taste as archive

Lisa M. Heldke has argued that food making is a “‘theoretically practical’ activity — a thoughtful practice” (1992, 203). As Rosalyn Collings Eves observes, recipes might be understood as sites of embodied memory. What we ‘know’ about food is located not just in the ingredients, but in all of the body’s senses; in Heldke’s words, “[t]he knowing involved in making a cake is ‘contained’ not simply ‘in my head’ but in my hands, my wrists, my eyes and nose as well.” (1992, 219).

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Cooking up a batch of raspberry jam takes me back to the mosquito-infested patch of raspberry bushes we had in the back yard when I was growing up. Even in 30 degree heat, I’d cover up from top to bottom, sweltering in the heat as I picked, my ears filled with the sounds of mosquito wings….

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Taste, these writers suggest, is never just about flavour. It is about texture, look, feel, smell, touch, sound; it is about movement; about a kinaesthetic knowledge (Sutton) located within the very sinews, bones, muscles – the very stuff – of the body itself.

How do I know which pepper to buy? What constitutes a good bulb of garlic? Who can tell me if a watermelon is juicy and sweet?

What constitutes a pinch of salt? How do I know that I’ve put in enough cinnamon? What is the exact science of mingled spices – garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander, turmeric – for my curry?

None of this can be found in a book. Well, it can. But the true understanding of food making exists in the body itself.

“Taste,” writes Barbara Kirsehnblatt-Gimblett, “is something we anticipate and infer from how things look, feel to the hand, smell (outside the mouth), and sound …. Our eyes let us ‘taste’ food at a distance by activating the sense memories of taste and smell” (qtd. in Sutton 2010, 218).

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Eating pom, one of two main Creole celebration dishes, with my aunt and uncle in Suriname. Made with a Surinamese taro root, chicken, a stock mixture and orange juice, this is comfort food par excellence. Creamy, rich, flavourful. Served here with cassava, plantain and sauteed Chinese long beans. What I wouldn’t give for some of this right now….

Taste is, in and of itself, an archive of senses, meanings, histories. Consider Julia Kristeva’s visceral accounting of abjection in the form of food loathing:

Food loathing is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection. When the eyes see or the lips touch that skin on the surface of milk – harmless, thin as a sheet of cigarette paper, pitiful as a nail paring – I experience a gagging sensation and, still farther down, spasms in the stomach, the belly; and all the organs shrivel up the body, provoke tears and bile, increase heartbeat, cause forehead and hands to perspire. Along with sight-clouding dizziness, nausea makes me balk at that milk cream, separates me from the mother and father who proffer it.” (2-3)

Taste, as Kristeva observes, is more than individual; it is about the self, certainly, but it is also about the social. For Kristeva, the skin floating on top of milk “separates [her] from the mother and father who proffer it” (3); taste here disrupts normative kinship; it also disrupts the intergenerational transmission of food and food memories.So, too, might we consider Fred Wah’s (1996) revulsion at the slivers of ginger floating in his dinner, even as he simultaneously acknowledges their role in his hybrid Chinese-Canadian identity.

None of this can be exactly measured. None of this can be accurately marked. These are knowledges located on our tongues, at our fingertips, in our muscles, between our teeth.

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I’m a sushi fan, but I can’t quite wrap my head around the Dutch penchant for raw herring topped with chopped onion. This is my moment of abjection. Doesn’t matter how far back I can trace my Dutch heritage (1750 last time I worked at it), I still won’t eat herring….

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Oliebollen, on the other hand…. pass ’em right over! In The Netherlands – and at our house – these donut like balls are New Year’s Eve fare. 

But these archives of taste are also political. Food is never just about the private, domestic sphere of home and family; food – and taste – cross borders, break boundaries, challenge private/public dichotomy (Sutton 2008, 160). David Sutton (2010) references the work of Sydney Mintz, for example, who links the taste of sugar to questions of political economy. Sugar, he argues, is never solely about sweetness; rather, it is intimately linked to questions of morality and politics. In Sutton’s words, “the addictive taste of sugar made it difficult to give up, and thus, a contentious item of anti-slavery boycott, whereas its taste once again led commentators to suggest it would lead the working classes into idleness and women into other desires and illicit pleasures” (2010, 212).

Certainly, foods have long played a role in questions of politics. In a letter to Samuel-Auguste Tissot, one of the most celebrated physicians of eighteenth-century Europe, a correspondent named Lavergne detailed with precision the recipe for his healthy drinking chocolate:

My drinking chocolate is made with 56 ounces of cocoa, 28 ounces of sugar, never vanilla. I distinguish between three different types of drinking chocolate: the first with half an ounce of cinnamon (instead of the full ounce I used in the past), the second with a quarter ounce; the third with no cinnamon at all … if I am missing something in order to consider this a true health drink [chocolat de santé], please let me know.”

(Lavergne l’aîné, October 1772, Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire de Lausanne, Fonds Tissot, IS784/II/144.01.07.24)

For this correspondent, food and diet were linked directly with questions of health.

