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.