Over two years ago now (scary), I took a course at St Andrews called ‘Anthropology and Eurasia’. It was, by far, one of my favourite courses ever. During a seminar one day the group discussed an article written by the course lecturer, Dr Stephanie Bunn. The article was short and deceptively simple compared other dense texts but incredibly powerful. Put briefly, it was about food.
In Kyrgyz, the language of many nomadic peoples indigenous to Kyrgyzstan, the word küt means food–and bone, nourishment, ancestors, fate, the stars, sustenance, fortune, luck, family, and more. This had links to how the Kyrgyz people would divide up the meat of a sheep by family role and status. The eyes of the sheep were given to the oldest female as a sign of honour, and it went on from there. The sheep was raised, herded, cared for in different ways by different members of the family, and it thus reproduced and reinforced family relationships even as it was being consumed.
I remember how each young woman in the class seemed struck by this expansive way of tying food into so many aspects of life. One classmate, in particular, said something that I remember clearly even today.
‘Food,’ she said, reflectively. ‘I mean, that’s just not what it means here. I feel like every young woman here can say that food, for them, means something so different. Calories, weight, health, restriction, guilty pleasure, diets, beauty, fitness. On holidays and at Sunday dinners, it has something to do with family, but you always come back to how what you eat means for your worth as an appearance. And this applies to lots of men and women.’
I sat back in my chair and thought about this. Images raced across my mind.
What the hell, I thought. I then quickly tried to put together a mental map of food that somehow reflected my very limited, very western perception of Kyrgyz values. It looked so different.
The image that struck me in that moment did not render the eater an object of marketing. Instead, food became a focal point of connection to the cosmos, family, society, our bodies, our actions.
It would be a bit silly and ethnocentric to portray Kyrgyz people as somehow ‘innocent and pure environmentalists’. The dynamic and ever-shifting Western environmental values are based on individual and national history and philosophy; a Kyrgyz worldview, by default, must be different yet equally complex and varied.**
I don’t want to go into it all right away in a single blog post, but instead I wish to rest on a few questions.
In light and in spite of the fact that this concept küt exists in a very different cultural setting, what can we learn from it?
How can küt challenge our understandings of ourselves, our bodies, and our relationships?
What does küt make you think about your relationship to your environment?
What does food mean for you? Does it connect you to others or separate you from them?
It’s a powerful word, a powerful concept. I’ll leave you with küt as it’s far more eloquent than more of my words could be.
2016 Anthropology and Eurasia module as taught by Dr Stephanie Bunn.
I dearly hope my ‘mental maps’ as portrayed here isn’t in anyway trivalizing of the complexity of Kyrgyz culture or, on the other hand, U.S./broader ‘Western’ culture. This post is meant as a bite-size dose of anthropology, a way of posing a question, and not in any way representative of broad swaths of communities.