Toward a Philosophy of Food History

Article excerpt

[The French]... talk about talking about food.

Gertrude Stein

There is a topology of time in regard to food activities which I shall briefly develop here as a context for a philosophical discussion of the history of food. This should help clarify the levels of meaning that are implicit in the phenomena of food. The broadest distinction that can be drawn is between immediate and mediate time. Immediate time, on one hand, is the present and recent past, and within this temporal category we can distinguish between the consumption and preparation of food. Preparation can be further divided into regional (popular) cuisine and erudite (professional) cuisine, as Jean-Francois Revel has done in his book, Culture and Cuisine.1

These different types of cuisine can be further developed along the lines of Slow Food and Fast Food where Revel's interplay between the regional and the erudite disappears and becomes an opposition; see Carlo Petrini's Slow Food: The case for Taste.2

Mediate time, on the other hand, is the connection of food with the remote past. (I shall mainly be preoccupied with this idea.) Several examples come to mind. First is Roland Barthes's "Sugar and Other Systems" in which he suggests that food has a commemorative function, i.e., "food permits a person (and I am here speaking of French themes) to partake each day of the national past."3 In detail, he says,

In this case, the historical quality is obviously linked to food techniques (preparation and cooking). These have long roots, reaching back to the depth of the French past. They are, we are told, the repository of a whole experience, of the accumulated wisdom of our ancestors. ... No doubt the myth of French cooking abroad (or as expressed to foreigners) strengthens this "nostalgic" value of food considerably; but since the French themselves actively participate in this myth (especially when traveling), it is fair to say that through his food the Frenchman experiences a certain national continuity. By way of a thousand detours, food permits him to insert himself daily into his own past and to believe in a certain culinary "being" of France (87).

A good fictional illustration of this point is in Willa Gather's novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop, in which a conversation about a dark onion soup ensues:

"Think of it, Blanchet; in all this vast country between the Mississippi and the Pacific Ocean, there is probably not another human being who could make a soup like this."

"Not unless he is a Frenchman," said Father Joseph. He had tucked a napkin over the front of his cassock and was losing no time in reflection.

"I am not depreciating your individual talent. Joseph," the Bishop [Latour] continued, "but, when one thinks of it, a soup like this is not the work of one man. It is the result of a constantly refined tradition. There are nearly a thousand years of history in this soup."4

Furthermore, this continuity of culinary "being" is a widely-shared belief among the native North American tribes and communities; for instance, Jim Enote of the Zuni Pueblo remarks: "In essence partaking of food is more than a matter of physical sustenance, it is also a personal ritual to honor the long history of our people, which is a story intimate and dense with meaning."3 Food ritualizing a national or tribal history and providing a culinary continuity with the past is a premise shared by several cultures. This particular function of food distinguishes the history of food in terms of how it accesses the past, and therefore, this makes the discipline very interesting and at the same time problematic. So the history of food raises some intriguing philosophical questions. For instance, philosophers of history are interested in what sort of judgments are included in a historical narrative and why. I shall took at two of these here: culinary judgments and comparative judgments.

Duplication Problem

The major historiographical problem of the history of food, as Revel sees it, is this: "the difficulty when one explores the past (and even the present) lies in appreciating the difference between silent cuisine and cuisine that talks too much, between the cuisine that exists on the plate and the one that exists only in gastronomical chronicles. …