities” as mothers and home-makers combined to reinforce the well known phenomenon of “double burden” – women working full-time outside the home and simultaneously taking care of a very strenuous and demanding housekeeping. From the late 1960s onwards there were apparently far fewer upheavals in the Czech family and gender ideologies (and practices) compared to western Europe and this might be explained by the special significance attributed to the private sphere in the period of state socialism. The state’s increasingly intrusive and disciplinarian presence in people’s lives made the domestic domain come to seem like a haven of safety and trusted social and economic relations (Vasary, 1991; Wedel, 1992; Pine, 1993; Haukanes, 2004).
9The fall of socialism has brought significant demographic change to the Czech Republic that has gradually westernised the socialist family pattern. The birth rate has plummeted and marriages have been postponed in favour of increasing co-habitation. Divorce rates are now even higher than they were in the late socialist period (Možný, 2002). In terms of gender ideology, the years immediately following 1989 saw a backlash of sorts, as expressed for instance in claims to offer women the opportunity to stay at home while being supported by a “breadwinning” husband. Women’s “return to the home” did not eventuate?, however. The female rate of employment remains very high and most employed women work full-time (Hašková, 2005). The employment rate among young women of childbearing age, however, is much lower than for the rest of the population. Generous maternity provisions make it possible for new mothers to stay at home for four years after giving birth, also receiving extra child allowances (Hašková, 2005). Recent sociological surveys on gender issues indicate that gender ideologies are “on the move”, becoming more liberal but also more diversified within the population. In terms of practice, however, – the division of labour within the family – traditional gender roles appear largely unchanged. Recent reports indicate that women still bear the brunt of housework and childcare, although there are signs of change among the younger generation (Haukanes, 2001a; Tuček and Friedlandrová, 2001; Križková, 1999).
10Frequently-expressed concerns over the feared demise of family mealtimes form part of the more general anxiety felt about the “family in crisis” (Murcott, 1997; Guzman et al., 2000). In the Norwegian press, for instance, we hear repeatedly of youngsters who leave for school without breakfast, families who never share a hot meal during the day and others who never eat together at all. As shown by Anne Murcott in her Britain-based research – although her findings are probably relevant to other European contexts as well (Guzman et al., 2000) – it is very difficult to tell whether or not these anxieties are grounded in facts due to a lack of historical data available for comparison (Murcott, 1997). What this discourse on the decline of the family meal does demonstrate, however, is the strength of the meal as an ideational event: “Families should eat together otherwise they are not families at all”. In other words, “no meals, no family!!”
11What about the role of the meal in the Czech family? Do Czech families eat together, and if not, what value, if any, does the meal have? First though, we need to define which meals we are talking about. The following section will outline what the author regards as the ideal meal structure in Czech society, based on observations gathered during her many stays in The Czech Republic, both in rural areas and in Prague.
12For most Czechs, lunch is the main meal of the day, whether in the working week or at weekends. It is a hot meal, consumed between 11am and 1pm, often eaten at the work site, or in a canteen or nearby restaurant (for those working outside the home). All school children, including those at nursery school, are given a hot meal at lunchtime. Lunch is a very important meal. For many people, skipping lunch would be unthinkable. Its importance is ingrained in daily language. The verb to cook (vařit), for instance, often refers specifically to lunch. A woman who says, “I’m not cooking today”, does not necessarily mean that she will not prepare any hot food that day, simply that she will not prepare lunch.
13Before lunch comes breakfast, a lighter meal consisting of rolls or bread with cheese, jam, salami or pâté; also cereals, yoghurts or sweet pastries. The next main meal, after lunch, is supper (večeře), normally served between 6 and 7pm and consisting of a hot meal, of meat or sausages, or a lighter snack – salads, bread with cheese, scrambled eggs, pâté, etc. Snacks between meals are also common (called svačina) – between breakfast and lunch and between lunch and supper – and are routinely offered to children although not to adults.
