CAN PRINCIPLES OF
IDENTITY DIVERSITY AND CULINARY CULTURE
In early May of this year, I
spent seven days in the old German town Konstanz on Lake Boden. My well-intentioned
hosts organized meals in national restaurants – Greek, Turkish and Italian.
I asked them to take me just once to a restaurant with the local cuisine.
To my great surprise, they told me there was no such restaurant in the
However, I was invited for a
dinner with a family. The hostess prepared extraordinary dishes which all
represented the culinary virtues of the local cuisine, along with soup
and an asparagus side-dish!
It is no simple task to make
a critical consideration of culinary cultural identity, and that identity
itself is not questionable because the “kitchen” is the beginning and the
scene of almost all of human activities – biological, gastronomically,
anthropological, ethnological, ecological, cultural...
So what can be done in one short
If cuisine is part of the complex
identity and we know that it is, there is a question of the entity of the
social identity phenomenon.
To be different is at the heart
of every identity!
The aim of this paper is to
discuss some bases of modern understanding of the social identity phenomenon,
with the cuisine as an essential part of it.
The light and darkness of
In the quest for a lost time
Does a human being need any
Of course he does. Otherwise,
we wouldn't have quarreled for centuries in the name of identity, affirming
or contesting it, doing great deeds or terrible crimes. After all, isn't
that the reason that the emotions of the majority of mankind are elevated
That's why we have to be very
cautious in the recognition and interpretation of human striving for identity
– national, cultural, culinary...
In the quest for identity, our
ontological need is to answer the following questions: who we are, where
do we come from and where we are going! In the world that surrounds us,
that we don't really understand, that isn't completely well-disposed to
us, we would be lost without a virtual answer to those questions. However,
we are not made to live alone, but to live in community, and that's why
the whole story about identity becomes radically complicated.
By this ontological, together
with cognitive function, it's possible to clarify the constant strivings
of social groups in order to confirm their own identity. Those efforts
are today, as always, in existential collision with complex economical,
political and technological challenges.
At the end of the twentieth
century this direct collision has been made worse by the powerful mondialistic
logic of conspiratorial and semi-public groups which use social identity
as a tool for manipulating people in order to fulfill the will for power
Industrial and unbelievably
rapid technological development, global ecological threats, regional conflicts,
new relations between and inside social groups, uncontrolled globalization
of the capitalist economy, the pressures imposed by the global financial
market, the aggression of media and the industry of mass culture – all
of these powerfully jeopardize the existing symbolic frame of social relations.
Knowledge, skill, faith, tradition, the rules of behavior, family, solidarity
are permanently under the exhausting pressure of rapid change.
Where is the end of this?
Can we follow these changes
Barely, and that's the reason
for closing up in collective identity - the quest for ancient cultural
and ethical roots, or modernism as malicious differentiation (Wablen) -
which is the attempt to slow down, if only for a while, the advance of
new times, that we have built but not yet accepted and in which we haven't
found our proper place.
Obvious empirical reality
Such as we are, we need a social
identity, because through it we simplify the perception of life and the
world, so that we virtually succeed in organizing our lives. And there
is nothing more justifiable than this (Pascal). The experience of identity
offers a fictive order and designs the world, giving it meaning and in
this sense it is undoubtedly the space of freedom.
However, it is like a fire,
heating on one side and burning from the other.
Social identity transforms individuals
into an uniformed entity, so that they may represent themselves as obvious
empirical reality. This identity secures itself by the choice of a certain
number of characteristics that are “typical” of the individuals that form
the group. That's how the bearers of a certain social identity are recognized
and interpreted as though by labels – “French” (“French cuisine”), “Negro”,
By this simplified approach,
the colorful variations among the group are eliminated.
But what happens with smaller
groups or with individuals who are, by some characteristics, closer to
the identity of some other social group or are simply “different”? There
is an established relation “one versus the others” in which the majority
imposes rules of behavior. Social identity is also a narrowed frame of
limited freedom, which can progress to the direct repression of a minority
by the majority.
