Sharing food, eating salt, breaking bread, raising a toast, picnics in the wild, formal dinners-implicit in these actions is a complicated and rich history of value-systems. The Writer’s Feast is a collection of essays that discuss these symbolic representations associated with food.
The book is a fascinating platter on offer. It tells us the story of customs surrounding the practices of serving and eating food that form a part of an intricate structure of social regulations in India, it shows how shared tastes can dictate the articulation of identity, and how the Spice trade brought guns and settlers and with them ‘new’ items of ingestion-sugar, tobacco, potatoes, tomatoes, chillies, coffee, tea-in lands where they were unknown.
From the construction of the ‘ideal’ housewife through recipe-books and early women’s magazines in colonial Kerala, to the tyrannical domestic politics that determine the distinctions between men’s and women’s diets in a number of modern literary texts, to how the patterns of appetite also express desire, passion and pleasure-food is also the repository of gender differences and sexuality.
Food also signifies nostalgia; in the flavours of the past, lies the land that’s lost. In the memories of two refugees, the imagined plenty of a pre-partition homeland is evoked. Food may also symbolise the struggle and pain of exile and displacement. Yet on the other hand, as the volume shows, distribution networks in the globalised world make available an ‘inifinite variety’ of food for the gourmet traveller.
Turning to history, the book examines the culture of civilised self-control and dietary prescriptions in medical manuals in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Bengal, as contrasted to legendary and excessive appetites. At the same time, it looks at what happens to human bodies when driven to the limit by extreme physical conditions, or by famine and want.
Maccheroni and meat, sweets and sardines, pastasciutta and puddings-The Writer’s Feast is a table richly laid. With theoretical insights and literary analysis, in right amounts, where neither fact nor fiction are denied a place, it captures the multifaceted meanings of food, through time, across miles. While specifically engaging students and scholars of literature, culture studies, sociology, and anthropology, this exotic fare can be sampled by any omnivorous reader!
Supriya Chaudhuri is Professor and Co-oridinator, Centre for Advanced Study, Department of English, Jadavpur University, Kolkata.
Rimi B. Chatterjee teaches English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata.
Food is essential to life, but its textual and literary representations have not often received scholarly attention. This is something of an anomaly, given the centrality of food as a marker of human status between nature and culture. Claude Levi-Strauss famously defined that opposition as one between 'the raw and the cooked'. Food inhabits both sides of the binary. Culture, like cooking, ceaselessly processes the raw and converts it into the cooked: 'not only does cooking mark the transition from nature to culture, but through it and by means of it, the human state can be defined with all its attributes.’ The culinary code is then in effect a system of signs through which human societies assign meanings to the material world they inhabit. The language of mythology views 'culinary operations as mediatory activities between heaven and earth, life and death, nature and society." Levi-Strauss's most celebrated paradigm, that of the 'culinary triangle' formed by the raw, the cooked and the rotten, forms a basis upon which he superimposes the various means of preparing or processing food in different cultures, each carrying the burden of a specific ideological investment.' Given that literature has always fallen on the side of culture in the implicit divide, the literature, of food offers a rich and complicated history of value- systems implicit in the preparing, serving and eating of food. Sharing food, eating salt, breaking bread, raising a toast, picnics in the wild, formal dinners-all have certain ideological, political and social significances. Some foods are taboo, designated filthy or circumscribed. Some foods are endowed with holiness or endow the eater with purity.
In the first volume of his great study The Civilizing Process, the sociologist Norbert Elias saw the codification of western rules of civility as exemplified in the history of table manners. Studying a series of etiquette books from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries, he found an increasing emphasis on the regulation of eating spaces and of the body of the eater, so that messy, communal dinners, sharing plates and cutlery, and practices such as belching, spitting or farting are alike frowned upon as 'civilization' advances. To some extent the process described by Elias confirms Mikhail Bakhtin's distinction between the grotesque open body, unrestrained and voracious, its bulges and visible orifices displaying its Rabelaisian appetite, and the classically closed body, hygienically cleansed and purified, Bakhtin contrasts the Rabelaisian images of communal, messy, carnivalesque feasting with the bourgeois cultivation of the 'proper' meal eaten in the sanctity of the private dining-room: 'it is no longer the "banquet for all the world” in which all take part, but an intimate feast with hungry beggars at the door.’ Yet it is important to remember that the passage from one to the other, the equation of civility with table manners, modernity with the disciplining of the body, is by no means an unbroken and unidirectional development. Bakhtin’s analysis of class investments in the regulation and domestication of body practices, Elias's association of increased awareness of etiquette with 'civilization', however illuminating, do not account for the complexities of social practices in specific times and places.
