Interpreting the Myth of Food Consumption and Nostalgia
Ever since human being has ceased living off wild berries, food consumption has obtained more than nutritive significance. As we have explored throughout the semester, food symbolizes identity, class, gender, memory and border crossing. Among all the class readings, Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption by Roland Barthes has provided me with an overarching approach in understanding the information constituted by food. In this article, Barthes employs semiotics to help contextualize the role and function of food. For what is food? “Food is…a system of communication, a body of images, a protocol of usages, situations, and behavior.” (Food and Culture, pp. 24) For instance, when a middle-class American housewife picks up a can of tuna fish in the Whole Foods Market, she is not only consuming the “minimally processed” fish but the idea of organic living, the notion of environmental-friendly production and the image of a good wife and mom who cares about her family’s health.
Fundamentally, food consumption is about physiological satisfaction. However, as Barthes precisely argues, what is de facto consumed is a highly constructed end product that reflects collective institution. Abstracting from the projects I have accomplished this semester, food as a signifier has decoded the myth of authenticity. In short, food signifies nostalgia. Thus, in this final portfolio, I argue that the pursuit of authenticity arises from nostalgia-a sentiment embodied as one’s desire to partake in history, or trace individual experiences from the past.
Foodstuff Project: Long life Chinese Herbs (←Click on the title to view full context)
If food is a coherent system of information, as established by Barthes, then preparation constitutes a crucial semantic unit. (Food and Culture, pp.25) In this case, the relationship between authenticity and nostalgia is signified through the presentation and preparation of herbs. During the fieldwork, the two Chinese health clinics Mamie and I visited contrasted each other immensely. Health clinic A is arranged more identical to a modernized doctor’s office. The stainless floor, smell of sanitizer and crushed herbs prescribed in pre-sealed pockets forcefully emphasize hygiene. Clinic B, on the other hand, is filled with cabinets of dried herbs and offers herb-decoction service. The doctor practices the four traditional Chinese methods (望聞問切) and the prescription of herbs involves more manual work such as cutting, weighing etc. Immediately, Clinic B has claimed authenticity over Clinic A. As argued by David Sutton, practical knowledge of food preparation is an embodiment of memories in a jar. Cooking skills passed down from female authorities in the family line share similarities with medical practice herbalists garnered through apprenticeship. In both scenarios food preparation evokes the image of “traditional”, some heritage from the past. In Clinic B, the display of natural herbs on the counter and decocting tools resembles with Huatuo’s treatment from the Eastern Han Dynasty, Li Shizhen’s recommendation in the Compendium of Materia Medica while Clinic A addresses hygiene and standardization associated with modernity.
In conclusion, during the exploration of herbs as medicine, two levels of nostalgia are involved when determining authenticity. On micro level, nostalgia for individual experience has shaped the image associated with “Chinese medicine”. Moreover, the praxis of history has bridged the word “traditional” with authenticity. As Tulasi Srinivas quotes in her article As Mother Made It, “culinary authenticity…is framed in the terms espoused by the viewer, or eater…(and they) tend to say it’s authentic if it is artisanal, pre-industrial, uses indigenous ingredients…” (Food and Culture, pp. 368) In other words, authenticity derives from nostalgia for the sunny days of yore.
Cooking Project: Lomo Saltado& Mapping Project: A Taste of Szechuan
Also yearning for the good old days were the Chinese- Peruvian immigrants. The prosperity of Chifa restaurants in Peru, on the one hand has resulted from socio-economic predicament the Chinese Peruvian ancestors came across upon first arrival, is also an attempt to retrieve the past self through consuming cuisine of their ethnic group, region and locale. Tracing back to the 16th century, hundred thousands of Chinese have rafted across the Pacific Ocean to reach the American continent and swallowed sweat and blood in the clashes of cultures, languages and loss of identity. Often engaged through pursuit of gastro authenticity, this sentiment evokes memories for “home cooking”, or cuisine from the cultural origin. As Srinivas states in As Mother Made It, when people are away from their “home culture”, the idea of “homeland” becomes an important nucleus for nostalgic sentiment. (Food and Culture, pp.365) Thus, the establishment of Chifa restaurants has originated as a physical embodiment of nostalgia- an idealized image of cultural heritage, a social space of solidarity for people sharing the same mother tongue and customs, a utopia on the exotic land. The most renowned Chifa restaurant in Lima, Chifa TiTi for example, preserves its Hakka identity by embodying Hakka style architecture and introducing a touch of Hakkaness in food presentation. Our exploration of Chifa suggests that authenticity resonates with perseverance of cultural identity along with retrieve of past self from the other end of the globe. For Chinese Peruvians, classic Chifa dishes such as Lomo Saltado and Kam Lu Wonton are authentic because these dishes signify the history of multicultural emergence as well as early generations’ endeavor for assimilation.
