Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


Are We What Our Ancestors Ate?

I love being a social scientist but if I had to choose my career over again there is a slim chance I’d become a chef instead. In these times of multiple food television networks and best-selling celebrity chef cookbooks it is easy to think of food as something frivolous. But it is far from this.

We spend more than two hours a day consuming food and drinking (on average 2.5 hours). People in Japan and France have longer life expectancies than many living elsewhere and this may have something to do with their higher consumption of particular products (fish and red wine, respectively). On the other hand, the United States is suffering from unprecedented levels of diabetes and obesity in part because of our consumption of sugary drinks. In 2011, 44.7 million Americans (14% of the population) utilized food benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (i.e., food stamps; with an average benefit of $133.85 per month or a total of $4.46 per day). Many more people worldwide will go to bed hungry tonight (…as Americans spend more than $30 billion annually to feed their pets and almost twice as much on weight loss programs for ourselves). Spikes in the price of bread and rice have historically been the sparks of revolution around the world (...notoriously in France but more recently in the “Arab Spring” in North Africa and Middle East). In sum, the food we consume has very real and important consequences. There are good reasons we should be studying this topic.

CARA has been approached more than once by food companies wondering what we know about Catholics’ food preferences. One fast food company was particularly interested if we had data on fish consumption during Lent. On this lighter note I wondered, if I was planning to open a restaurant would I need to know the religious affiliation of the people in the neighborhood? Strangely, it might help.

When Catholics are asked what their first choice of food would be if they were dining out they most often select Italian (38%). No surprise yet. Italian food is amazing. Strangely though, Protestants—whether Evangelical or Mainline—are significantly less likely to prefer this option (21% and 25%, respectively). Protestants are more likely to prefer American fare (which really isn’t American: e.g., hamburgers are from Hamburg steak in Germany, hot dogs from frankfurters also in Germany, meatloaf again from Germany, or fried chicken which is thought to be inspired from Scottish and West African recipes. Perhaps barbecue has the best claim for authentic American heritage). 

Those of other religions, who like Catholics are rooted in immigration from other parts of the world, are more likely to prefer “non-American” food fare. Nones (those with no religious affiliation), of which 40% were raised in a Protestant denomination, are very similar in their preferences to those who currently self-identify as Protestant—sometimes the religion fades but the food sticks.

It is clear that Americans with a more recent history of immigration in their ancestral tree are more likely than those who descended from earlier settlers to prefer food from other shores. Even as many no longer self-identify as Italian Americans the preference for food from this region remains in the Catholic population.

This same CBS/Vanity Fair Poll from which results above are derived asked some other interesting questions about food preferences. Respondents were also asked what their favorite ice cream is. Catholics are more likely than those of any other religious affiliation to prefer chocolate (I’m glad to be Catholic…). That means of course that there are actually people in this country that would be more likely to prefer vanilla (e.g., Protestants and those of other religious affiliations). At least Nones and Catholics share something in common—both prefer chocolate. Perhaps this is the secret ingredient for New Evangelization?

Finally in this same survey respondents were asked about several different “indulgences” they would prefer if there were no effects on their physical health (no mention of spiritual health in the question wording…). U.S. adult Catholics choose food over sex, inactivity, alcohol, smoking, and getting a good tan.

Catholics are more likely than those of other faiths to choose food over all other options listed. Evangelicals—similar to those of other religions and Nones—split their preferences between food and avoiding exercise completely (39% and 21%, respectively). Mainline Protestants prefer eating and smoking (43% and 14%, respectively).

It is good too see the Catholic love of food but on the other hand I believe in all things in moderation (gluttony really is a sin). I enjoy Italian food (Cacio e Pepe please) on a night out but also think it is important to strive to do everything I can possible to be sure others have enough food. I’m for pasta in every pot and ice cream in every freezer. Statistically, Americans tend to pay attention to food needs most during the holidays from Thanksgiving to Christmas. It’s summer but you might consider making it a Christmas in July and donate to an organization that provides food to those in need. In 2010 more than 3,000 local Catholic Charities offices provided food to nearly 7.2 million people through food banks, soup kitchens, home delivered meals, and other means. Outside of U.S. borders Catholic Relief Services provides invaluable assistance to help those in need develop and sustain agriculture and CRS provides food assistance through its social safety net programs as well. 

The average American household spends $2,736 per year dining out (42% of our annual food spending). Perhaps each of us could forgo a few nights eating at our favorite restaurant and give a try to being a chef at home. Take the difference in food costs and give it to a Catholic charity that provides food assistance. Fewer in the world would go to bed hungry and perhaps some of us will be inspired to start a second career as chefs.

Above photos courtesy of nicksherman, lucasartoni, and nc_hiker at Flickr Creative Commons.

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