Arguably, contemporary eating practices, especially the ingestion of street food and junk food, are much less observant of 'table manners' than the practices of the nineteenth century; and while modern 'body consciousness' still devalues fatness and gluttony as 'gross', and values thinness and fitness, its ideology is far removed from the classical/carnivalesque opposition that Bakhtin describes, It is important to remember that neither the body nor specific foods are valued simply on 'rational' grounds to do with health or availability, In all societies, the body and its sustenance, apparently the most elementary requirements of life, are most insistently subjected to semiotic re-ordering, On the one hand, social norms determine what constitutes the 'clean and proper body' and what must be rejected or abjected; on the other, the dietary code prescribes which foods can be eaten and which must be shunned, Since human beings, being omnivorous, can eat more or less anything, the exclusion of, say, pet dogs, cockroaches, snakes and songbirds would in each case have something to say about the 'world' that we insistently construct and choose to inhabit.
In Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas devotes one chapter to an examination of the' abominations' set out in the book of Leviticus (Chaper xi), and the similar prohibitions in Deuteronomy (Chapter xiv) in the Bible to establish how Unwilling to accept the belief of the medieval Jewish physician Maimonides that the dietary prohibitions either had a sound physiological basis or were simply arbitrary, Douglas looks for a principle of connection amongst all the 'unclean' or excluded animals, and concludes that they are viewed in some way as aberrant within their species-kind, The disciplines of anthropology, sociology, and history see food not just as necessary to life, a collection of things deemed fit to eat (bonnes a manger), but also as instruments of thought, goods to think with (bonnes a penser), to use Levi-Strauss's famous distinction.
But while Christianity, unlike Judaism, has historically tended to slacken dietary rules (though at the same time, in Western societies, they were being replaced or supplemented by 'etiquette' and table manners), other religions such as Hinduism and Islam made them more complex and rigid, In India, the practices of serving and eating food form part of an exceedingly complicated structure of social regulations, distinctively marked by the notions of pollution, taboo and spiritual health, Not only do dietary practices vary across religions, but even within a single religion such as Hinduism, there is an intricate web of beliefs and prohibitions to do with spiritual purity (the notions of rajas and tamas, for example), caste, meat-eating, gender and marital status, and the rules governing the touching and eating of cooked food. In a sense food (especially cooked food) is viewed as both intensely pure and intensely polluting. The purest food is that which is served to the deity and received as divine bounty (prasadam) by the worshipper. But even for ordinary meals, it is customary to wash before sitting down to eat. At the same time, the hand or body which has touched cooked food is unclean and pollutes by contact, so that hands and dishes must be thoroughly washed after a meal.
This intricate and sensitive network of rules governing contact with food, like caste prohibitions, regulation of women's diet, vegetarianism, the proscription of' forbidden' meats like beef, pork and chicken, and the identification of certain foods with particular seasons or festivals, obviously cannot always hold good in the mixed, plural, heterogeneous cultures of Indian modernity. While the distinction between vegetarians and meat-eaters continues to be important, other prohibitions and proscriptions are less observed, and in some cases (such as the regulation of widows' diet, or of inter-caste or inter-community dining) have been actively opposed reformist grounds. Yet it would still be true to say that Indian culture gives enormous importance to food, to the customs surrounding the preparation and serving of meals, and to the body of cultural assumptions and myths associated with eating, as Sheila Lahiri Choudhury and Mohammad Asim Siddiqui suggest in their essays. At another level, Rohan Deb Roy's essay on medical manuals in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Bengal examines the obsession with correct eating and health as constitutive of the self-image of the male subject under colonial rule. In literary texts, descriptions of cooking and of meals acquire extraordinary representative power, communicating a whole network of cultural attributes. This is also true of the treatment of food in the writings of the Indian diaspora, as Kalyan Chatterjee and Nayana Chakrabarti argue. As the community moves, it carries its language, its religion, and its culinary practices with it. Each of these elements suffers erosion as a result of contact with another, foreign culture. But the combination of the physical and the mental in the longing for a lost cuisine, or the attempt to recover it in a foreign kitchen, suffuses diasporic writing about food with a nostalgia that exceeds its object: it is as though the absent homeland, like the absent Real, lies behind the imagined but unobtainable item of food. In an absolute sense, of course, as Lacan would no doubt tell us, the food the migrant desires -like the mother tongue, the motherland, and the mother's milk-is always out of reach, and the literature of food is an endless set of variations on the structures of desire and imagined fulfillment to which we cling.
