In what follows, I am going to describe a particular bio foodstuff/food/product (a bio rice drink) in its three ‘life phases’ – the purchase, consumption and post-consumption phase.
The purchase phase
This carton of rice drink can be found and bought in local, organic shops. One normally cannot see or taste the actual drink before buying it meaning one can rely only on what is on the carton. It could be said that the carton conceals the actual drink, but it also reveals something. The carton is visibly different from non-bio drink cartons. One can hardly miss the big green word ‘BIO’. The name of the drink, the flavour, the characteristics of the drink (vegan, gluten free, spring water, with no added sugars) are all written in English making it quite universally recognizable. We do not even need to search for and read the ingredients to know it is a vegan, gluten free bio rice drink with vanilla flavour.
Hence, the carton’s function is not only to store and protect the drink. It is also an epistemological device which contains two types of knowledge: production and consumption knowledge(Appadurai 1986). The former is, for instance, that it is a rice drink made from organic rice and spring water, whereas the latter is its average nutritional value or the date of expiry. The immateriality of the drink is expressed through the materiality of the carton.
One could doubt whether what is written on the carton corresponds to the content (the actual drink inside). We do not know it and we can just trust the producer and the information on the packaging. At this stage, the drink is first of all a commodity, which is a thing in a certain situation with an economic value (Appadurai 1986) and also a use value (Kopytoff 1986). To drink this drink, we need to first buy it.
The Consumption Phase
When bought for consumption, it ceased to be a commodity. It is out of its ‘commodity state’ (Appadurai 1986; Kopytoff 1986). It is in this phase that, through material and embodied process of eating, this foodstuff becomes food. The difference between food and foodstuff can seem banal but, in fact, is important. As described by Roe(2006), a foodstuff is what we buy or as it exists before we actually eat it; it becomes food in the actual process of drinking or eating. It is thus crucial to look at the material practices of consumers and see how foodstuffs are turned into food.
Gibson’s concept of affordances(1979) can help us to understand close material relationship between food (the actual drink), and us, that is, our eyes, hands and mouth. Gibson suggests that ‘what we perceive when we look at objects are their affordances, not their qualities’ (1979:134). From looking at the carton we cannot know the drink’s qualities. We can perceive that it is easily moveable object. Like water, this drink does not afford holding and grasping. It affords pouring into and out of a container such as jar or mug, spilling or drinking. It is only in the process of drinking that we can know its qualities such as its sweet taste.
Thus, the drink’s materiality and value become apparent and meaningful to us only through direct multi-sensory and bodily engagement with it, through actual food practices such as drinking, tasting, smelling or using it as an ingredient in a meal. We can drink it alone or we can add something into it or mix it with another foodstuff. We can heat it or drink it cold. Or we can use it for baking a cake, for instance. It is up to us and our creativity and ingenuity how we use it and in what form we consume it.
The post-consumption phase
I would argue that food’s ‘life’ does not end with its consumption. In effect, it affects us most after we consume it, and so only then we can really ‘know’ its qualities. Surely, food consumption is an ephemeral material practice which, ‘revolves around loss more often than preservation’(Colloredo-Mansfeld 2003:243). When consumed, food in a sense disappears. Yet it is not really lost but rather its matter or substance is transformed through metabolic processes.
After its consumption, we do not ‘have‘ the drink but rather we ‘are’ it. It does something to us physically as well as mentally and emotionally (we feel something when we consume it). We can experience different physiological reactions which depend on its properties or qualities and how our bodies react to them. It can satisfy thirstiness or the craving for something sweet and milklike. It can conjure up different sensations and physiological reactions. Perhaps it is only after its consumption that we decide when or if we will drink it again. As for the carton, when properly discarded, it can be recycled. Or we can reuse it.
Like the drink itself, the carton too after fulfilling its original function does not simply disappear but is rather turned into something else. Materiality, unlike immateriality, exists always, to a greater or lesser extent, independently of us. We can work with material things, reshape or transform them, but we can never completely make them disappear and turn them into ‘non-existence’.
This blog is a practical application of the ideas and insights presented in the blog Unwrapping packaged bio food
This is an adapted part of the paper I wrote during my Master of Social and Cultural Anthropology for the course Material Culture. References available upon request.