Eating: The Consumption of Food as Practical Symbol and Symbolic Practice

The consumption of food for sustenance forms the most fundamental goal of productive activity in Palokhi. Besides this, or indeed perhaps because of this, eating as an activity and idiom in verbal expressions appears to be a pervasive means of expressing and communicating ideas, concepts and cultural meanings about social relations. Some of these we have already seen.

In Chapter II, for example, I described the Head Rite and its sequel, and showed how the ritual commensalism among the co-founders of Palokhi and the rest of the community may be interpreted as a symbolic expression of certain social and ritual relationships which also involve the Lord of the Water, Lord of the Land. Other examples of the symbolic significance of eating were also described in Chapter III, namely, the joint consumption of a meal by the bride and groom in public view on the final day of marriage ceremonies, followed by the drinking of liquor from a common cup. In the ‘au’ ma xae ritual, which is a quintessentially domestic ritual, as discussed in Appendix A, commensalism is the principal ritual activity; along with other considerations, it establishes the cultural meanings of various social relationships. And, in this chapter, we have seen how a number of contractual arrangements are described through the idiom of eating.

These examples are by no means the only ones to be found in Palokhi. There are many others which attest to the pervasiveness and power of eating as a polyvalent idiom in the symbolic representation of a host of cultural meanings in the social life of the Palokhi Karen, ranging from the seemingly trivial to the highly complex and significant.

Not unlike the Northern Thai, the Palokhi Karen often point to the number of times a day that people eat to make distinctions between ethnic groups. Indeed, because they eat three meals a day — as do the Northern Thai — this is taken as an indication of some similarity as against the Lisu, for example, who are said to eat five times a day. Again, similar to the Northern Thai, and a great many other Southeast Asian societies, a commonplace greeting in Palokhi has, as its subject matter, eating. The greeting, which is shared by the Pwo Karen (Hinton [1975:76]), is simply “Have you eaten yet?” (na ‘au’ me wi li). And, if the answer is in the affirmative, the next question could then be “What did you eat with rice?” (na ‘au’ me dau’ ca’ lau). The response is almost invariably “(I) had rice with pounded chillies” (‘au’ me dau’ mysa tho).[11]

In ritual and non-ritual meals where chicken or pork is prepared, children (especially if they are very young) are not permitted to eat parts of the head. The reason given by parents is that the children will go hither and thither, heedless of parental instruction. Or, as we might say it in English, they would become “headstrong”. There is, perhaps, another unarticulated reason, namely, that the eating of the head is only appropriate to those who are mature or “old” because they are less vulnerable to the effects of what is consumed. In quite another context, healing rituals in cases of “soul loss” and “spirit invasion” entail the eating of a meal not only by the patient, but by all members of the household as well. The patient, however, is also given lustral water which has been chanted over with prayers or, more properly, spells, thus consuming the restorative power of the spells through the medium of water.

Furthermore, in all important rites which feature commensalism in one form or another, the accompanying ritual texts contain the words “eat” (‘au’) and “drink” (‘au’) as a key dyadic set stating explicitly the fact of commensalism which takes place. And, not unlike many societies in which eating is associated with sex (see, for example, Goody [1982: 11]), the Palokhi Karen have a formula for verbal abuse which makes a similar association. It translates as “eat your mother’s vagina” (‘au’ noe’ mo ‘a’ li).

As an idiom and activity, eating very clearly has the capacity to express a wide variety of meanings in Palokhi. One of these, of particular relevance to the present discussion, is the “corporateness” of the household and the relations between households which generally make up the community life and organisation of the Palokhi Karen. This is to be found in two contrasting modes of eating behaviour. The first is routine eating behaviour; the second is a generalised commensalism which takes place in one of the most important community rituals in the village, that is, the rites of the New Year (lyta thau ni sau).

In analysing the significance of these two modes of behaviour it is necessary to consider commensalism as a form of behaviour which can take place in a variety of contexts (as indeed it does in Palokhi) in which the symbolic meaning of the activity may vary, but which nonetheless possesses some common symbolic property, feature or value. The analysis, in other words, must take into account the fact that eating does indeed occur in different contexts, that there is at least some common meaning attributable to the fact that the activity is the same in different contexts, and that there may also be other meanings present which are derived from the particular circumstances of the different situations in which the activity takes place. Thus, although I am specifically interested in interpreting two contrasting modes of eating behaviour in Palokhi — routine domestic commensalism and feasting in the rites of the New Year — the interpretation should nevertheless be generally applicable to other instances of commensalism, some of which have already been described and some of which will be discussed later (see Chapter VI).