The foundation of social identities
themselves we achieve by choosing, often irrationally, some abstract characteristics,
the essence, which we experience as a constant in time and space. That's
why we interpret the nation, race or some other cohesive factor as a timeless
vertical. In many cases, the whole society behaves as if there had been
no changes in history, as though our ancestors, in centuries gone, had
the same way of thinking, singing the same songs, diversions, had the same
aspirations, worries and pleasures.
But what happens when a look
in the mirror is inevitable?
Even then, the social identity
doesn't have to be questioned. The present state is usually seen as “sick”.
That's when we “look into the future, but see the past”, in an attempt
to find in that ragged history some period in which the group had the “purity”
which is now soiled and the “authenticity”, which is lost. In such situation,
the chosen past, which was present for some people, is interpreted as an
“antique” and “monumental” value to which we have to return in order to
re-establish the truth about society and it's “real” substance. It's not
uncommon to attribute to social identity the characteristics of a human
being with “collective memory” and which can be “humiliated” and “betrayed”
and which then has to be “revenged”.
That rear view has seldom brought
The experience of social identity,
while giving a simplified image of reality, has a lot of practical effects.
In the modern situation of the most recent changes, two negative occurrences
particularly stand out.
The first is the underestimation
of contemporary history and a negative global relationship with contemporary
events, probably as a consequence of fear and misunderstanding. The changes
that we witness are interpreted as a pollution of traditional culture and
an expansion of modern culture, as a global world's uniformity and the
extinguishing of authenticity. There's no doubt that such tendencies exist,
especially in global mondialistic logic. But such a relationship is not
able to realize what is newly born or created, to recognize the future
in the present. After all, millions of people are fighting today the best
they can with a bad historical inheritance in order to make tomorrow possible
for their descendants. Who can condemn their efforts as useless or not
The second occurrence is the
pattern by which social groups are individualized and personalized, and
all of that in the name of identity. This is individualism elevated to
the level of a social value – “the label”. As a result, the only legitimate
principle of behavior such groups recognize is the satisfaction of their
own interests, which lie in the maximization of their own economic and
political profit. This is a selfishly created pattern of development and
expansion, which disregards the needs of other people. Such group individualism
leads to conflicts between groups and to competition between one another,
and to the logical consequence of all individualism, the existence only
of “winners” and “losers”. The foundation of social identity is not the
principle of cooperation, but competition!
»But, we have become more
realistic, Even cynical I'm afraid. This means less solidarity, more selfishness,
but also more effective. Is it possible to have material prosperity and
collective lyricism at the same time? For the West, which is individualized,
this is not possible. For the East, it is the only solution.« (Regis
The reality of social identity
The main characteristic of all
societies is not to be still, but to be in constant boiling over, constant
questing. This is not a question of choice, but the condition for survival
and the only salvation from falling into entropy.
The reality of social identity
is in change!
Change may be caused by
ecological, migration, political, economical, technological, cognitive
and other factors. This is why people have a permanent need to repeatedly
determine themselves, establishing new ways of acting and thinking.
This process of redesigning
reality under the influence of history and ecology, is exactly the reason
that social identity is never really a uniform entity, but the relation
of different cultural groups and individuals which undergo change with
It's surely exaggerated to speak
nowadays about the danger of losing social, i.e. cultural, identity and
about the need to stay where we are, to bring back, protect, preserve and
clean up some historical “essence”.
As culture is a constant process
of change, acculturation is the mode of its existence!
The whole story of social identity
may also be observed from an ethical aspect: tolerance and exclusivity.
Identity is, as we experience
the world today, an ontological necessity, but its negative consequences
must be avoided. How to reconcile two often conflicting and paradoxical
aspects of social identity?
The transition to the new quality
of understanding, tolerance and feeling that identities are a human resource
and not the means of eliminating others are the only things that could
establish the foundation for a more human experience of social identity
and respond to the challenges which await mankind in future millennia.
