EASA2016: Anthropological legacies and human futures

From nature to culture? Lévi-Strauss' legacy and the study of contemporary foodways
Location U6-1D
Date and Start Time 22 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2


  • Katharina Graf (SOAS, University of London) email
  • Elsa Mescoli (Universite de Liege) email

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Discussant Valeria Siniscalchi

Short Abstract

In The Raw and the Cooked, Claude Lévi-Strauss argued that the preparation of food is a form of language that reveals a society's structure. Cooking transforms food from nature into culture. The aim of this panel is to explore Levi-Strauss' legacy and evaluate its usefulness in today's context.

Long Abstract

In the first volume of his Mythologiques, entitled The Raw and the Cooked, Claude Lévi-Strauss argued that the preparation of food is a form of language that reveals a society's structure. For Lévi-Strauss, the so-called culinary triangle of the raw, the rotten and the cooked represents a semantic field within which the various forms of transformation of food from nature into culture play a key role.

Since Lévi-Strauss, following extensive changes to food production, preparation and consumption, the notion of cooking has become ever more diversified, and became increasingly contentious. Yet, the multiple ways of combining and processing ingredients still give social and cultural meanings to food and trigger the creation of sociabilities and belongings through its own destruction (Gell 1986).

This panel aims to explore Levi-Strauss' legacy and evaluate its usefulness in today's context from different angles, ranging from domestic food preparation to industrial production and global circulations of food. To what extent can this concept still provide an interpretative framework of topical food issues? Which contemporary myths does it shed light on? How could it be deployed to read the history of food and link it to contemporary questions?

This panel welcomes papers on the history of food preparation, contemporary food preparation, including debates in professional and multimedia circles, various forms of food production and the possible transformation of food within globalised food markets. Although mobilizing a classic anthropological theory, this panel aims to be interdisciplinary and to present a diverse range of analytical perspectives.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


What is natural food? Dichotomies at the Farmers' Market

Author: Ewa Kopczynska (Jagiellonian University)  email

Short Abstract

The paper problematizes the concept of naturalness in the FM’s clients representations of natural food. Since their definitions crosscut the nature-culture opposition, the demarcation line between natural and unnatural food rather goes along different models of human-nonhuman coproduction.

Long Abstract

The paper problematizes the concept of naturalness in the collective representation of natural food. Based on the analysis of interviews with Polish farmers' markets clients (Malopolska region), it reveals the cognitive frames, values and behaviors composing "the natural". Buying fresh food at farmers' market is a complex process, where accurate distinction are made. Therefore choosing the natural food is demarcating fresh and bad, local and imported, seasonal and non-seasonal, produced traditionally or industrially. Moreover, the definition of natural food comprises relationship between humans and non-humans (animals, land). The results of analysis demonstrate that FM's clients' concept of natural food production is not based on nature-culture opposition. Natural food is defined as being part of socionature, social-natural system characterized by particular ethics, cultural norms, patterns of relations. It is defined in opposition to food produced in "inhuman" way, i.e. immoderate, without respect, morality and compassion. The category of rotten food appears to be precisely regulated in kind of culture-nature 'rulebook'. According to these rules the expected intervention of nature (weather conditions, insects, microorganisms etc.) in growing apples is very different than accepted non-human contingencies in meat or dairy production. Therefore some 'natural' dirt on carrots is welcomed and it makes the carrots raw and pure, but the same dirt on cheese make it spoiled. In my paper I will argue that the cognitive frames of everyday food practices crosscut the nature-culture opposition. The demarcation line between natural and unnatural food rather goes along different models of human-nonhuman coproduction.

Cooking the village: between nature and culture in New Caledonia

Author: Lara Giordana (University of Turin)  email

Short Abstract

The paper explores the dilemma of nature and culture in the construction of the contemporary perception of being Kanak in Belep Islands and the role played by the food.

Long Abstract

Based on a fieldwork in Belep Islands (New Caledonia), this paper analyses the first yam harvest ceremony that takes place in the village of Waala every year. Yam has a sacred value and the ceremony reaches its climax with the presentation of a row of smoking pots full of yam stew to the teamaa (grand chief). The perfectly aligned pots represent the disposition of the groups in the village and their link to the “ancestral” lands dispersed in the Belep archipelago. The ceremony renews the political relationship to the chief, but also the “social contract” that has been underpinning the possibility of dwelling in the village for over 150 years, since the forced transfer of the scattered population. The production, preparation and consumption of food participates in and of the opposition between the central village of Waala, the only permanent settlement in the little archipelago, and the hamlets seasonally occupied in the bays, where the “ancestral” and fertile lands are located. Dwelling in the bays is perceived as to be part of a more authentic way of living as Kanak people and this is because it allows a deeper relationship to nature. The paper will consider the usefulness of Lévi-Strauss analysis to understanding the role that food production and consumption play in the relationship to nature and, thus, to Kanak culture in the Belep Islands nowadays.