But it would be misleading to suggest that food in literature is simply a semiotic mirage. The political economy of food lies at the heart of human civilisations. Communities move in search of food, and settle where it is plentiful. Social injustice and exploitation turn on the denial of access to food and water, and may lead to famines and revolutions. The demand for certain kinds of food triggered colonial expansion, and the Spice Route described by Rimi B. Chatterjee in her essay brought with it not just ships and merchants, but guns and settlers. The food habits of the entire globe were altered by the introduction of 'new' items of ingestion - such as sugar, tobacco, potatoes, tomatoes, chillies, coffee, tea-in lands where they were previously unknown. A historical study of a single item of food-such as the lowly potato-would yield a wealth of social and economic insights, from the Irish potato famine of 1845 to the global ascendancy of the industrially produced potato crisp. It is necessary to remember that the other face of food is hunger, that the obverse of the table richly laid is the pauper's empty plate. While modern food research and food technology seek to eradicate hunger, the great famines of the past centuries remind us that in all societies, entitlement to food has been the most precarious of rights. This volume of essays on food therefore ends with my reflections on the Bengal famine of 1943, one of the most devastating events of Indian history, a catastrophe caused not by crop failure but a failure of distribution.
Not only has globalisation affected production patterns and driven the world food trade, it has also fuelled research into new seed varieties and genetically modified foods, arousing intense controversy and opposition. The current debate in India over the introduction of genetically modified brinjal (aubergine) is a reminder of worldwide disquiet over the reduction of species variety and the insidious control of food resources by research institutions and multinational corporations located in the West. The issue of the positive or negative health benefits of GM foods is only one element in this larger set of concerns. Brands like Kentucky Fried Chicken, Coca Cola or Pepsi, like retail food stores owned by multinational companies, have often been the targets of anti- imperialist protests in India and elsewhere. At the same time, global society in the contemporary world offers a rich and bewildering array of cuisines and diets, all, it appears, simultaneously available like items in a menu. With the growth of worldwide distribution networks as well as the movement of communities and culinary repertoires, it is now possible to eat virtually any kind of food anywhere in the world, as Tammi Jonas notes in her essay on culinary cosmopolitanism in Melbourne, Australia. In a sense the social, cultural and agricultural roots of food preferences are being undercut, so that modem consumer cultures can draw upon a limitless fund of culinary practices. Restaurant food in the major cities of the globe proclaims its multicultural, ethnically diverse origins, while making these ethnic varieties endlessly available to the discerning but omnivorous consumer.
It is difficult to resist the conclusion that this diversity, this multiculturalism, this absence of depth coupled with dazzling variety and hybridity that we find in postmodern food, has an immediate analogy in postmodern literature. That is, we should reflect not only on the literature of food, but on literature as a kind of food: as exemplified in the' chutnification of history' that Salman Rushdie mentions in Midnight's Children, and in the analogy between the making of the literary work and the making of pickles, used both in Midnight's Children and in Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. There is of course an immediate and obvious difference between food and literature. However subject to semiotic ordering, however controlled by cultural norms, food is after all a material substance that can be ingested, tasted, savoured, swallowed. Literature, by contrast, uses a material medium - the printed book or its ancient and modem alternatives- but consists of mental concepts which are absorbed by the mind or the imagination. Nevertheless, just as Sir Francis Bacon was disposed to compare books to food ('Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested'), so too we may see literature as offering a parallel to food in its satisfaction of appetite. Postmodern literature, like postmodern food, brings cultures and ethnicities into a zone of encounter and putative free-play: we are dazzled by the array of exotic varieties on offer, and by the availability of different kinds in a globally accessible medium. Yet deep internal divisions, relentless forms of neglect and exploitation, lie behind the heaped diversity of 'the table richly spread'. Invisibly, the global spread of popular cuisines like the Chinese and the Indian leads to the loss of distinctive ethnic specialisations, and the creation of a bastardised, hybrid repertoire (including such items as the ubiquitous chow mien, chicken tikka masala and balti chicken) which is unlike anything available in the source-country.
