Does food unite people? Does eating make people have a sense of belonging? Is it possible to say that imagining a national cuisine can create a sense of democracy where institutional democracy is weak?
These are some basic questions with unexpectedly difficult answers. Food is at the very basics of people’s everyday lives. Without it, human beings cannot survive. But far more than being simply a material of sustenance, food and eating also have links to bigger social, cultural, political and economic structures of societies. On the other hand, food is also deeply personal. People have memories of food, food one grew up with, one has tastes and preferences about how (and with whom) to eat. Food is, therefore, right in between the personal and the social, the micro experiences of people’s inner lives and the macro aspects of society.
In Lima (Peru), there’s been a big culinary boom since the mid-2000s. Despite poverty in Lima being reduced to a point where now 1 in 10 people live in extreme poverty in 2017, today, across all socioeconomic levels in the city, Limeños on average spend more than 1/3 of their income towards eating out. Food is so important in Limeño society that it is at the center of everyday conversations among friends; an excellent conversation icebreaker with strangers, it is the focus of many television programs, books and magazines dedicated to food (which almost did not exist prior to the boom); political agendas (currently, there is a national day of Pollo a la Brasa, Pisco Sour, among many other days of food), and even international conflicts (like the constant battle for the denomination of origin of Peru’s national spirit: Pisco, which is contested with the neighboring Chile).
The interesting thing is, however, that Lima is society of social divisions. Since it was founded in 16th century, Lima’s society has a trajectory of strong divisions of class and race. In the 20th century, as Lima grew from a city of roughly 300,000 inhabitants in the mid 1940s to about 10 million in 2017, the urban landscape of the city followed these social distinctions, with neighborhoods new neighborhoods being created and populated by people of similar socioeconomic status, class and race. How is it possible then that food (and particularly the invention of a Peruvian cuisine tradition) can apparently seem to eliminate these divisions and create an imagined community of Limeños where in other aspects of everyday life this seems impossible? In particular, in a society where its democratic institutions are weak and where a normalized structural economic violence continues to be predominant, why does it sometime seems that food can unite people, even when Limeños of different classes (and neighborhoods) almost never sit down together to eat on the same table?
These are the questions that guide my doctoral dissertation, a research project I have been working on since 2014. This gallery is an ongoing attempt to show through visual media what food represents to Limeños and how food acquires its meanings and significance in the social and urban space of the city of Lima. Food in Peru has an important emotional dimension that I believe can more easily be conveyed through images than solely through text.
This is a continuous work in progress, some photos can change, and more photos will be added as time passes (and I progress in my research). Enjoy!