But that is another topic.
it really happen?
doman non ce certezza” – I don't know what will happen tomorrow.
Identity and culinary culture
Totemic collective eating
plurality of actual and possible interactions between: the status of people
who eat, the dishes on the dining table, relations at the table and the
circumstances in which they eat – these are the principles of culinary
me what you eat, and I'll tell you who you are. (J.A.Brillat-Savarin)
culinary culture does not exist as something apart, for itself and by itself.
On the contrary, it is a necessary matter and confirmation of a larger
cultural and social identity and as such, reflects the hidden multilevel
structure of these identities! (1)
society has rules of behavior, which determine identity and what and how
to eat. Those rules are a reflection of the complex nature of social identity
and also the external sign of internal social and family hierarchy.
''cuisine'' is not only a common matter of social identity, it is it's
pride! But, presentation of culinary culture most often means ''national
cuisine'', and here we have again the simplified image of cultural identity
in the form of »label«.
is linked with variations on the concrete principles of identity: with
natural environment, with the social status of the family and the family
status of an individual, with the sacred and the profane with sickness
and health, with masculinity and femininity, with childhood and maturity.
is why eating always has a moral and symbolic side, whether we eat to live
or live to eat. (Socrates)
culture is not only a matter of a wider cultural identity; it's a manifestation
of ancient hidden anthropological patterns – autonutritionary behavior.
the dining table, his (the male's) ancient role of hunter lives on in several
vestigial patterns. He sits at the head of the table and he is the one
who carves the meat – male food, while his wife prepares vegetables – female
food. In the restaurant, he is the one who gives instructions to the waiter,
orders the meal and tastes wine. (2)
loss or assimilation of concrete principles of culinary culture identity
would also mean the loss of a given cultural identity and vice versa. One
can hardly survive without the other for long!
You can never enter two times
in the same river
If we go back to the roots,
strictly following the culinary identity principles of cuisine which originated
on European soil (for example, preparation of bread, meat on the grill,
the use of olive oil) we would arrive in ancient Greece, at Homer's Iliad
and this symbolic description of a feast which Achilles prepares for his
At once Patroclus obeys the
commands of his trusty companion. Meanwhile Achilles sets a vassal near
the sparkling flames, which contains the shoulders of a ewe and a fat goat,
and the broad back of a succulent pig. Automedon holds the meat, while
godlike Achilles carves: he cuts it into pieces, and pierces them with
Patroclus, a man like the immortals,
lights a great fire. As soon as the burning wood emits no more than a dying
flame, he lays across the embers two long spears supported by two massive
stones, and sprinkles the sacred salt.
When the meat is ready, and
the banquet ready, Patroclus distributes bread around the table in fine
baskets - but Achilles himself chooses to serve the meat. Then he sits
down facing Odyssey, at the other end of the table, and bids his companion
sacrifice to the gods.
Patroclus casts the first portion
of the meal into the flames, and all of them set their hands to the dishes
which have been prepared and served to them. When in the abundance of the
feast they have chased away hunger and thirst, Achilles motions to Phoenix;
Odyssey sees the sign, fills his great cup with wine, and addressing the
hero says: Hail, Achilles…
From that day, up to today,
everything is the same, but nothing is as it was! The European culinary
oak ramified, built up, but also lost its branches. (3)
The culinary cultural identity
– national, regional, local, social, and familiar – isn't a meal that you
can add a new ingredient to and have the taste remain the same. On the
contrary, each new ingredient, together with existing ones, contributes
to a new taste.
The introduction of the potato
into the German cuisine represented an important event in the history of
the German people, greater than all military victories of Friedrich the
Great. (Gunter Grass)
The cuisine” is certainly a
dynamic human activity which follows the processes of social identity,
but which also has its own development principles, together with agriculture,
gastronomy, medicine, the nutrition industry, and also particularity in
the process of acculturation.
If it were not this way, some
originally fixed, once and forever given identity would be the residue
on the bottom, an ''essence'', barely determined by the researchers, something
that, in time, had been added on, various matters, layer by layer. Going
back to that residue, even if it were possible, would hardly have any real
meaning for culinary culture today and tomorrow.