Is there an alphabet of Moroccan cuisine? Notes on the materiality of cooking and eating.

Author: Elsa Mescoli (Universite de Liege)  email

Short Abstract

Stemming from the ethnographic material collected during an eighteen months fieldwork conducted among a group Moroccan of women in Milan to study their food practices, this paper focuses on the materiality of cooking and eating through adopting a micro-structural approach.

Long Abstract

Inspired by the work of Lévi-Strauss (1964) aimed at identifying the relationships of mutual intelligibility underlying some social and cultural facts such as the treatment of food, this paper will focus on the materiality of cooking and eating through adopting a micro-structural approach.

The ethnographic data collected during an eighteen months fieldwork conducted among a group of Moroccan women in Milan to study their cooking and eating habits will be analysed by paying particular attention to the practices and elements that made the "alphabet" of Moroccan cuisine. This means that, if we considered dishes as complex sentences which can be deciphered by people that share a same language, we could try to identify the littlest components that made them happen. Which norms regulated the combination of ingredients? Which ways of cooking described this food culture? Which gestures and embodied knowledge seemed essential to give an intelligible cultural connotation to the cooking and eating of food? Which variations were admitted?

The analysis of the actors' discourses and practices will show how Lévi-Strauss approach and model to the study of foodways can meet a material culture approach and still be relevant nowadays.

"How do you survive without porridge?": culinary mereology in western Kenya and in Claude Lévi-Strauss' Mythologica

Author: Mario Schmidt  email

Short Abstract

The paper explores mereological similarities between the preparation and consumption of food and the enactment of social relations in Western Kenya. This exploration of culinary and social part-whole relations will lead to a fresh perspective on Lévi-Strauss analysis of food in Amerindian myths.

Long Abstract

The paper analyzes the preparations and consumption of a Western Kenyan dish from a mereological perspective. It will become clear that cooking and eating kuon anang'a gi aliya ("maize porridge with dried meat") is considered "necessary" by Dholuo speaking inhabitants of the small Kenyan market town Kaleko (Jokaleko) not merely because they "like" the dish, but because the mereological problems that are solved by preparing and eating it are similar to the problems Jokaleko have to solve while establishing and maintaining social relations. Both culinary and social actions are enacted as mereological ones and revolve around and offer answers to the questions "how many?" and "who is a part of which whole?"

By thus shifting the main focus of an anthropology of food from rather qualitative questions scrutinizing the specific taste (bitter, sour, sweet etc.) or color of food to mereological questions, a new perspective on Lévi-Strauss' contribution to a comparative anthropology of food will emerge. This new perspective (1) does justice to the multiple references to mereology in Lévi-Strauss Mythologica and (2) prepares the ground for an exploration of the latter's relation to Marcel Mauss' unfinished and largely ignored work on the categorical affinities between quantity, substance, subsistence and food.

Printing Edible Solutions, going beyond chemistry and art: cooks as code-writers?

Author: Julianna Faludi (Corvinus University Budapest)  email

Short Abstract

Digital technology enters the world of experimentation with food transforming our understanding of 'raw' and 'cooked', where cooks are cultural agents of the digital.

Long Abstract

Digital culture shapes our customs and rituals in many ways. Interaction of human and technology in the ecosystem of living and non-living provides two-way channels of communication with plants, objects or food. Experimentation in fablabs has reached the field of food reformulating our understanding on how we process and consume food, introducing 3D-printing and laser-cutting technology creating and serving new narratives attached to each plate. In this paper I provide with an overview on how digital fabrication pushes food design toward new solutions in transcending from 'raw' to 'cooked', creating new meanings.

In 'haute cuisine' food design of printed artifacts of geometric configurations of sugar, and other edible ingredients aims at creating artifacts valued by consumers of the gourmet of the 'haute culture' of the cooked. Customization of nutrients and printing attractive solutions for special needs (like nursery houses) is already present, while experimentation for creating balanced and rationally designed 'edibles' of ingredients of the raw (like worms that seem unattractive in post-industrial societies) transcends them into attractive dishes is in the realm of conscious and 'healthy' food consumption and the broader goal toward 'feeding the planet'. Cooks turn into digital fabricators and code-writers as cultural agents of the digital. Technologies on their way toward democratization enter the 'laboratory' of kitchen, where I draw upon a case study illustrating how kitchen-design integrates the experimental spirit and technology of a fablab in collaboration with fabricator communities and a kitchen-producer.

