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In his thoughtful (and lengthy) obituary of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Edward Rothstein describes the French anthropologist as a profoundly influential and powerful thinker, an intellectual giant of the 20th century, and a scientist whose analyses of the cultural significance of myths “challenge the reader with their complex interweaving of theme and detail.” Lévi-Strauss did all this, and more.
But I think of Lévi-Strauss as the inventor of Food Studies before the field existed. If present-day food academics do not always acknowledge his groundbreaking use of food and foodways to explore how “primitive” societies make sense of their worlds – or require students to read his books in their courses – it is surely because “challenge” falls so far short of conveying the stunning impenetrability of his writing.
Here, for example, is one of the more lucid passages from the chapter on culinary anthropology in The Origin of Table Manners (1968). This is from the University of Chicago 1990 edition, page 487 (translated by John and Doreen Weightman):
Within the basic triangle formed by the categories of the raw, the cooked and the rotten, we have, then, inserted two terms, the roast and the boiled, which, in most cases, can be placed, one in the vicinity of the raw and the other in the vicinity of the rotten. Still missing, however, is a third term, illustrating the concrete modalities of the form of cooking which most resembles the abstract category of the cooked. This modality, I suggest, is smoking, which, like roasting, implies a non-mediated operation (involving neither a receptacle nor water), but which, unlike roasting but in the manner of boiling, is a slow form of cooking, and so both thorough and steady.
Even so, Food Studies students and scholars are much in his debt.
According to the latest charts in the New York Times, countries in which people eat more quickly have faster growing economies than countries in which people linger over meals. The Gross National Product in such countries also suffered less severe declines last year. On the other hand, they exhibit higher rates of obesity. Coincidence? Maybe, but here’s another example of why food is such a powerful tool for examining major societal questions.
My NYU Department developed programs in Food Studies based on the premise that food is so central to the human condition that studying it is a great way to get into much larger social questions. I’ve just found a terrific example in the April 9 New York Review of Books in which Michael Tomasky reviews So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Goverment, by Robert G. Kaiser. I immediately ordered a copy.
According to the review, the book chronicles events in the history of a Washington, DC lobbying firm, Schlossberg – Cassidy, run by former staff members of Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, chaired by George McGovern (Dem-SD). The firm parlayed its thorough knowledge of food assistance programs into a consulting practice devoted to helping corporations deal with pesky regulations and policies that affect agriculture, food, nutrition, and health. To give just one example: the firm’s first academic client was Jean Mayer, the nutritionist president of Tufts University. He recruited the firm to get Congress to appropriate $27 million for a national nutrition center at Tufts. The result is the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University.
But this first earmark set a precedent that led to today’s deeply corrupt system of rampant congressional earmarks, election campaign contributions, dependence on polls and focus groups, and climate of political partisanship.
A book about food lobbying and its larger political and social consequences! I can’t wait to read it.
Thanks to Colman Andrews, food writer par excellence and now writing for Gourmet.com, for his impassioned defense of food writing as a means of analyzing and making sense of important issues in society. I’m constantly having to defend my academic interest in food against charges that it is too quotidian to matter. Food matters. That’s why my column in the San Francisco Chronicle is called Food Matters.