Slapšak, Svetlana – Flying Pilaf

Svetlana Slapšakslapsak_pilav_C


Anthropological Perspectives on Food

Publication date 2014. 328 pages.

Price: 800 din.




Svetlana Slapšak is Professor and coordinator of studies at ISH (In­sti­tu­tum Stu­di­o­rum Hu­ma­ni­ta­tis) in Ljubljana. She teaches on anthropology of the ancient world, gender studies, and Balkanology. Here recent book include For an Anthropology of Ancient Worlds  (Štu­dent­ska za­lo­žba, Lju­blja­na, 2000), Female Icons of the Twentieth Century (Bi­bli­o­te­ka XX vek, 2001), Female Icons of the Ancient World (Bi­bli­o­te­ka XX vek, 2006), Little Black Dress: Essays on Anthropology and Feminism (Cen­tar za žen­ske stu­di­je, Be­o­grad, 2007), Mi­kra The­a­tri­ka (MGL, Lju­blja­na, 2011), Ancient Mythurgy: Women  (Bi­bli­o­te­ka XX vek, 2013) and Cabbage and Sexuality (Štu­dent­ska za­lo­žba, Lju­blja­na, 2013).


From the preface

This book presents a collection of essays about food that I have published beginning in the 1990s. The first essays, which were published in the “Time for enjoyment” section of the magazine Vreme (Time), with the exception of an essay about French cheeses, which I revised according to a different conception about twenty years later. Also not in this collection is the text of an introduction to Apicius’s recipe book which I published in Latin in 1989 and translated for the collection of classic texts published in the Zagreb journal La­ti­na&Gra­e­ca, because that was writing for a specific purpose. The collection also does not include my research on cabbage and sexuality, which appeared at the end of last year in Slovenian. I particularly regret that my book of recipes Poverty Cuisine, which I delevered for publication just before the war to the publisher “Knji­žev­na za­jed­ni­ca No­vi Sad,” was never released. Technical and other conditions were such that the manuscript has simply – at least for me – disappeared. On the other hand, this collection includes many essays that have never been published before, but which are inspired by the basic theme and my approach to it.

A key influence on my interest in food and its meanings comes from my involvement with the writings of Veselin Čajkanović, especially his dictionary of plants, from the early 1980s. This job, which involved verifying the use of Greek terminaology, was entrusted to me by the academician Vojislav Đurić on the recommendation of my teacher, the academic Milan Budimir. As I was preparing my doctoral dissertation on Greek translations and loan-words in Vuk Karadžić’s Dictionary, food and beliefs about food kept me very amused. I created a small self-published “Vuk’s cookbook” as a gift for my friends; in 2012 I published an improved version of that cookbook as part of a little project at the Serbian Cultural Center “Danilo Kiš” in Ljubljana.

In the 1990s and for a time afterward I taught courses on food, above all from the point of view of ritual, belief and visual presentation, as a part of the programme on anthropology of ancient worlds and the anthropology of gender at the ISH faculty for postgraduate studies in the humanities in Ljubljana, which is my home institution, as well as at other universities. In the spring of 2012, at a course at the Inter-university Centre in Dubrovnik organised by my colleagues from Zagreb, I held lectures on food as a text of deception and seduction. The discussions that developed from this provided me with a strong impulse to collect my essays on food in a single collection.