14The present study looked closely at the meal structure of each of the families surveyed, asking interviewees which of these meals they prepared for their families. In the week, all of them prepared breakfast and supper and two out of three prepared lunch. The rest (interviewees and their families) had lunch at work. At the weekend, most of the women prepared all three meals (lunch and supper being substantial hot meals), also baking pastry for breakfast or as a snack between meals. Supper on a working day might be hot or cold although a few of the women invariably served a cold supper. The women in full-time employment who did not prepare lunch in the working week, would in most cases cook a substantial, hot supper even if all the other family members had had a hot lunch at work or school. Some of the employed women would cook two hot meals a day, one on arriving home from work, which they would call “lunch”, and one later in the evening. One woman with a particularly demanding job in a nearby town, who often did not return from work until 7pm, called these meals “first supper” and “second supper”. Another woman, with a job close to home, would return to cook lunch for her husband in her long midday break, also preparing a hot supper for him later in the day. She herself, meanwhile ate in the works’ canteen and her children had lunch at school.
15Summing up, we find that cooking was a major household activity in this study. Most of the interviewees spent approximately 1-2 hours cooking on weekdays and up to 3-4 hours on weekends. Now let us look at meal-sharing.
16As indicated above, cooking and meal-sharing are far from overlapping phenomena. There is however a difference between urban and rural families. On weekdays, almost half of the urban interviewees shared lunch and breakfast with the other family members and three out of five shared supper. Of the rural families, only two or three families regularly shared meals on weekdays. A very different situation prevailed on weekends when all the family members, in both urban and rural areas, would gather for the weekly ritual of Sunday lunch.
17In many of the studied families, and particularly in the villages, the daily meal is not an important social occasion. This corresponds to the author’s general experience in the countryside: family members tend to come and go, only occasionally sitting down and sharing a meal together. The person responsible for preparing the family meals is almost invariably a woman but how she prepares those meals depends on her circumstances. Some housewives, for instance, might eat lunch with one of their children and then serve the rest of the family when they return home in the afternoon. The employed women, on the other hand, might prepare lunch in the evening for reheating by the other family members at different times the following day. Others might prepare and serve food that they do not actually eat since they eat lunch at work, or eat only after serving the others.
18What about the idea of the shared meal and fears over its decline? When asked whether or not the family shared meals, some of the interviewees began by commenting on the cultural value of shared meals but said that the family could not eat together for various reasons. These ranged from gardening commitments, to teenagers’ comings and goings and the fact that husband and wife worked different hours. The interviewees nevertheless stressed the difference between weekends and other days: “On Sundays, we always sit down and eat together”. The ideal of meal-sharing as an important component of family life was not very strongly expressed, nor were there any nostalgic yearnings for the shared meals of bygone times. We may conclude from this that for the interviewees themselves the absence of shared meals was entirely normal and certainly no cause for concern. The class composition of the group of informants probably plays a role in creating this picture i.e. the lack of interviewees from the upper and middle class backgrounds that have traditionally upheld bourgeois values to do with table manners and meals. There are no available comparative data from the Czech Republic on these issues but we know that eating habits and table manners in general carry different significance for different social groups. In the European context, the art of meal-sharing – laying a table and serving elegant meals – is a concept that predominantly developed in upper and upper-middle class circles (Elias, 1978 ; Bourdieu, 1984). Furthermore, in the context of urban and rural Czech working-class society there are several practical reasons for the relatively minor importance given to meal-sharing. In many families, at least one of the spouses works shifts in the smokestack industry or in an agricultural cooperative. Additionally, the eating patterns of family members in rural areas are influenced by the need to work in the fields or care for livestock.