Where literature is about food - in addition to being the food of the mind - it releases another set of meanings. The representation of food, eating practices, last suppers, and other aspects of food culture is central to many literary texts. In most instances, descriptions of food offer images of plenitude and pleasure, allowing the reader's imagination to feast vicariously on the objects of physical desire. As Lorenzo Pavolini and Murray Couch note in their essays, gastronomic and sexual appetites are frequently fused together in literary evocations of eating, while at the same time the imagined pleasure is precariously balanced against the material realities of hardship and loss. This becomes achingly true of food that is associated with a lost land of origin: Suchandra Chakravarty looks at two memoirs by refugees which evoke the imagined plenty of a pre-Partition homeland. Food offers itself to the literary imagination as a site of desire, mimicking presence with its attributes of touch, taste and smell: yet trapped in the insubstantiality of the literary text, it is also frustratingly absent, reminding us that we never fully enjoy what we long for.
The literature of food also, inevitably, raises gender concerns. The association of women with the kitchen is by no means customary or natural; interestingly, as Sharmila Shreekumar suggests, the project of modernity in colonial Kerala involved the invention of a relatively new model of the' domestic', constructing the ideal housewife through recipe-books and household hints. This model is not as innocent and natural as the fragmentary records in women's magazines imply: it is already part of a fierce debate over the nature of conjugality and the social rights of the woman. Arpana Nath and Katherine Rawson, examining gender roles in the preparation and serving of food in a number of modern literary texts, find evidence of the deep social tensions that are implicit in the distinctions between men's and women's diets, at the same time that women are required to fulfill the domestic tasks of cooking and serving meals. The 'performance' of gender roles is based on an insidious but tyrannical domestic politics, a play of power which reaches out from the nuclear family to affect every aspect of social life. Yet paradoxically, food, the barest necessity of life, is also the item with which human beings, seeking other, ideational goals - as Amrita Dhar argues in her essay on food and mountaineering - take the greatest risks.
This volume, then, brings together a number of papers dealing with the literary representation of food and the psychic and social investments in eating, as also the material facts of scarcity and hunger. It is divided into four sections. The first, Eating Cultures, examines social practices and systems relating to food and its consumption. While two essays focus on India, another is devoted to the Spice Race, the greatest impetus towards colonial trade and global economic adventurism in the early modern period. Lorenzo Pavolini's paper offers a consideration of the food cultures of Italy from antiquity to the present day. The second section, Gendering Food, focuses on the gender implications of cooking and serving food, and the textual intimacies between food, sexuality, and gender. The essays in this section look at a variety of 'non-literary' and 'literary' material from Malayali recipes to the novels of William Faulkner to establish the symbolic importance of the kitchen, as of particular items of food, in the gendering of social identities. In the third section, Migrancy, Diaspora and the Cosihopolitan Gourmet, the symbolic function of food assumes overwhelming importance, as cuisine comes to be associated with the lost or abandoned homeland of the refugee or migrant. As Kalyan Chatterjee and Nayana Chakrabarti point out in their essays, the Indian novel in English is particularly prone to this form of symbolic recuperation. At the same time, the physical realities of migration and resettlement produce two types of psychic accommodation. In one-which may be labelled as nostalgia - the land left behind is equated with the food that can never be recovered. In the other-which may be labelled as cosmopolitanism - a dazzling array of global cuisines greets the gourmet traveller in the great cities of the world.
The last section of this book, The Body and Its Limits, looks at the implications for the human body of epicurean food cultures and the appetites that drive them, on the one hand, and the I culture' of restraint, on the other. Rohan Deb Roy's exploration of the world of the medical manual in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Bengal opens up an intense, obsessive concern with healthy eating practices and their obverse in excess or asceticism. Food emerges as one of the sites for the self-fashioning of the colonial male, the repository of nostalgia for the gargantuan 'appetites' of the past, and the instrument of civilised self-control in the present. By way of contrast, the last two essays, by Amrita Dhar and Supriya Chaudhuri, examine what happens to human beings, and to the human body, when they are driven to the limit by extreme physical conditions or by famine and want. How far, and at what cost, can human beings push their material bodies? How much food do we need on top of Mount Everest - or in order to get there? How long can we live if food is denied us, as it was denied to millions during the Bengal famine of 1943?
This volume is based on a conference organised by the Centre of Advanced Study in the Department of English at Jadavpur University in 2006, but the papers have since been revised and extended. It presents the work of scholars from around the world on a subject that is of genuinely universal interest, but contains almost as many differences as there are people in the world. Blending theoretical insights with literary analysis, it looks both at texts from India and from the rest of the world. Food is a central concern both for cultural studies and for literary scholarship. We hope that The Writer's Feast will contribute to an important academic discipline.
Send as free online greeting card
Email a Friend