Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Meal Is the Message; the Language of the Brazilian Cuisine

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Meal Is the Message; the Language of the Brazilian Cuisine

Article excerpt

The meal is the message

The language of Brazilian cuisine

EVERYONE has to eat to live, buteach society defines in its own way the significance of the act of eating, and stipulates what should be consumed regularly and what must never be eaten for fear of turning into an animal or a monster.

Strict rules define the relationship betweenthe food consumed and the condition of the person who consumes it. All Brazilians know that they should fast before taking communion, in order to maintain the assumed state of purity compatible with the host which they receive into their bodies. They behave very differently, however, when they entertain their relations or friends at home for Sunday lunch. On these occasions they carefully choose the food that will help them to define the social situation they wish to create.

If I am invited to eat a feijoada, acozido, or a peixada, I expect to take part in an informal ritual of meal-sharing in which there will be a connection between what is eaten, the way in which it is eaten, and the people with whom it is eaten. These dishes consist of a variety of ingredients (either meat or fish combined with vegetables and flour) from which the guests help themselves and make their own mixture of the various items offered on the table, Brazilian-style, establishing a parallel between the act of eating and the ideal of "mixing' socially those who eat together.

Brazilians have strict rules for matchinga meal to those who eat it. I should never think of inviting home the Governor of my State for a feijoada. A more classic menu would be appropriate on such an occasion and might include such dishes as roast chicken with salad, or meat cooked in a more cosmopolitan style. However, there is nothing wrong in having a cup of coffee or a snack with strangers, but in this case you eat standing up in a downtown snack-bar or balcao. This is a mode of eating in which the utilitarian concept of "eating to live' takes precedence over the moral or symbolic aspects of a meal. During a slap-up meal with your friends, on the other hand, Socrates' adage is forgotten and instead of eating to live you live to eat.

In Brazilian cooking and hospitality agreat effort is made to combine the "universal' aspects of food (such as its nutritive and energy value, its capacity to sustain the organism and its protein content) with its symbolic characteristics, since "man does not live by bread alone' and the act of eating has great social significance. All this is connected with "totem commensality', as the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss described a system in which people and their mood, the surroundings, the food and even the way of preparing the meal, must all be in harmony.

This no doubt explains why in Brazil asharp distinction is made between the concept of "food' and the concept of a "meal'. In the language of Brazilian cuisine, these terms express a fundamental semantic opposition between the universal and the particular. Brazilians know that all edible substances are "foods' but that not every food is necessarily a "meal'. In transforming food into a meal the preparation is of critical importance, but a degree of ceremony is also required. When preparing a carefully organized and well-thought-out meal, no Brazilian will be satisfied with simply buying top-quality produce and then obediently following a cook-book recipe. He will take great pains to prepare the ingredients and season them properly. Since the quality of the meal, served copiously and with care, expresses consideration for the guests, it would be inconceivable for a Brazilian to serve pre-cooked convenience foods, as is now the practice in Anglo-Saxon countries.

The meal is also a means of expressingand asserting a national, regional or local identity, or even the identity of a family or an individual, depending on the context. Essentially, the act of eating crystallizes emotional states and social identities. …

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