The analysis which I present below draws on Kapferer’s essay (1979) on ritual as a transformative process which is primarily concerned with the form and organisation of rituals as performances (rather than their content), and how transformations in meaning and action may be effected. In essence, the meaning of a ritual is the product of its context which is composed of its constituent elements (such as objects, actions, symbols and identities) and their particular configuration. Thus any change in the relation between these elements, for example, leads to a change in meaning. Following Grathoff (1970) and Handelman (1979) on the concept of “symbolic types”, Kapferer argues that:

… specific symbolic elements or forms have properties, often culturally encoded within them, which effect transformations in other symbolic elements and in the organization of the context which they enter. (1979:10)

Such elements or symbolic types, then, have their own internal consistency which may transform the contexts in which they appear, thus, effecting transformations in meaning. Symbolic types also have the property of “summarising” symbols (Ortner [1973]; Kapferer [1979:12]). That is, they can contain aspects of meaning which they carry with them from one context to another.

In terms of the organisation of rituals, symbolic types, furthermore, can be of two kinds. They can themselves be altered as a consequence of the transformations they bring about; or they can remain unaltered despite the changes in meaning that they effect. The former kind are best exemplified in rites of transition, the latter in “affirmatory” rites.

Although Kapferer is essentially concerned with ritual in its “religious” or “sacred” sense as conventionally understood, it is clear that the definitions of “symbolic type” and “context” permit their wider application.[12] Indeed, they must. Symbolic entities and, by implication and extension, the contexts in which they appear are not symbols and not necessarily “ritual” sui generis. They are appropriated from the context of everyday life and are, as it were, constructed symbols and situations. Accordingly, a consideration of an entity or element that is symbolic in ritual contexts must require at least some consideration of its relation to what it is when it is not symbolic or when it exists in a non-ritual context. Or as Firth has pointed out in an essay specifically concerned with food symbolism (1973:245–6), it is the conceptualisation of the object in a given relationship that is significant and that where food is concerned, the symbolic and non-symbolic relationships are in fact intertwined.

In more general terms, the critical issue here is whether or not a clear-cut distinction can be established between what is ritual and what is not. As Leach has suggested (1964:12–3), this is not always so easy to determine and a far more useful approach lies in taking the view that human actions may be placed on a continuum ranging from the purely technical to the highly sacred. What is symbolically meaningful and not symbolically meaningful, ritual and non-ritual, can therefore only be determined by a consideration of the objects, elements or entities and their contexts simultaneously. It is here that the nature and composition of what constitutes a “symbolic type” become important.

I suggest that as a practical activity, commensalism, may be regarded as a “symbolic type”, the typical property of which is the “constitutive” in the sense that social relations are symbolically constituted by it. This is a view of commensalism which is by no means new in anthropology. Commensal behaviour, as it is well-acknowledged in the anthropological literature, symbolically expresses a solidarity, commonality (or, indeed, communality) and shared identity of those who participate in it. Furthermore, I suggest that it is this property of commensalism as a symbolic type which effects transformations in meaning and, at the same time, allows it to remain unaltered despite these changes which it may bring about. In terms of the transformative aspect of ritual, therefore, we may consider commensalism as a symbolic type that transforms the context in which it appears through its “constitutive” property such that the essential meaning of the context lies in the process of the constitution of social relations or identities. The kinds of social relations or identities that are constituted, however, are defined by other elements in the context in which commensalism features. At the same time, the symbolic value of commensalism, in each context, remains the same notwithstanding the transformation in meaning that it brings about. Commensalism, in other words, is essentially “affirmatory” symbolic activity.

Domestic Commensalism in Palokhi

The Palokhi Karen eat three meals a day, and of these meals the early morning and evening meals are consumed in their homes while the mid-day meal is usually consumed in their fields. There is not a great deal of symbolic meaning attaching to the kinds of food that they eat, but there are certainly symbolic aspects to how food is domestically prepared and the utensils which are used for this purpose. Cooking utensils, for example, are used in ways which establish very broad distinctions between food that is cultivated or domesticated and food that is not. The cooking of rice, for example, is done in a pot that is reserved specifically for this function. Similarly, stews consisting of the flesh of domestically reared animals and cultivated crops are cooked in a separate pot. For each kind of pot, there is also a spoon or ladle which can only be used together with it. On the other hand, game must be cooked in a different vessel. The pots and spoons, therefore, are not interchangeable insofar as their uses are concerned. I have also noted in the previous chapter, for example, that the cooking utensils of a married couple are thrown away when spouses are divorced and when families convert to Christianity. Much of the general symbolic significance of food in Palokhi occurs, therefore, in domestic contexts.

It is, however, mundane social behaviour associated with the eating of food at domestic levels that throws into relief the importance of domestic commensalism as a practical symbol through which social relations are expressed. Such behaviour might be dismissed as trivial were it not for the fact that it occurs consistently and is always predictable. It is behaviour of a kind that is so much a part of everyday social life, to which little thought is given, that it eludes explicit exegesis or formulation of its motivation or rationale except within its own frame of reference. For this very reason, however, it is I believe a good example of the kinds of “taken for granted” social interaction or behaviour which constitutes much of the praxis of what we choose to call, by way of abstraction, social organisation — in the same way that we might describe social organisation through an observation of the activities of production and consumption. It is, in other words, yet another aspect of social interaction in which social organisation is, as we might say, “immanent” as praxis.

