Rice Talks: Food and Community in a Vietnamese Town

Rice Talks: Food and Community in a Vietnamese Town

Rice Talks: Food and Community in a Vietnamese Town

Rice Talks: Food and Community in a Vietnamese Town

Synopsis

Rice Talks explores the importance of cooking and eating in the everyday social life of Hoi An, a properous market town in central Vietnam known for its exceptionally elaborate and sophisticated local cuisine. In a vivid and highly personal account, Nir Avieli takes the reader from the private setting of the extended family meal into the public realm of the festive, extraordinary, and unique. He shows how foodways relate to class relations, gender roles, religious practices, cosmology, ethnicity, and even local and national politics. This evocative study departs from conventional anthropological research on food by stressing the rich meanings, generative capacities, and potential subversion embedded in foodways and eating.

Excerpt

Food, like the air we breathe, is vital for our physiological survival. Food is also the most perfect cultural artifact, the outcome of a detailed differentiation process, whereby wheat grains are transformed into French baguettes, Italian pasta, or Chinese steamed buns, each encompassing a world of individual, social, and cultural identities: “The way any human group eats,” Claude Fischler (1988: 275) points out, “helps it assert its diversity, hierarchy and organization …food is central to individual identity, in that any human individual is constructed biologically, psychologically and socially by the food he/she chooses to incorporate.”

The power of food is epitomized by the process of incorporation (literally, “into [the] body”), in which culturally transformed edible matter crosses the borders of the body (ibid. 279) and breaches the dichotomy between “outside” and “inside,” between “the World” and “the Self.” No other cultural artifact penetrates our bodies with such immediacy and thoroughness. As Brillat-Savarin’s aphorism “You are what you eat” suggests, when we eat we become consumers (and reproducers) of our culture, physically internalizing its principles and values. Hence, when Brahmins partake of their vegetarian meals, they express their commitment to the sanctity of life and to the principle of nonviolence; equally, when Argentinian gauchos bite into their bloody steaks, they reaffirm their masculinity and the violent vitality that distinguishes their lifestyle.

Yet it is precisely the nature of food as a constant and necessary part of life, consumed habitually and often nonreflexively, that consigns the culinary sphere to banality, unworthy of sustained scholarly attention. Anthropologists tend to give far more weight to “substantial” aspects of culture, such as kinship, religion, or language, and mention foodways only as a secondary phenomenon. If overlooking the importance of food seems to be rather the norm in anthropology, when it comes to the anthropological study of Vietnam by foreign and local scholars alike, the neglect is almost complete: Huard and Durand (1954) . . .

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