As I observe in my 2015 book, Telling the Flesh: Life Writing, Citizenship, and the Body in the Letters to Samuel Auguste Tissot, this framing was integral to Tissot’s own approach to questions of public health. In his Essay on the Disorders of People of Fashion, for example, he contrasts the healthy body and mind of the rural peasant with the disordered body and psyche of the “man of fashion” in the city:

The man of fashion, disturbed by business, projects, pleasures, disappointments, and the regrets of the day, heated by food and drinks, goes to bed with trembled nerves, agitated pulse, a stomach labouring with the load and acrimony of his food, the vessels full, or juices which inflame them, indisposition, anxiety, the fever accompanies him to bed, and for a long time keeps him waking; if he closes his eyes, his slumbers are short, uneasy, agitating, troubled with frightful dreams, and sudden startings; instead of the labourer’s morning briskness, he wakes with palpitations, feverish, languid, dry, his mouth out of order, his urine hot, low spirited, heavy, ill tempered, his strength impaired, his nerves irritated and lax, his blood thick and inflamed; every night reduces his health and fortifies the seed of some disease. (38)

The seductive qualities of rich flavours – cream, meats, wines, sweets – would lead inevitably to a life of excess. Unhealthy eating habits damaged not only the body of the individual, Tissot argued, but also the body of the citizen, and in so doing, undermined the health of the state as a whole.

Taste, then, is never just a matter of intimate relations; it is also a matter of politics writ large.

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Speaking of too much…. why have one pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving when you can have two? Last year we had four. With lot of whipped cream, of course. 

My students and I experienced this first hand when we considered the politics of presidential cookie baking. In those halcyon days of yore, when Hillary Clinton was but a First Lady in waiting, the Democratic Party thought up a plan to make their candidate’s wife more palatable to the American electorate.

I’m not sure how “We’ll have her bake cookies!” won the day, but the cookie bake off between First Lady wannabe’s has been a tradition ever since (worth noting that I don’t recall Bill Clinton and Melania Trump facing off over the kitchen table during the last election cycle). Taste, in these contests, is not just about flavour, but about home, family, generations, domesticity, class politics, race, religious belief, and more (I wrote about the cookie bakeoff in a post called “Arugula and Chocolate Chips”)

“Cooking,” David Sutton (2001) argues, “is not simply an everyday practice, but an attempt to reconstruct and remember synaesthetically, to return to that whole world of home, which is subjectivity experienced both locally and nationally, if not at other levels as well” (86). Taste, here, operates in multiple registers; while intimately located within the body, it cannot be understood without the larger context in which foods and memories circulate.

Taste is about gender, race, class, ethnicity.
It is about how we locate ourselves within our webs of belonging.
It is about how we remember.

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A spectacular dessert concoction dreamed up by a good friend and my younger son, while we were staying with these friends in London. This dessert brings me to conversations we’ve had over the 20+ years we’ve been friends, to the music we’ve made together (both serious and silly), and to evenings of laughter in the back garden in North London.

In a recent article, Lisa Heldke (2016) reflects on the memory itself as a sense, considering the intensely embodied food memories that shape her relationships to her pasts and, inevitably, her futures. She recalls her response to seeing her deceased mother’s handwriting on a recipe card, writing:

It’s not the recipe itself – the list of ingredients, the set of steps – that carries this stunning visceral power….It’s the handwriting that does it, seeing it brings the past – brings her into the present moment with me …. Of course it’s not not the recipe. Indeed, whenever I make a favorite family dish, I purposely ‘go there’; I retell myself a story about this food and its place in our family lore. I invite myself to marinate in memories of when and where and how we might have eaten this food. (90)

What memories do you marinate in?
What tastes do you hold close?

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Fresh garlic. Where would we be without it?

Food historian Ian Mosby observes that “studying the taste of history is more than just a novel way of engaging with students. In fact, it is a key tool available to teachers for opening students’ eyes to the profoundly important role that the sense have historically played in determining important changes to societies, empires, economies and environments” (170).

What might this sensual archive tell you, if you listen to what it has to say?

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Mangoes. My all time ultimate favourite fruit flavour sensation. Look at them all, just hanging there. It’s almost impossible to get a good mango in St. John’s…. 

Works Cited

Boon, Sonja. Telling the Flesh: Life Writing, Citizenship, and the Body in the Letters to Samuel Auguste Tissot. McGill-Queen’s UP, 2015.

Eves, Rosalyn Collings. “A Recipe for Remembrance: Memory and Identity in African-American Women’s Cookbooks.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 24, no. 3, 2005, 280-97.

Heldke, Lisa M. “Foodmaking as a Thoughtful Practice.” Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Transformative Philosophies of Food, edited by Deane W. Curtin and Lisa M. Heldke, Indiana UP, 1992, pp. 203-229.

Heldke, Lisa M. “My Dead Father’s Raspberry Patch, My Dead Mother’s Piecrust: Understanding Memory as Sense,” Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies vol. 18, no. 2, 2016, pp. 87-91.

Heldke, Lisa M. “Recipes for Theory Making.” Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Transformative Philosophies of Food, edited by Deane W. Curtin and Lisa M. Heldke, Indiana UP, 1992, pp. 251-265.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. Columbia UP, 1982.

Mosby, Ian. “Eat Your Primary Sources! Researching and Teaching the Taste of History.” Methodological Challenges in Nature-Culture and Environmental History Resaerch, edited by Jocelyn Thorpe, Stephanie Rutherford, and L. Anders Sandberg. Routledge, 2016, pp. 166-72.

Sutton, David E. “A Tale of Easter Ovens: Food and Collective Memory,” Social Research vol. 75, no. 1, 2008, pp. 157-180.

Sutton, David E. “Food and the Senses,” Annual Review of Anthropology vol. 39, 2010, pp. 209-223.

Sutton, David E. Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory. Berg, 2001.

Tissot, Samuel Auguste, An Essay on the Disorders of People of Fashion. London: Richardson and Urquhart, 1771.

Wah, Fred. Diamond Grill. NeWest Press, 1996.

(c) Sonja Boon, 2017 (sboon @ mun.ca)

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