Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Raw and the Cooked

I'm currently reading a little book by Edmund Leach on Claude Levi-Strauss. So far, and I'm only a couple of chapters in, it is very elucidating and pithy.

Currently Leach is explaining what 'structuralism' is, giving the example of how human minds have organised colours to have different symbolic meanings. Levi-Strauss uses 'organisation structures' to represent relationships between objective phenomena such as colour. One such organisational structure used by Leach as an example is the ternary relationship between red, green and amber. Apparently many human societies recognise the binary pairing of red and green with red representing 'danger' or 'stop' because of its association with blood and green representing 'safe' or 'go'. The real world realisation of this cultural phenomenon is the traffic light.

A traffic light has three colours. The colour amber (or yellow) lies at a midpoint between red and green on the colour spectrum and therefore takes on the meaning: be prepared to go or be prepared to stop.

Levi-Strauss was interested in recognising these objective relationships between physical phenomena and trying to understand the social meanings behind them. There is something quite poetic in this approach which goes back to the symbolist poets and which should puts us in mind of the famous poem by Rimbaud which tried to assert relationships between primary colours and the vowels sounds A, E, I, O and U.

One of Levi-Strauss' ternary relationships is between foods that are raw, cooked or rotten. He uses this structural relationship, and more complex elaborations of it, to throw into relief certain social aspects of societies.

At first it seems rather absurd to start defining people in terms of whether they eat boiled or roasted meat, but when you start to think about it, you realise that what you eat says quite a lot about your social status. We are driven by market forces, the media and cultural mores towards certain eating habits. Levi-Strauss tries to understand the societal controls which lie nehind what people eat, controls which may go clear against more logical thinking.

For example, my daughter asked me earlier this evening, why do we eat fish, which is good for your brain, on a Friday? Wouldn't it be better to eat it on a Monday? A perfectly good question.

In fact, there is a lot of complex factors behind the food we eat. Here are a few questions posed from my own cultural perspective with a couple of stereotypes thrown in for good measure:

(1) Why are raw vegetables such as salad considered to be good for you?
(2) Why is eating raw meat considered barbaric?
(3) Why are roast dinners associated with Sundays?
(4) Why do low income families consume large amounts of chips and fried food?
(5) Why are vegetarians considered as 'wet'?
(6) Why are people who eat large steaks considered as 'macho'?
(7) Why do women feel uncomfortable ordering pints of beer?
(8) Why are some people unable to enjoy spending money in restaurants?
(9) Why are more and more people eating too much?
(10) Why are food programmes so popular on British television?

There has been a lot of effort on the part of various kinds of food educators (TV chefs, government agencies etc.) to try and change some of the associations which I have mentioned here. Very often, as soon as one bad eating habit is erased, another one pops up to replace it that is sometimes much worse.

In fact, food has a strong link to social status which is dificult to eradicate. I wrote about the chocolate oliver biscuit incident a while back and this is a rather good example of how people are capable of measuring directly their social status by what and how much they eat. It is quite possible to maintain an anti-establishment or antisocial position simply by not eating as much as society demands you eat. That is the hunger-striker's position for example but such a position may also be utilised by individuals in a less obvious way. To refuse to become hooked on eating large quantities of food is a way of maintaining your independent status. If you make the food yourself, you can become very independent indeed.

Why the fascination with food in Britain at the moment? Is it because the country has been going through a huge cultural levelling process, namely the expansion of the middle classes? We are now less likely to eat as our parents ate and more likely to eat as other members of the burgeoning middle class are told to eat by the telly.


Anonymous said...

Jonathan this is such a rich post and so interesting.

The word 'eskimo' reinforces what you say. Its meaning- 'raw meat eaters' - is now thought to be so derogatory that it is now a politically incorrect term. I suppose this is because raw meat eating (which after all ensures that some of the vitamins essential to life in the arctic - vitamin C for instance which is found in the flesh of some animals - are not destroyed in cooking) is considered to be barbaric rather than just practical. But that still doesn't answer your question - why is eating raw meat considered barbaric?

However I think I can answer your daughter's question about fish. I think the origin for this tradition is in religion. Friday was the Christian fasting day - but 'fasting' for some meant just not eating meat. So fish was eaten instead. I think that's right. I agree with your daughter though - these days Sunday would be much mor sensible.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Thank you Clare. I'm going to write more on this because it is very interesting.

Coming next: the language of food...