Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory by David E. Sutton (Berg) Proust's famous
madeleine captures the power of food to evoke some of our deepest memories. Why
does food hold such power? What does the growing commodification and
globalization of food mean for our capacity to store the past in our meals-in
the smell of olive oil or the taste of a fresh-cut fig?
Remembrance of Repasts offers a theoretical account of the interrelationship of culture, food and memory. The Greek island of Kalymnos-where Islanders claim to remember meals long past-provides the main setting for these issues, as well as comparative materials drawn from England and the United States. Cultural practices of feasting and fasting, global flows of food as both gifts and commodities, the rise of processed food and the relationship of orally transmitted recipes to the vast market in specialty cookbooks tie traditional anthropological mainstays such as ritual, exchange and death to more current concerns with structure and history, cognition and the "anthropology of the senses."
In Chapter 1 I investigate the venerable anthropological topic of ritual, and the way that ritual and everyday contexts of eating echo and mutually reinforce each other. Thus I begin with a consideration of some of the everyday contexts in which food is bought, prepared and consumed on Kalymnos, giving a sense of how food structures both daily routines, and more long‑term rhythms represented by seasonal harvests, feasts and fasts, and life‑cycle markers, particularly death. Food structures temporal rhythms not just objectively, by placing constraints on people's lives, but also subjectively, as people actively look forward to meals while at the same time looking backward to past meals and "prospectively remembering" the special meals, the Easter feast in the midst of the Lenten fast. It is this dense web of food rhythms that provides the sense of food structuring days, weeks, months and years on Kalymnos. Food's role in life‑cycle rhythms is also explored in the context of funeral and mortuary "memorials," and this is set in comparison and contrast to work in Melanesia and Amazonia on the role of mortuary feasting in processes of remembering and forgetting. Finally, certain foods become particularly significant because of their symbolic charge across everyday and ritual contexts. In the Orthodox Christian tradition one key food in this regard is bread. Thus the role of bread as memory food, passing between the sacred and the mundane, is examined.
In Chapter 2 I develop the theme of memory in the context of exchange: exchange itself as an attempt to create potential future memories through the destruction of material objects. Acts of food exchange do not work to create memories on their own on Kalymnos. They must be reinforced by narratives of generosity past, of failed generosity or of the false generosity of others. Food generosity, then, can be seen as a lieu de memoire, a topos on which Kalymnian ideas about name, reputation or honorable personhood are constructed. But food generosity is also a key site for elaborating notions of group identity, in particular a "modern" identity that poses itself in contrast to a lost past in which generosity made up the shared substance of everyday life on Kalymnos. I explore these memories of community, or gemeinscha, for what they can tell us about Kalymnian historical consciousness. I also examine some of the changing modes of food production and their implications for the generation of food‑based memories.
In these first two chapters I essentially take traditional anthropological topics, ritual and exchange, and suggest the productivity provided by a re‑examination of well‑trod material through the lens of food and memory. I suggest that memory was implicit in these issues all the time, but has not been drawn out until recently, in particular in the work of a few Melanesian anthropologists. In Chapter 31 turn to some of the more recent theoretical concerns discussed above. I take steps toward an ethnography of the sense of taste and the related sense of smell on Kalymnos, to see eating as "embodied practice." I argue that food's memory power derives in part from synesthesia, which I take to mean the synthesis or crossing of experiences from different sensory registers (i.e., taste, smell, hearing). Synesthesia, I argue, is a key aspect of eating practices on Kalymnos. I further suggest that synesthesia provides that experience of "returning to the whole" which Fernandez has analyzed in the context of religious revitalization, and which, I suggest, helps us to understand the significance of food in the maintenance of the identity of Kalymnians and other migrants who have left their "homeland" behind. I also look at taste and smell from the perspective of cognitive anthropology. Unlike vision, which is divided up into a developed categorical system such as named colors, taste and smell have relatively few verbalized categories associated with them. Because of this, I will argue, taking off from Dan Sperber's work, that they instead become evocative of social situations with which they are associated.
Chapter 4 marks a return to the meal taken as a whole. In it I shift from experience and embodiment to questions of structure and repetition to look at the play of sameness and difference, metaphor and metonymy. I argue that these types of relationships provide the key for one meal recalling another, or better put, for Kalymnians recalling past meals while collectively consuming present ones. Some have argued for the role of analogy and memory as the very basis of cultural processes. Developing such a view I look at the way the meal is constructed as an "event" that fits within (without exactly replicating) a significant structure in ways parallel to how "history" itself is seen as a series of structure‑full events on Kalymnos. Or alternatively one could say that culture and history are "cooked," prepared in ways similar to those of a proper Kalymnian meal.A final chapter considers recipes, on the one hand in terms of the recent wave of "nostalgia cookbooks" that fight for space with offerings on "how to eat like a pig and lose 50 pounds" and other tomes on the shelves of Barnes and Noble's bookstores. But it also looks at the role of recipe transmission in a more active view of processes of enculturation, which is at the same time a key site for the transmission of certain types of memories and histories, both textual and embodied, that may challenge more official sources of knowledge concerning the past. And of course, I provide you the reader with a signature Kalymnian recipe, copiously annotated so that you can better ingest and remember my theoretical and ethnographic reflections through a more embodied experience, so that you too can eat in order to remember!
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