Food in books: Food is Culture

Food is culture, Massimo Montanari. Translated by Albert Sonnenfeld. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2006. xii + 149 pp. ISBN 0-231-13790-7, $22.50 (hardcover).

To understand food in its entirety is to understand a little bit more about the human condition. Some will go even further; to understand food is to understand the human condition in its entirety.

Appreciation for food might just be as old as time – we all got to eat, right? Some of the earliest civilizations that created any kind of written communication system, it seems, were also recording what to eat, why to eat is and how to eat it. Eventually, these writings started to incorporate how to cultivate your food and your crop. In other words, how to tame wild produce and regulate it to your own benefits. Nature has long been thought of as the opposite of culture. But, when humans manage and control the wild, it goes through a process of “culturalization.” Nature was being tamed, and humans were culturalizing it. And yet, it was only during the 1950s that we started making the connection between food and culture.

Instead of asking what is physically good for our bodies, we started (seriously) asking how food affects us on a much larger and perhaps more abstract scale. Food was no longer a means to survive but a lifestyle. This is where Massimo Montanari’s Food is Culture comes in. Montanari, a distinguished historiographer and medievalist, makes the convincing argument that all aspects of food is essentially a cultural act that reveals much more about us than expected.

With one of the chapters called, “Tell me what you eat, I’ll tell you who you are,” You can understand some of the ideas that are discussed. The author asks how diets were created, like the ancient humours, as well as how food can come to create and fashion an image of the host and/or cook. Just take a look at the last banquet a government body hosted in honour of a foreign guest*, and you’ll understand what kind of image they want their guests to see.

While the author’s focus is on food, his training as an anthropologist is clear. Fortunately, unlike some other scholarship (specifically regarding anthropological theories of semiotics), the book is engaging and refreshingly not pedantic or patronizing. There are have been writers and researchers before Montanari that have asked similar questions – relating food with other disciplines. Levi-Strauss created a culinary analogy to describe the binary oppositions that structured sociocultural dynamics. Montanari, however goes beyond analogies.

For those who have asked, “why” while eating a slice of bread or attending a government-sponsored banquet (hey, why not), we highly recommend Montanari’s Food is Culture. The book may not be as sexy as a le Carré spy novel, but it is certainly just as satisfying. Montanari’s style (and that of the translator) is wonderfully not arcane.

*Eric Dursteler connects food and politics in an edited volume, “Food and Politics” in A Cultural History of Food and Politics available here.