Why anthropology? In the first place because the pursuit, choice, preparation and enjoyment of food gives crucial information about the lives of people and anthropological structure, and in the second place because symbolic representations of food, whether in the form of rituals, beliefs, superstition or simply play, creates a certain meta-anthropological text, a self-description of people in diverse historical, social and cultural surroundings. Memories of food, speech about food of all types, represents a good part of our individual “package” of memories, sometimes very well and meticulously preserved. Finally, around the world and especially in Europe today, in the key changes that may be preceding fundamental and catastrophic changes in social structure, it is precisely in food and in its improbably high position in popular culture and media that we somehow sense the most traumatic aspects of the changes that are coming: cookbooks sell better than all other published works, television is full of programmes about food, cable offerings of channels about food are extraordinary – I myself have access to two channels that offer 24 hours of programmes about food – to the degree that it is possible to speak of a contemporary world that is obsessed with food, while also marked by the hunger of half of the population. In terms of abundance, contemporary food culture offers convincing parallels with another culture of abundance for the upper classes in which food constituted a key expression of power – with the Hellenic society and another society that took on the prestigious status of food, ancient Rome. The Hellenic world was marked by globality: literacy was understood to mean literacy in the Greek language, and all literate people – except for Greeks – were biligual or trilingual, until the time when Latin, at the time of the Roman Empire, assumed the position of the language of administration. The global cultural system of signs and symbols was recognised throughout the Hellenic world, more or less from Gibraltar to the Ganges, and that system was taken on and continually supplemented in Greek mythology and culture. The prestige of Greek meant for Athens that it could survive without real political or economic power, for a good thousand years following the demise of Athenian democracy. Greek culinary specialists, along with philosophers and scientists who wrote about food and customs related to food, especially Pythagoras and Hippocrates, were basic authorities on food: from their texts are derived basic concepts which are now most important, such as vegetarianism, health food, food as medication and therapy, the idea of the diet. Hellenic cities and villas, as ar as food was concerned, knew everything that contemporary TV programmes offer us: half- or fully-crazy cooks, culinary literature ranging from cookbooks to travel literature with assessments of local food, unusual diets, exotic ingredients and especially spices, competition, power, money. The social structure of the ancient Hellenic city, and later the Roman city, included a group of people that lived from the distribution of food, either at private parties or through the public sharing of food: the figure of the “parasite,” its basic meaning being the person who does not live off his or her own wheat, derives from this social environment. The sharing of food has its deep and still important ritual meaning: sacrifice, whether it is cooked from seeds or an animal sacrifice, is divided among the participants in the ritual. Bringing food and drinks to an entertainment event, the symposion, is the basic way of organising entertaiment for men in the Athenian democracy: wealthy and/or powerful hosts took over that role in the Hellenistic monarchic society. In Rome parasitism became one of the most important mechanisms of power, through which authorities controlled the social peace of the urban population, the plebeians, who did not have regaular sources of food. The figure of the cook is important in late ancient comedy; food is a field of meaning that opens the way for a parodic, light, humourous understanding of the world. The great Roman poet Virgil wrote poems about ajvar; Horace describes meals with friends in verse; Cato the Elder promoted the virtues of cabbage to the authentic Roman, who should avoid the temptation to indulge in Greek luxury. I am offering examples that without any doubt speak ideological associations with food, above all of food as a text of power.

The contemporary obsession with cuisine is also a text of power. In contrast with “reality television,” which principally involve the provocation and expression of low motives and the miserable character of anonymous people seeking “fame,” TV cooking involves some skill: if it is not skill in cooking, then there remain the show of ability to assess the quality of food, to host a TV programme, to travel while tasting local specialties, and so on. Denigrating culinary competitors, obvious corruption and bribery in systems of assessment, gluttony, drunkenness, killing animals in front of the camera, self-congratulation and vulgarity of all forms are also basic elements of media-culinary culture. While some maniacally seek health through food, others shamelessly promote industrial food, dubious ingredients, morbid chemicals and the advantages of oily “junk food”: I confess that this sometimes comes as relief after the rhetorical ramblings that reviewers indulge in on “haute cuisine” and the comical on-plate constructions in expensive restaurants and in front of overinflated “chefs.” Especially entertaining in this context is the patriarchal impulse, which develops in shamelessly intolerant forms in culinary “competitions.” Very rarely in that pop-culinary media production does one encounter something that could have value as anthropological data.

There are not many anthropologists or anthropologies of food, which is strange considering that a good portion of anthropological observation is dedicated to the preparation and consumption of food. In developing the understanding of food, I welcomed theories of human food consumption, above all the extraordinarily original approach of Roland Barthes, who read the classic work of French cuisine by Brillat-Savarin in a new way. The work of Jack Goody on zones of poor (low) and high cuisine is crucial to understanding the sociology of food. Marvin Harris introduced a political element, discussing the distribution, production and advertising of food as central elements of social, and hence political, construction. I certainly had to take into consideration the research by Mary Douglas on purity and danger, although I did not care for her aggressive moralism. I left theorising in the broad sense for the book on cabbage and sexuality, where the ritual aspect has a marked importance and is in great measure tied to the dynamics of change in the definition and position of gender. Practice – my culinary practice – I described in the interview that was conducted by Milica Tomić for ProFemina.