Taste of Home: Why talking about food is part of ‘United America’

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Taste of Home
Allan Benton shows off country hams in his smokehouse in Tennessee

In Madisonville in eastern Tennessee, Alan Benton shows off one of the hams in his family’s huge smokehouse. The Bentons’ family owned business has been selling hams, prepared through the traditional dry-curing process, from this small town in the Smoky Mountains since just after World War II.

Why talk about food? Well, for obvious reasons—we love it! There are entire cable TV channels devoted to food!

But, in OurValues? Why talk about food as a way to explore Americans’ 10 Core Values—as described in sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker’s book, United America? Today, Dr. Baker is adding a new study guide for group discussion to the resource page for his book. You are free to download and use this new discussion guide (or any of the other guides) to spark spirited conversations about the issues raised in United America.

THIS WEEK, in five columns, we will look at the many connections between food and values. Academics, especially scientists and historians, have been studying this connection for at least 200 years. The axiom—”Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are”—began appearing in the early 1800s in texts on “natural science.”

In the 1960s, the French historian Fernand Braudel surprised his scholarly colleagues by devoting a major portion of his massive series, “Civilization and Capitalism,” to the foods and culinary customs of ordinary Eurpeans since the 15th Century. In his volume, “The Structures of Everyday Life,” Braudel explained that food preparation was key to the development of successful communities. For a very long time, serious historians had tended to write only about major events like wars and global exploration or about heroic or infamous persons. Braudel understood that modern Europe was shaped far more profoundly by the way ordinary families preserved their grains and ate their starchy foods to survive and thrive.


Pew researchers tell us that nearly 9 out of 10 Americans plan to share a special meal with “family and friends” at Christmas, this week. Turkey is very popular and some news reports this year suggest that beef is successfully competing for the prime spot on the holiday menu—but grocers and culinary experts will tell you: In America, Christmas Ham is the traditional showpiece at a family dinner.

What does ham have to do with American values? Plenty! We share this tradition of Christmas Ham, because our country was settled largely by poor farmers who had no experience with upper-class tastes for fancy holiday fowl: turkey, duck, goose or pheasant. Those entrees were out of reach of most farming families in Europe—the kind of folks who dared to cross the Atlantic and become American colonists. Certainly, turkeys and other fowl were available to early Americans who lived near woods or along the frontier, but the vast majority of American farm families followed an annual cycle: They fattened their pigs through the summer and prepared their hams in the autumn. The first major ham dinner was at Christmas. That’s why many Americans east of the Mississippi still have a nostalgic taste for cured “Country Ham,” a tradition that extends from the Carolinas through Virginia and into Kentucky.

If you’re slicing into a Christmas Ham, this week, remember: It’s far more than a holiday taste. That ham is a story with connections to at least 3 of Dr. Baker’s 10 American Core Values: “Freedom,” “Self Reliance” and “Pursuit of Happiness.”

Your Story Matters!

Please, add a comment below, sharing your food story. Share this column on Facebook or by email. You’re also free to print it out and share it that way. And, if you haven’t done so already, please help support the OurValues Project by ordering a copy of United Americaand learn about the various free study guides that can help you spark discussion with friends.


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  1. Dana says

    I found this story so insightful that I immediately shared with my family. As I wrote the email message I realized that my Arab husband, Jewish nephew-in-law, and Hindu-nephew-in-law, my father’s Jewish-Athiest wife would not relate to it exactly the same way that my core family would with our pre-Revolutionary War yeoman farmer Jeffersonian heritage. So, even as I agreed that the black-white schism could be bridged over ham, other sectors might not share this particular heritage 🙂