Even the best meal loses flavor
if we eat it alone.
Collective eating and rules
of behavior at the dining table are typical only for man. The animals even
those, which eat in pack, do not know the feast ritual.
Dining is a means of communication
in which people affirm their identity inside the group. Those who share
the meal, share the experience. This is why celebrations are followed by
feasts, because this is an opportunity to strengthen existing relationships
and forge new bonds between people.
The family and cooking in the
house are without any doubt the first guardian and messenger of a society's
culinary cultural identity principles – from the choice of agricultural
cultures and the way of preparing a meal, to the symbolic and moral values
of the meal. Culinary culture is one of central bonds, which gives it internal
meaning and sense. That's why the hearth or stove, in many cultures the
places for preparing food, are family symbols.
That symbol is seriously jeopardized
by the individualistic principle of culture identity, which is attempting
to dominate Western culture. The usefulness of cooking in the house is
seriously questioned, above all by the new understanding of women's position
in the family. The habit of taking semi-prepared or instant food, to eat
out of the house, in restaurants, is more and more popular. Meals are individualized,
we eat what we want and when we want!
So the origin of the family
can be traced back all the way to collective dining. Modern civilization
has still not found any other fundamental cell of living, immanent to human
psychology, to replace the family. That's why we have to preserve the one
we have, even if it appears old fashioned, through the institution of collective
dining. Although the taking of food is becoming a more and more individual
activity, it's pretty unbelievable that the kitchen and family table will
vanish from our homes in the near future. (4)
By the loss of family institution,
i.e. cooking in the house, the matters of culinary culture identity and
the richness and innovation of recipes for preparing food would be seriously
Between two identities
The history of mankind could
be called the history of migrations as well! Many futurologists predict
that the next century will be a period of great migrations!
In today's world, in which the
gap between West and East, North and South is deeper and deeper, migration
movements are more and more traumatic. International migration, be it constant,
temporary, seasonal, legal or illegal, organized or spontaneous, is essentially
characterized by a certain degree of mutual opposition of social identities.
Being alone, or in the family, migrants live between two cultures, in a
''no man's land''.
But the hosts are no less indifferent;
their ''essence'' is seriously provoked! The first and the others, whether
they want it or not, are changing gradually.
The majority of today's migrants
set out after the Second World War. Neither they, nor their hosts predicted
a protracted life in common. Nevertheless, that's what happened!
Culinary culture is one of the
last identities that the migrant will renounce, the tastes that are acquired
in childhood are engraved forever, and represent a space for great pleasure.
The challenge of enjoying the new tastes, ''cuisine'', is the first thing
that will attract the host to the migrants. Doesn't the number of ''exotic''
restaurants in the West prove that? The language of dishes and the surrounding
in which we eat is universally understood, no matter what its place in
the social culture.
The message is not only the
culinary culture, but also the meal, as part of it!
Migrant's children, grown up
and educated in the host country, are no longer willing to return to their
''fatherland'', they would be strangers there. This second generation has
a better understanding of the social identity of the host country, and
so seeks their place in that identity.
After all, what makes up the
identity of American culinary culture?
If the prognosis that there
will be great migrations in the next century proves true, ''culinary culture''
will surely significantly influence the course of social identity structure.
This has already happened in the history of European peoples, not so long
On the appearance of the barbarians,
culinary art vanished, together with all the sciences of which it is the
companion and consolation. Most of the cooks were massacred in their master's
palaces: others fled rather then cater for their country's oppressors:
and the few who stayed to offer their services had the shame of seeing
them refused. Those fierce mouths and scorched gullets were insensible
to the gentle charms of delicate fare. Huge haunches of beef and venison,
immeasurable quantities of the strongest liquors, were enough to please
them: and as the usurpers never laid aside their arms, most of their meals
degenerated into orgies, and the banqueting-hall was frequently the scene
However, it is not in the nature
of things for excess to be of long duration. The victors finally wearied
of cruelty: they allied themselves with the vanquished, took on a tincture
of civilizations, and began to taste the delights of social life.
