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When is food a luxury?

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This paper explores definitions of luxury foods and considers the role of luxuries in marking social distinction. It is proposed that luxury foods are those foods that offer a refinement in texture, taste, fat content or other quality (such as stimulant or inebriant) and offer distinction, because of either their quantity or quality. Ethnographic research has revealed that an emphasis on quantity of food and elaboration of common staples is found mostly in societies without strong social stratification, while an emphasis on quality and style is characteristic of societies with institutionalized forms of social ranking. In the former context the consumption of luxury foods is used primarily to create or enhance social bonds, in the latter to create or enhance exclusivity and distance. The archaeological recognition of luxury foods is reviewed to demonstrate how archaeology is well placed to add regional breadth and chronological depth to the study of the changing role and meaning of luxury foods.

Keywords: Food; archaeology; consumption; elites; exotics; feasting; luxury; material culture; semiotics

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: School of Archaeology & Ancient History, University of Leicester, Leicester LE1 7RH, UK

Publication date: February 3, 2003

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