19What the interviews do show is that the preparation of food is very important in the everyday life of women and accepted as their self-evident responsibility. While some women complained about the burden of cooking, most considered it an unavoidable, though “natural”, task and were very flexible in adapting their cooking arrangements to suit the daily rhythm of the other family members. Considering all the effort and energy that goes into the preparation of food, meals appear as highly significant in establishing a woman’s relation to her family. The symbolic value of the midday meal is particularly important in this context. If a woman has guests or family members in her house during lunchtime, and she herself is not there to cook for them, she will most likely prepare lunch for them the day in advance. A woman who is at home at midday, on the other hand, will usually prepare lunch even though the other family members will only get to eat it on arriving home from work or school later in the day. The interviewees included several women who were temporarily unemployed or already pensioned and who cooked lunch for the whole family despite the fact that these family members ate lunch at work or at school – unlike the woman herself. Another good example was a woman who worked morning and afternoon shifts. When she worked a morning shift, the rest of the family would eat lunch away from home. When she worked an afternoon shift, however, she would spend the morning cooking food for the whole family (husband and children), who would then reheat it when they came home from work or school. There was also Radka, a 30-year-old career-minded woman with two small children. In this case, it was Radka’s husband who worked shifts. When he was on a day shift, he would eat lunch at work but when he was on evening or night shift, Radka would prepare lunch for him in the evening which he would then reheat the following day.
20To return to the question of food and its role in shaping family relations: what is this cooking all about if not meal sharing? The making of relatedness is definitely taking place, but at the core of the process is the preparation of food, not the meals themselves. The food served does not so much create a sense of social intimacy between the family as a group as between the woman and the individuals who eat the food she has prepared. During meals (served to one or more of her family members) the woman may sometimes sit down and eat with the other(s) and sometimes only be the provider of the meal, but she is always at the centre of distribution – as such, she is the main “kin-maker”. Food provides her with a highly efficient means of creating social proximity and strengthening family and kinship bonds. At the same time, she is building her identity as a proper woman who does what women are supposed to do.
21In the majority of families under study, the women did the cooking and were in charge of shopping. This raises questions about decision-making in relation to the choice and preparation of food. When asked, many of the women replied that they alone decided on the weekly diet, although some added that they would consult their husbands and children on what to cook the following day. When discussing food preferences, the women would often use the first person plural to refer to their families: “we don’t eat much beef”, “we really like salami”, “we like to have some real traditional food from time to time”, etc.
22There are often stories about the creation of this “we”, presented as part of the family’s history. Helena, for instance, a woman from Plzen in her fifties, described her own experience as a girl who had lost her mother at the age of 14 and been left to cook for both her brother and father. She had thus entered marriage with a solid knowledge base but had to teach her husband to like different kinds of food: “My husband eats everything … but when we got married he almost ate nothing – it was horrible!” “So you have educated him well?”, I said with a smile. “Yes, now he eats everything”, Helena replied.
23Several of the women made similar boasts about their husbands: “He is not complicated”, “he eats what I put in front of him”, etc. When asked whether food was a source of conflict between spouses, most of the women gave a firm “no” or “not at all” although some merely said, “we manage to agree”.
24Take Ivana, for instance, a shop manager in her mid-thirties who cooked for her truck-driving husband and teenage son. Her weekly menu seemed fairly traditional, consisting of many classical and rather heavy Czech specialities. She claimed to be the sole decision-maker when it came to the family diet but admitted that she selected dishes to suit the tastes of her husband and son and would choose a completely different diet if she were cooking for herself alone. She listed various dishes that she had tried to serve without success and therefore did not cook anymore. Typically, these were lighter dishes based on vegetables or pasta: “If I put a plate of pasta in front of them, they won’t eat it”, she said. “They are used to something different”. “Vegetables are nothing for men, they don’t get filled up unless they get a real piece of meat on their plate”.
