Food as a Multisided Phenomenon: How Should We Understand Food?

  May 29, 2021   Read time 2 min
Food as a Multisided Phenomenon: How Should We Understand Food?
In thinking about cooking, attention to memory is important in connecting the senses to the kind of embodied practices that we see in the kitchen. Skill raises issues of apprenticeship and repetition, and the education of the senses that allow for the comparisons necessary to judge the successful dish.

How might we think of ordinary food preparation as a site that brings together skilled practice, the senses, and memory? In reflecting on his grandmother’s challah bread, Steinberg suggests some of the larger identity issues embedded in the relationship between people and their socio-material environment, in this case a set of relatives and a set of kitchen tools, flavors, and ingredients. He evokes an image of “traditional” cooking, without recipes, cookbooks, cuisinarts, or bread machines, but with the implied hierarchy of gerontocratic authority passed in a female line. He further suggests that loss of tradition, which is, in fact, loss of particular skills , is a necessary part of becoming the modern, individualistic Americans that his family members aspired to be. Is this image, then, a relic of grandmothers past? How do people face the task of everyday cooking under conditions of “modernity,” and what might this mean for issues of skill, memory, and embodied sensory knowledge, particular given the uncomfortable relationship with the “lower senses” associated with modernity and modernization projects and the devaluation of practical knowledge, tradition, and social embeddedness. How have recent times changed people’s relationship to the various kinds of cooking tools, ranging from their sense organs (the nose, the tongue) to pots and pans, knives, even bread machines, with which they populate and structure their kitchen environment? Recent debates within anthropology and the social sciences more broadly have taken opposing views on the question of the homogenization of cultural knowledge potentially brought about by “globalization.” While some support the “McDonaldization” thesis implicit in changing relations of production and distribution that have allowed Western hegemony to extend consumer capitalism to the far reaches of the globe, others argue for an endless proliferation of individual creativity and cultural meanings and reinterpretations of Western processes and products. In a sense, however, the two sides may be talking past each other, one focusing on production and distribution, the other tending to put more emphasis on the endless diversity of consumption practices.

Cooking provides an interesting, transgressive object in this regard for a number of reasons. First, and perhaps less importantly, the products of cooking partake in some sense of both production and consumption, and nearly simultaneously; indeed, consumption itself (through tasting) is part of the process of skilled food production. Yet there has been relatively little research on consumption as not simply a creative, but a skilled process, involving judgment and the reasoned use of the senses. More signifi - cantly, by focusing attention on skill as opposed to abstract cultural knowledge, we are encouraged to think of practices as embedded in particular contexts, as skill is always in relation to a particular task at hand. Thus skill-based ethnography forces us to examine the complex processes by which practices are produced and reproduced, rather than positing vague forces of “the global” and “the local.” A focus on skill also raises questions of memory in a very direct way as well.

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