This change was reflected in
their meals. A host now invited his friends, not so much to fill their
bellies as to offer them a feast: they, in turn, perceived that an effort
had been made to please them: a more decent joy animated them, and the
duties of hospitality began to take on a quality of affection.
These improvements, which took
place in about the fifth century of our era, received a further impetus
under Charlemagne: and we learn from his Capitularies that the great king
took personal pains to ensure that his realm should minister to the luxury
of his table. (5)
When speaking of popular movements
and the influence on identity that is on the culinary culture one should
not forget internal migrations either.
On the basis of evaluation
of UN experts, by the beginning of the next millennium, there will be more
urban than rural population. The lights of the metropolis and the possibilities
of magically getting a job attract the rural population in undeveloped
The population migration from
rural to urban environments in West Europe is mostly finished and the influence
of both of them on changes of cultural patterns, that is, culinary culture,
is very visible. Does this mean that it will stay like that?
The city that during thousands
of years represented the goal of all dreams and wishes, the place of unexpected
meetings and unforgettable feasting, the safe place, becomes unsafe, the
place of boredom, the place of temporary sojourn where people come for
work, expecting the next holiday. (Michel Reagan)
There are more and more urban
citizens in the modern metropolis who are disappointed with life in lonely
crowd David Risman) and who leave the city seeking a peaceful and healthier
place for living closer to nature. This is the reason we can expect a mass
migration at the beginning of next millennium, but this time in the opposite
direction – from the town to the country. This will surely influence further
changes in the structure of social identity and a significantly different
The silence of the future
Is the culinary culture of our
ancestors from, saying, two hundred years ago, the same as ours? Of course
it isn't, and it can't be! Will our ''cuisine'' be the culinary culture
of our descendants in, say, two hundred years? Of course it will not and
it could not be!
However, time and space have
a concrete context, giving appearances a special contextually. What is
the context of our time? There are a few of them, but one is nevertheless
dominant – the process of deconstruction (Derida)! In this process, everything
is in the game, because the sense of deconstruction is out of deconstruction!
It's already obvious that a
lot of things in the future will not be the continuation of the past!
We live in a period of great deconstruction, still questing for new answers
to ontological questions because the existing ones, those that we inherited
and put the finishing touches on, are no longer satisfactory.
A global culture of a primarily
techno-industrial nature is now encroaching upon all the worlds’ milieux,
desecrating living conditions for future generations. We – the responsible
participants in this culture – have slowly but surely begun to question
whether we truly accept this unique, sinister role we have previously chosen.
Our reply is almost unanimously negative.
For the first time in the history
of humanity, we stand face to face with a choice imposed upon us because
our lackadaisical attitude to the production of things and people has caught
up with us. Will we apply a touch of self-discipline and reasonable planning
to contribute to the maintenance and development of the richness of life
on Earth, or will we fritter away our chance, and leave development to
Let us remind ourselves of the
ancient Greek wisdom:
Gods gave people a happy life,
but they are not aware of it!
1. Levi-Stros, Claude (1964)
Mythologiques, Plon: Librarie
2. Morris, Desmond (1977) Manwatching,
London: Elsevier Publishing Project LTD
3. Brillant – Savarini, J.A.(1988)
The Philosopher in the Kitchen, London: Penguin Group; Jacob, H.E.(1997)
Six Thousend Years of bread, New York: Doubleday Doran and Co.; Brot Kultur
(1995), Ulm: Vater und Sohn Eiselen – Stiftung
4. Ichige, Naomici An Investigation
into Food and Life; The Ethnology of Gluttony
5. Brillant – Savarini, J.A.(1988)
The Philosopher in the Kitchen, London: Penguin, p.256-257
6. Naess, Arne Ecology, community,
and lifestyle: University Press, Cambridge, 1989. p. 23