25Many of the women said that they would choose a different menu if they could follow their own preferences, containing more vegetables and other “light” food. At the same time they took pride and joy in serving the family what they liked. As Pavla, a 35-year-old Plzen woman said, “I wouldn’t cook anything that people wouldn’t eat”. Sunday lunch was a particularly good occasion of wish fulfilment, when the other family members would be consulted on what they wanted to eat (“I give them some alternatives to choose between”, “they tell me what they want and I cook it”, etc). In some cases, the woman would even prepare two separate dishes when the children and husband could not agree on the same choice, or when cooking for guests. Witness Alena, a 30-year old woman and well-reputed cook, who would tailor her menu to suit the separate tastes of her mother and stepfather when inviting them over for Sunday lunch. Another woman reeled off a list of delicacies that she prepared on Saturdays and Sundays, admitting that she liked to spoil her family on weekends. All of the family – herself, her husband who worked as a clerk, and her adolescent son – had lunch at work or school. In the week she worked early morning and afternoon shifts milking cows at the local cooperative and had little time to cook. On weekends, she liked to make up for it by serving the family delicious meals, including homemade sweets for in-between snacks. As part of her food-related activities she maintained a large, well-stocked vegetable garden, unaided by her husband who, she said, preferred to spend his time on the tennis court. His lack of interest in food production did not bother her. She described him as a well-educated man from a larger town who had moved to the village to marry a village girl and found it difficult to adjust to country life and the physical labour involved in gardening. Her generous gifts of food were essential for his comfort and wellbeing in the village and part of the “contract” that kept them together.
26As is evident from the material presented above, the woman in charge of food preparation cares for her family in a very personal and intimate way, adapting her cooking arrangements to suit a variety of eating times as well as tastes. She knows exactly what the rest of the family like to eat and does her best to satisfy their likes and dislikes even if this means sacrificing her own wants and needs. The family as a collective plural is constructed through a continuous process of negotiation within the family, based on a delicate balance of preferences. Once again, it is the woman who pulls it all together.
27The huge flow of food in most of the families under study was a major part of everyday life. Food appears as a constituent of family relationships, but less important to the family as a group than to the woman’s relationship with the rest of her family – a situation that might be more accurately described as “no female cooking, no family” than as “no meals, no family”. A very traditional gender pattern seems to emerge, both in terms of workload and the female role. Where food-related tasks are concerned, the women are flexible, available at all times and prepared to cater for the needs and wishes of their family. But were there really no cracks in this picture, no signs of destabilisation or of the subversion of gender roles? When describing their family’s food history, the women would sometimes mention “counter-hegemonic” actions: ways of gradually changing their family’s diet in accordance with their own preferences, or of persuading their husbands to eat more healthily. In the younger families, the gendered division of labour was less pronounced than among older generations and some of the younger men would also cook from time to time. Food work is thus not considered a totally “improper” task for men to perform; in the repeated periods of fieldwork the author has spent in the Czech countryside, she met even a few older men who knew the art of cooking and who had their own specialities which they prepared for family and guests.
28There are also signs that cooking lessons for young women are not the priority they were just 10 or 20 years ago say. According to a secondary school teacher of home economics and cooking whom I interviewed in 2001, the past 15 years had seen a sharp decline in cooking skills among young girls: “They don’t know how to make the simplest things!” Among the adult female population, however, knowledge about the art of cooking is considered very important and is a skill that is appreciated and valued, not only by other women but also by men. Women in the south Moravian and Bohemian villages, where I conducted my research, are often judged according to their cooking abilities and people know who is a good cook and who is not. Younger women often compare themselves with their foremothers in terms of the time spent cooking and the kinds of food they prepare and they take pride in cooking modern, less time-consuming dishes. Nonetheless, they still associate cooking with their identity as women, mothers and wives. Marriage seems to be an important turning point in this respect. Several of the interviewees said they knew nothing about cooking when they were single but taught themselves as soon as they got married. Some used cookbooks, others learned from other adult women (friends, neighbours, or mothers-in-law).
