Food & Culture and Claude Levi-Strauss

Food & Culture


I auspiciously came across a paper last night by Edmund Leach all about Claude Levi-Strauss. I had been looking to find some work by Strauss himself available on the great wide web, but who better to read than a man who widely publicized Levi-Struass’s work to the British academic tradition. Strauss wrote a fair amount about food and culture as an anthropologist and sociologist.

Levi-Strauss made the argument that mead was the passage from nature to culture. That it was the fermentation of natural substances into something transformative and slightly mind altering, that ushered in our human development of culture. Levi-Strauss sought to establish algebraic semantics to read into cultural behaviors. Most importantly, that of the role of food in culture.  He recognized that just as each culture has it’s own spoken language, there is no culture that does not cook its food in some way or another. And from that developed “Le Triangle culinaire” shown below.

Cooked food can be thought of as raw food that has been processed by culture in some way.

Rotten food then is raw food that has been transformed by natural means.

Raw food lies between the cultural and the natural. This is what is depicted in the PRIMARY FORM of the Culinary Triangle.

He further delineates it in the DEVELOPED FORM below. As Leach puts it:

 Lévi-Strauss completes his exercise in intellectual gymnastics by claiming that the principal modes of cooking form another structured set which is the converse of the first:

(a) Roasting is a process in which the meat is brought into direct contact with the
agent of conversion (fire) without the mediation of any cultural apparatus or of
air or of water; the process is only partial-roast meat is only partly cooked.
(b) Boiling is a process which reduces the raw food to a decomposed state similar
to natural rotting, but it requires the mediation of both water and a receptacle –
an object of culture.
(c) Smoking is a process of slow but complete cooking; it is accomplished without
the mediation of any cultural apparatus, but with the mediation of air.

Thus, as to means, roasting and smoking are natural processes whereas boiling is a
cultural process, but, as to end-products, smoked food belongs to culture but roast and
boiled food to nature.

What Lévi-Strauss is  getting  at is this. Animals just  eat food,  and food is anything which is available which their instincts place in the category “edible.” But human beings, once they have been weaned from the mother’s breast, have no such instincts. It is the conventions of society which decree what is food and what is not food and what kinds of food shall be eaten on what occasions. And since the occasions are social occasions there must be some kind of patterned homology between relationships between kinds of food on the one hand and relationships between social occasions on the other. 

-Edmund Leach

It’s a fact of life and nature that we all must consume food. Our survival as human beings also depends upon the social constructs and networks within which we abide, thus the importance of culture. And as Leach point out in the conclusion of his paper:

Cooking  is  thus  universally  a  means  by  which  nature  is  transformed  into culture, and categories of cooking are always peculiarly appropriate for use as symbols of social differentiation.

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