Saturday, 22 September 2012

The really coded cultural food

The notion of real food as natural food, pure and organic, is rather delusional. But we cannot separate ourselves from the idea of a return to nature, to an original simplicity, a mythically displaced time when plants and animals have not been tampered with in some way. This is no less true of what we might want to call tribal or savage, pre-literate societies, where one would still encounter highly evolved rituals from gathering herbal remedies to the hunting and cooking of food

Undoubtedly there is far more that could be outlined at this point by touching on the work of the celebrated Claude Lévi-Strauss who analysed brilliantly the structural and sociological oppositions between life/death and agriculture/hunting; further equating these with the opposition between herbivores and birds of prey; and the ambiguous middle category of the raven or coyote, which is also the form assumed by the trickster. Lévi-Strauss, you may recall, also wrote a book about Le Cru et le cuit (1964), translated as The Raw and the Cooked (1969).

Indeed, food does not lack its psychoanalytic analysts, nor its cultural critics. Roland Barthes' Mythologies (1957) included essay on 'Operation Margarine', Wine and Milk', 'Steak and Chips', and 'Ornamental Cookery' (translated in 1972).

Human history and evolution is intertwined with an array of artificial processes. Indeed, the notion of hunting and gathering represents a primary gateway into the cultural domain. To think, and to think food, are two sides of the same coin. The notion of prohibition, expressed in the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden, ushers in the knowledge of good and evil, and the emergence of food as the link to moral conflict. From the excesses of the aristocratic banquet to the modest conviviality of the middle classes, and on to authoritarian attempts to regulate of the diet of the poor (Charles Dickens's orphan Oliver Twist) food regimes have fascinating stories to tell about the organisation of social life and the management of class boundaries.

At another extreme we come up against the complex myths and realities of cannibalism, and the biting satire of Jonathan Swift's ironic 'Modest Proposal' that the starving Irish should consume their babies as a nutritious and plentiful source of food.

I suspect that the 'real' truth about most of our food is actually quite horrific; that it is perhaps the worst and least discussed forms of human cruelty, exploitation and industrialised processing. (I'd recommend Richard W. Lacey's third chapter of his book Hard to Swallow: A Brief History of Food, which deals with the intensive rearing of animals and birds.)

Food occupies a central position in what we mean by culture and civilisation. Long ago in human pre-history food ceased to be natural. For animal life in general, many aspects of the quest for food pre-suppose that there is a capacity for some degree of social organisation involved. Tactical approaches and a hunting strategy suggest that complex and learned activities are at work. Beyond the search for, and capture of food, we must next consider the organised planting, seeding, growing, nurturing and harvesting of plants and animals. Each of these steps moves us beyond really natural food to really unnatural. Food is the cultural domain.

As I write this blog, Celebrity Masterchef has just reach its final. The latest news is that filming has started for a new Simon Cowell entertainment cookery series to be called Food Glorious Food. The bestseller books lists are dominated by cookery books and the AQA A-level exam board in the UK launched last year a new anthology for language and literature, also called ... Food Glorious Food.

Having spent some time researching the history of recipes in the Enlightenment during a period working at the British Library (1997-2003), it struck me that some of that scholarship might be shared on this blog. 

So, in the coming weeks, why not watch out for my grotesque recipes , as well as some cynical reflections of the hype that is currently being attached to the glorification of food in the media.

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