29A woman who fails to provide meals for her family may jeopardize not only her own reputation but also the existence of the family itself. A few years prior to this study I met an urban woman who described her former husband as very difficult and endlessly critical of her behaviour. “When he couldn’t find anything else to complain about”, she said, “he blamed me for not serving him dumplings – knedliky”. Knedliky, served with meat and gravy, are considered essential ingredients of Czech national cuisine. The strongest critique her husband could think of was to accuse his wife of not serving him proper, traditional food. What this shows is that, from the man’s point of view, a wife’s failure to cater for her husband as a real Czech woman should, is not a proper wife at all and the marriage is not a proper marriage. Another similar example I came across during a visit of South Bohemia in summer 2005 was a family in crisis said to be caused by the problematic nature of the woman. “She does not even cook lunch for them on weekends”, I was told. “The husband is the one who has to do all the weekend cooking”. Her lack of cooking was regarded as a quintessential symptom of family breakdown.
30Female food-related activities would therefore appear vital to maintain gender balance in the family. The choice, style and preparation of food may vary from one family to another, but all of the women seemed to enjoy this part of their gender role. In terms of gender relations and power, it is important to bear in mind that the position of food-maker and distributor carries substantial power and strength (Counihan, 1999: 43ff). Through their cooking efforts, women not only establish themselves as proper women but they are also “making” other persons (such as healthy children and happy husbands). As the person in charge of food provision, what’s more, the woman also controls a very potent medium of communication. Food is first and foremost a gift that a woman is obliged to give. However, as shown by Marcel Mauss, the obligation to receive may be as strong as the obligation to give (Mauss, 1954). A woman who says, “my husband eats everything”, clearly does not mean that he finds all food equally to his taste. On the contrary, she will be intimately acquainted with his likes and dislikes, perhaps serving his favourite dishes as a reward and vice-versa. Take dill sauce for example, one of the many Czech sauces traditionally served with beef and dumplings. For some reason, however, Czechs tend to feel rather ambivalent about dill sauce and several of the women interviewed said they never prepared it at all. I interviewed one woman where the husband was present during part of the interview. We talked about their diet and food preferences and the husband proclaimed: “When she wants to punish me, she serves me dill-sauce”.
- 3 See also Passmore and Passmore (2003).
- 4 See Haukanes (2001b, 2004).
31Food is essentially about relationships. The flow of food may serve to create intimacy, closeness or familiarity, or on the contrary, distance, boundaries and hierarchies. The fact that food seems to hold particular significance for Czech society may be partly explained by the historical experience of state socialism and its economy of scarcity.3 Unable to buy quality food in shops, people took to growing their own. The home-produced food took on a special value due to the feeling of self-sufficiency and independence it provoked. This joy and pride in the home-made (domácí) is still found and is not limited to rural areas; also many urban citizens had and still have access to such products and make a point of the difference in quality and taste between this food and industrially produced food.4 Society at large takes a deep interest in both the cultivation and consumption of food and this, combined with a gender regime which essentially sees food-related activities as women’s work helps to explain why the communication and relationship-building potential of food seems particularly strong in the context of Czech families.
32Shared meals however, with the notable exception of Sunday lunch, are not what bond a family together. Nor are any particular dishes or foods noticeably more instrumental than others in building family and kinship ties. On the contrary, the diet of each of the families interviewed is carefully adapted to individual wants and needs, making for a wide variety of cooking styles. What matters, therefore, is not the substance of food as such but its flow – the constant stream of food distributed to individual family members thanks to the woman’s intensive activity. The cooking and serving of food are embedded in a discursive framework that defines female care, a vital element in the maintenance of family relatedness and proper femaleness. Female food-related work, properly performed, appears to act as a key centripetal force in family life. Conversely, a woman’s inability to cater properly for her family’s appetites may jeopardize family unity. The family as a collective “we”, therefore, largely depends on the woman’s readiness to perform her role as expected. That said, both gender regimes and cooking styles are gradually changing, particularly among the younger generations. Only future research will reveal whether or not that change will disassociate femaleness from cooking and reduce the relevance of food flows to kinship building.