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If the research and recreation of Chifa contextualize authenticity in early migration, my mapping project in search for Szechuanese restaurants near Chinatown expands the dimension to globalization. Located in a multicultural cosmopolitan like Philadelphia, these Szechuanese restaurants conceptually inserted “local” into the “global” space. (Food and Culture, pp.357) Upon arriving at the gate of a Szechuanese restaurant, consumers seek for an authentic Szechuanese experience through steaming hotpot with bubbling sauces, burning sensations of spices on the taste buds, and more importantly- the cultural atmosphere that immediately teleports them to Szechuan to dine with the pandas. In this case, Szechuanese food signifies nostalgic sentiment for localization.
Retrospectively, both Lomo Saltado and Szechuanese cuisine around Chinatown have posed the question of authenticity in relation to nostalgia for cultural identity conceptually and spatially. In other words, consumption of these two cuisines exemplify desire to reclaim ethnic identity, recreate cultural solidarity and re-experience locality.
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Creative Project: Eat and Drink in Song Dynasty
Considering that so far my research has been circumscribed to a modern context, I started off this exercise as an experiment to place my argument on a historical dimension. In this project, Song cuisine not only signifies history but is itself part of history. Thus, recreation of the Song dietary culture is a pursuit of authenticity. In retrospect, this project reminds me of the “Little Song City” (小宋城)- a state-owned restaurant established on the reminiscence of the prosperous Bianliang City (汴梁城). Located among ruins from Song Dynasty, Little Song City aims at a complete restoration of Song’s food and culture. Primarily, both the architect and the interior design strictly imitate Song style. The restaurant staff wears Song costumes and speaks quasi-Song dialect. Even the management of the restaurant follows the landlord-individual food shop mode developed during that dynasty. The restaurant promotes itself as a place for authentic Song dining experience. Indeed it is a smart slogan. After an exhausting day of visiting Song remains around the area, tourists dine in Little Song City to strengthen their connection to the past. In this restaurant, consumers are no longer visitors, observers, outsiders of history but partakers of a simulacrum of the past. The restaurant, through equalizing its physical space with an opportunity to participate in history, constructs food with a cultural identity and a symbol of antiquity. The popularity of Little Song City best proves that this image is well sold. Food indeed, reflects a prevalent desire to partake in history.
Before taking this class I have always regarded food consumption as physiological necessity, as nutritive intake, and as sensual pleasure. Nonetheless, Barthes mythology empowered me to decode food as a system of communication. The saying has it that “There are a thousand Hamlets in a thousand people’s eyes.” So does authenticity. Essentially, defining authenticity cannot, shall not and will not be an objective experience. When one claims a particular food to be authentic, one turns to history for legitimacy. Through contextualization with secondary readings, each of the projects above presents food as nostalgia in a different perspective. In a brief summary, foodstuff project associates authenticity of herbal medicine with the concept of “traditional”. Cooking project and mapping project both emphasize authenticity in relation to retrieving identity culturally and spatially. Finally, the creative project adds a historical dimension and strengthens that food is a highly constructed product that signifies nostalgia.
1. Barthes, Roland. “Chapter 2 Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption.” 1961. Food and Culture: A Reader. Ed. Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. New York: Routledge, 2013. 23-29. Print.
2. Sutton, David. “Chapter 21 Cooking Skills, the Senses and Memory: The Fate of Practical Knowledge.” Food and Culture: A Reader. Ed. Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. New York: Routledge, 2013. 299-319. Print.
3. Srinivas, Tulasi. “Chapter 25 “As Mother Made It”” Food and Culture: A Reader. By Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. New York: Routledge, 2013. 355-371. Print.