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Raw food as medicine: a sociological perspective

Author: Solenn Thircuir (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales)  email

Short Abstract

Raw foodism is an ideological movement which has had a very recent surge in popularity.

This diet promotes the consumption of unprocessed and uncooked food as more adapted to the human body. Can we describe the development of this diet in the light of Lévi-Strauss culinary triangle?

Long Abstract

During the 20th Century, the doctor Ann Wigmore, an actor of the phenomenon of the medicalization of nutrition, suggested raw foodism as a diet supposed to overcome breast cancer and further to bring an optimal health.

Hundred thousand of people have been seduced by this lifestyle in France in the last few years. While in the United States the movement has been institutionalized.

What diet is supported by Ann Wigmore's followers? How do they legitimate their eating habits?

Diet and health views differ widely around the world and are not determined alone by food availability, health care, technology and science. Cultural and philosophical views of nature and the human body are also important. The Raw Food movement challenges the history of cuisine head-on by tackling a sensitive subject, and by radicalizing Hippocratic and hygienist precepts. The diet is mostly based on raw fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. It claims to have a legitimate and standard expertise of nutrition and health, as well as having credibility in relation to the scientific order.

What does its popularity mean in our technological society?

In the culinary triangle of Lévi-Strauss, raw refers to nature but is not given negative connotation: raw food is seen as purity and has not been interfered by any cultural transformation. In that perspective, the original purity has to be found through the purification of the body, the rejection of cooked food that has built a denatured and artificial body.

"Chaos in the street, order in the kitchen": an ethnography of dumpster diving and activism amongst squatters in London

Author: Giovanna Capponi (University of Roehampton)  email

Short Abstract

Skipping (the British term for “dumpster diving”) is the action of collecting edible goods from the bins. This urban foraging technique redefines the notions of what is clean, edible and desirable, but it also represents a critique of the capitalist economic system.

Long Abstract

This paper, based on my fieldwork in London in 2012/2013, describes the consumption practices of some communities of squatters in London. One of most widespread and iconic practices connected to squatting is skipping: an urban foraging technique which implies recycling and transforming objects and food items that are collected from the bins. This peculiar way of providing goods not only serves as a survival strategy for low-income social categories living in the metropole, but also aims at criticising the large waste and the poor distribution of resources (not only housing properties) of the capitalist economic system. As already addressed by Dylan Clark in his work "The Raw and the Rotten: Punk Cuisine" (2004), Lévi-Strauss' culinary triangle, helps us interpreting how squatters and activists re-culturalise food items that have been saved the dumpsters and from the production-distribution chain. During this process of re-ordering food, squatters challenge the notion of what is clean, edible, desirable and exploitable according to new ethical and political criteria. These practices do not only involve personal choices of consumption, but also collective performances where re-claimed food is accumulated, prepared and re-distributed outside the community. The ways in which food is acquired, ordered and consumed reflects the composition and the organisation of the different social spaces, as well as their success in the political struggle.

Popularizing the Raw and the Cooked? Cultural transformations in collective cooking events

Author: Inga Reimers (HafenCity University)  email

Short Abstract

My contribution aims to trace popularizations of Lévi-Strauss’s legacy in current formats of collective cooking and eating. How does it influence today’s conceptions of and expectations towards (collective) cooking and eating? And how could it function as a tool to analyze these situations?

Long Abstract

In the past few years, food production and consumption were and are discussed controversially in terms of ethics and sustainability (Julier 2013; Bendix/Fenske 2014; Bennewitz 2014). In this context, formats of collective cooking and eating have become popular especially in urban spaces, for example the project "Über den Tellerrand kochen" (cooking beyond one's edge of a plate) where refugees and locals cook and eat together in order to enable community and cultural exchange. Here, the topics of food and food preparation are used to create awareness for both, cultural diversity and equality.

In my current field research on collective eating and cooking formats like the aforementioned I am often faced with a topos of cooking as an ongoing practice which is capable to 'gather people around the fire'. Also in Claude Lévi-Strauss Mythologica Volumes the fire plays a key role in understanding cultural processes. Here the practices of cooking and eating function as indications. In my research these practices are rather a method which considers, like Lévi-Strauss did, especially cooking as a form of language.

So I'd like to trace forms of popularizations of Lévi-Strauss' legacy in my field of research: How does popularized ethnological/anthropological knowledge influence today's conceptions of cooking and eating as well as the expectations people have when they attend such cooking events. Could the collective transformation of the raw into the cooked thus be seen analogously to social and cultural processes within these groups and help to understand how strangeness becomes intimacy?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.