When the Palokhi Karen eat at home, they almost invariably shut the doors of their houses. In some houses, the meal is eaten from a large, circular wooden tray (made from a cross-section of a tree trunk) which is placed on the floor near the fire-place. Rice is spooned from the cooking pot all around the tray. A dish or two of food accompaniments and chilli relish is placed amidst the rice in the centre of the tray. In other houses, large enamel dishes (purchased from shops) are used instead of the wooden trays. The meal is eaten by members of the household as they squat, or sit, around the tray. They use their fingers to pick up the rice and other food. Soup or gravy is eaten with common spoons shared by all. There is no particular order which dictates the eating of the meal. Where households are small, all members of the family eat together while in the case of large families, household members may be broken up into two groups which eat consecutively because they cannot all sit around the tray.

Domestic commensalism in Palokhi is, by its very nature, clearly “inclusive” and “exclusive” at the same time, for it includes only household members and excludes non-household members. This is, of course, symbolically established by shutting the door of the house, but it is also to be seen in the behaviour of non-household members during meal times. In general, doors are shut only during the night when the household sleeps and during meals. Shut doors, thus, can only have two meanings in Palokhi; outside of sleeping hours, they indicate that a meal is in progress. At such times, it is understood that visits should not be made.

On the other hand, if the Palokhi Karen visit one another, and they then notice that a meal is being prepared or is about to be served, they invariably leave the house and return later when the meal is over. As a matter of courtesy, they are usually asked to stay and eat, but such invitations are always declined (see also Hinton [1975:183]). The implicit rule, therefore, is that the members of a household do not generally eat in other households.

Feasting in the Rites of the New Year

There are a number of important features in the rites of the New Year in Palokhi. Some of these I consider in Chapter VI where I discuss the annual ritual cycle in the community. Here, therefore, I shall consider only the commensalism that takes place in what is the most important ritual in the community.

The New Year celebrations are held over two consecutive days, the first of which is given to final preparations for the feasting that takes place on the second day, and an evening meal eaten only by members of the domestic group. Before this meal is eaten, the oldest married woman in the household performs a “soul calling” (kau’ koela) ritual in which the souls of all household members are called back to the home. The meal is eaten in much the same way as ordinary meals, the only difference being that a richer repast is prepared in the form of chicken or pork. What marks the eating of this meal from other meals and the annual ‘au’ ma xae, however, is the fact that it occurs in the context of the New Year celebrations thus distinguishing it as an activity of special significance to the Palokhi Karen as a community.

On the next day, the household has its early morning meal which is immediately followed by a wrist-tying ceremony for all members of the domestic group. Their wrists are tied by the head of the household and his wife with lengths of cotton yarn. The purpose of the ceremony is to bind the souls of household members to their bodies. Thereafter, members of the household (usually children) go to other houses in the village, beginning with the headman’s and that of the elders, inviting the occupants to “come and eat, come and eat”. As every household does this, the scene in the village eventually becomes one of people bustling to and fro, either issuing invitations to eat or entering houses for a meal and emerging only to be faced with another barrage of invitations. And so it goes on through the day.

The headman and elders are usually invited together as a group. The reason for this is that when they have finished eating the meal, they are asked to make offerings of rice liquor to the Lord of the Water, Lord of the Land as well as to pray for blessings on the household. They are, in other words, invited as ritual officiants inasmuch as they are members of the community like all others who are invited.

As visitors arrive at each house, food is placed before them in the eating tray for them to eat. They are usually joined by a member of the host family who, under the circumstances, eats as a token gesture. Needless to say, as visitors make their rounds, they too are only able to eat in token fashion. After the meal is eaten, rice liquor is served along with tobacco and fermented tea (miang). Feasting in the New Year celebrations of the Palokhi Karen is, to use a more familiar idiom, an “open house” affair.

The Constitutive and Transformative Aspects of Commensalism

It will be apparent from the accounts above where the essential area of contrast lies between routine domestic commensalism and the generalised commensalism of the rites of the New Year. Domestic commensalism is very much confined to members of the household with a corresponding exclusion of non-household members. The commensalism in the rites of the New Year, on the other hand, reverses this norm where the Palokhi Karen eat in every house contrary to everyday practice.

