Markers of national identity

‘Belgian’ food culture as a marker of national identity at the World Expositions (London 1851 to Shangai 2010). A historical-archaeological analysis.

Nelleke Teughels 

There is a wide consensus among social scientists that food serves as a medium for social and cultural communication and plays a key role in the construction of national and regional identities. As such, food offers nations a powerful semiotic tool for propagating a general but carefully constructed knowledge about their identity, traditions and progress among the public. Aside from their economic purpose, it was precisely this kind of educational goal the world’s fairs aimed to serve. However, there are but few studies of the food that were served and/or presented at the world’s fairs and of how their semiotic potential was exploited and enhanced using material settings and/or accompanying texts and visuals. This project contributes to the recent interest in the connection between food and nationalism/regionalism as a marker of identity. It aims to gauge whether the construction and promotion of a ‘traditional food culture’ was used as an instrument in the legitimation and identity construction of a nation. Combining a historical and interpretative-archaeological approach, this project analyzes the food that was presented and served by the Belgian participants at the world exhibitions for (re)presentation at the World Expositions from 1851 to 2010, as well as the textual and material contexts in which they chose to display this food to the public. It will consider which foodstuffs and whose food culture(s) were selected, by whom this was done, how they were presented, why, and with what purpose. Moreover, it will take into account the interaction between (national, regional, community and local) governments and private bodies involved in this process. This study will contribute to a better understanding of how cultural heritage and national identity are constructed and will offer a historical perspective on the increasing emphasis on national and regional cultural individuality following the European integration, in which food culture play(s)(ed) an important role. By focusing on horizontal and vertical interaction and tensions, it allows an analysis of the dynamics of identity construction on a European, national and regional level.