by Marion Nestle
Nov 6 2009

Claude Lévi-Strauss dies at 100

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.

  • I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t realize he was still alive. Thanks for posting this.

  • Corey

    Took me a second to realize that he had nothing to do with jeans.

  • Brian

    I’m pretty sure it was Levi-Strauss who wrote (in Tristes Tropiques) that as a child his parents had a sign posted over their kitchen table, “Chew slowly for the sake of your digestion”. One of the greats.

  • Barbara Tagliaferro

    Indeed it was a big loss not only for the anthropologists but for everybody as well. Claude Lévi-Strauss introduced many useful concepts and he was a great intellectual. However, as an anthropologist I have a materialist position in the well known discussion about what comes first, categories or activities. To put it in the words of Claude Lévi-Strauss (structuralist) and Marvin Harris (cultural materialist), something is first better to think (classifying the world, and then eat it) or better to eat (and then classifying the world). In this discussion Mary Douglas participated with her study about the abominable animals that don’t fit in any category and because that they are forbidden to eat (i.e pork for the Jewish are classified as a ruminant but with split hooves).
    I personally agree with Harris and his “Good to eat”, based on material conditions. But anyway, and particular in these days I think we eat ideas before food when we eat “organic”, “local”, “healthy” food, which in Lévi-Strauss terms mean classify the world before operating on it.

  • Anthro

    I will never forget writing papers on Levi-Strauss readings in my Myth, Magic, and Ritual class as a senior anthropology student. There was an unspoken pressure to try to write in his impenetrable style to supposedly prove that you actually understood a word he wrote!

    It’s nice to see that someone from another field has even heard of the great man, thanks for the post.

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