Although everyday household commensalism may not be regarded as a “ritual” activity, its primary significance lies in — to use Firth’s phrase — its “conceptualization in a given relationship”, that is, as an activity that is associated with, and identifies, those who live, work, and consume the products of their labour together. It is in this relational sense that domestic commensalism may be regarded as “constitutive”. But if commensalism is so, at the level of the mundane or quotidian, it is undoubtedly elevated to the symbolic in the meals taken by the domestic group on the evening of the first day and morning of the second day in the New Year celebrations. At this time, the conceptual and relational aspects of domestic commensalism are, quite unambiguously, symbolically “constitutive” of the “corporateness” or solidarity and identity of the domestic group or household.

However, the second day of the celebrations is also given to commensalism as the principal activity of the community as a whole. It is during this generalised commensalism that the activity of eating becomes “transformative” and “constitutive” at the same time. The rites of the New Year effect a transformation in terms of what is being constituted through commensalism in a different context, a context that is now defined by the general participation of all members of the community as opposed to participation in commensalism at the strictly domestic level. Here, it is the “corporateness” of the community in its entirety that is affirmed through commensalism, following that of the domestic group. In other words, the process of transformation lies in the change from the affirmation of domestic group identity to community identity.

This is important for what it reveals of the ideological status of the household or domestic group, both individually and collectively. In strictly practical terms, the household is as we have seen the fundamental operative social and economic unit in Palokhi while general social organisation and the organisation of subsistence production and consumption consist of a variety of arrangements which make up the relations among households. It is, however, the representation of this fact through routine domestic commensalism and the generalised commensalism in the rites of the New Year, as symbolic or ritualised activity, which is indicative of the place which the household and general social organisation, effectively, occupy in the cultural ideology of the Palokhi Karen. At a general level, this is consonant with the family sociology of the Palokhi Karen as well as features of the ideology of the kinship system, marriage and residence discussed in the previous chapter. It is also totally consistent with the way in which households function as ritual units in the cultivation of crops (see Chapter VI). Although ideologies, at their most general, do not necessarily consistently reflect practical social arrangements, in Palokhi this is indeed the case. It implies a degree of internal consistency in the cultural ideology of the Palokhi Karen which is relevant to an understanding of the maintenance of a social and cultural order that is distinctively their own. It is this very internal consistency, along with other considerations discussed in the concluding chapter, which ensures a certain continuity in the cultural ideology of the Palokhi Karen if only because there are fewer areas of tension or contradiction which would, ultimately, require resolution thus rendering it open to restructuring or change.

In this chapter, I have attempted to describe the general social organisation of Palokhi in microsociological terms by examining a variety of practical social arrangements in subsistence production which form, in large part, the substantive aspects of this social organisation. I have also attempted to show that the cultural ideology of the Palokhi Karen reflects this organisation in ways which are consistent with other aspects of social organisation, namely, kinship, marriage and residence and that this is effected through commensalism, as practical and symbolic activity, which “summarises” (or abstracts from social reality) the social relations within and among households in which much of social organisation in Palokhi exists as praxis. These considerations are directly relevant to an understanding of the subsistence economy of the Palokhi Karen which I discuss in detail in the next chapter.




[11] There is, in fact, more to these greetings and they deserve to be examined in their own right. Very briefly, they appear to encode certain ideas about — for lack of a better term — the “offensiveness” of repletion, and suggest a reluctance to establish or assert (however perfunctorily) differences in well-being. I have on a number of occasions heard Palokhi parents check their children who, with little care for social niceties and with obvious relish, informed their friends of some dish of meat which they enjoyed at home in response to precisely these kinds of alimentary greetings. It is true that the Palokhi Karen almost invariably have a chilli-based relish with their rice. However, while it is the commonest fare, it is also the most basic. “Pounded chillies”, however, is a generic term which covers a wide variety of preparations which, I might add, by no means compare unfavourably with many equivalent relishes in Northern Thai cuisine. I suspect that an important reason why “pounded chillies” is a standard response is that the Palokhi Karen experience a certain degree of embarrassment in indicating that they have eaten well when they know that others may not have done so. While this makes sense in terms of social interaction, what makes this kind of verbal behaviour culturally significant is that it is yet another manifestation of an ethos of egalitarian social relations. Though there are disparities in wealth among Palokhi households, wealth is generally never ostentatiously displayed. The avoidance of assertions of socio-economic differences is, thus, effected through the use of metaphors of shared poverty — in this case “pounded chillies” — in order to assert that all are equal in what people are compelled to eat in lean times. However, I might add that Palokhi Karen cuisine is not as impoverished as is often believed by the Northern Thai many of whom in fact are convinced that all that the Karen eat is rice and “pounded chillies”.

[12] Though Kapferer does not deal with this, it is clear from his review of the papers to which his essay is an introduction, that he accepts that the most fundamental definition of a symbol lies in the relationship between a signifier and what is signified and that symbols are not symbolic objects, elements or identities in themselves. In the same way, rituals are not ipso facto rituals but are constructed situations with symbolic meaning.