Food for thought is all the rage

Academics, being occupied with matters of the mind, have traditionally given little thought to matters of the dinner table. But now, Jenny Wallace finds, they're making a meal of it
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The Independent Online
The history of 17th-century notions of taste, the orgiastic feasting and fasting of the ancient world, the cultural and semiotic significance of the Irish hunger strikers, the biological mechanism behind our response to sugar - these are just a few of the recent or current research projects going on in our universities. Suddenly, the study of food and our eating habits is all the rage in the academy. Science laboratories are putting together food science and technology programmes, while in the humanities, the study of food, always a staple ingredient of an anthropology course, is now spilling over into history, literary criticism, even theology.

Why this recent surge in interest? One obvious reason is the recent spate of food scares - mad-cow disease, E coli - and the consequent intense media spotlight on the whole food industry. Tim Lang took up the only chair in food policy in Britain at Thames Valley University in 1994, after "the food scandals had put the issues on the public agenda", and he was therefore able to make "a timely contribution to public debate". He is closely involved in the research and consultation surrounding the proposed new Food Standards Agency.

Also responding to health scares is the ever-expanding Institute of Food Research, currently based on two sites, in Norwich and in Reading, but scheduled to move entirely to Norwich in September 2000. Working closely with consumer groups, parliamentary safety committees, and also with a range of food companies, the institute's research covers some controversial new food processes, such as genetically modified food and fermenting soya beans, as well as work on the control of organisms such as salmonella and investigations into consumer choice. They have recently discovered a gap in the market for a certain type of apple, for example, and are pursuing it with British plant breeders.

In the humanities, the growing attention paid to food may be prompted by the general scholarly interest in the body. For years, Descartes' maxim, "I think, therefore I am", dominated the academy. Affairs of the intellect were valued while affairs of the stomach were either actively disapproved of or at least taken for granted. But the effect in the Eighties and early Nineties of philosophers such as Michel Foucault and Judith Butler has been to suggest that everything is potentially political, and that the body is as constrained by ideology in its shape, its conformity and its punishment as the mind. Filling the body becomes an anxious and vital business. "I eat, therefore I am", you might say.

Consumption is the buzz word in the academy. Literary critics are following anthropologists and sociologists in their study of the way in which consumers select their daily diet from the vast array of foods traded across the world. As language is translated and made colloquial, so nations import globalised goods while simultaneously defining themselves through their ethnic dish, be it the English cup of tea - in fact imported from the former empire - or the racially mongrel macedoine (see box).

Greek lecturer Shannan Peckham says the plums in this recipe form the centrepiece of the dessert and represent underlying national continuities while the surrounding fruit evokes the ethnic and cultural diversity of the Balkans.

The anthropologist Mary Douglas, whose work is really a pioneering beacon for the culinary new wave, argues that you can "decipher a meal", and both the content and the ritual of a dinner can tell you a great deal about a society, its pleasures and its taboos and prohibitions.

This is the reason why recipes, in particular, have become such a source of interest. The Cambridge English don, Eric Griffiths, caused a stir a couple of years ago when he published a critical literary analysis of Delia Smith's recipe books. At last, it seemed, somebody had recognised what had been jokingly suggested for some time: that there was no significant difference between analysing a great work of literature and analysing the back of a cornflakes packet.

Griffiths was probably not being entirely serious in his endeavour, but many scholars are. Sara Pennell, now at the V & A, maintains that recipes from the early 18th century can throw light on contemporary expectations of gender and patriotism. The classicist Emily Gowers has traced the close connection between writing and food in ancient Roman culture, from dinner invitation poems to satirical recipes.

Recorded concoctions, such as the one for ancient Roman lasagne (see box) can tell us much, she argues, about what the Romans considered fit to eat (a discriminating taste very different from our own), as well as something about their reputation for gluttony.

Recipes can even provide one telling crumb of comfort, as well as these interesting perspectives on other civilisations. William Arens, professor of anthropology at State University of New York, has argued that ritualised cannibalism was never a common practice. The reason? "The meat may be boiled, broiled, baked or steamed, but there are no recipes for cannibal dishes."

`Consuming Passions: Food in the Age of Anxiety', edited by Sian Griffiths and Jennifer Wallace, is published by Manchester University Press in association with the Times Higher Education Supplement, pounds 10 from 0990-3299454.

Ancient

Roman Lasagne

Ingredients

Cooked sow's udder

Fillet of fish

Chicken meat

Cooked thrushes' breasts

Eggs

Anchovy stock

Wine/grape juice

Cornflour

Pine nuts

Seasoning

Method

Chop up the sow's udder, fish, chicken and thrush breast. Stir together eggs and oil, and season. Pour the egg

mixture over anchovy stock, wine and grape juice. Heat in a saucepan and add the cornflour to thicken. Bring the meat mixture to the boil, ladle it into a pan with whole peppercorns and pine nuts in layers, placing an egg-mixture pancake under each layer of meat, like a lasagna. Skewer a pancake with a reed and secure on top. Season with pepper.

Macedoine

Ingredients

3 apples

3 pears

6 red plums

1 punnet blackberries

1 punnet raspberries

Muscat grapes

1 tablespoon honey

2 cinnamon sticks

2 tablespoons sugar

lemon rind and juice

Bulgarian red wine

Greek yoghurt

Slivovitch (Balkan plum brandy)

Chop apples and pears and heat with a little water, honey and cinnamon. Add blackberries and simmer. Add raspberries, stir and allow to cool. In a separate saucepan, heat plums, sugar, cinnamon, wine, lemon juice, rind and grapes. Bring to simmering point and cook gently until the fruit is soft. Cool. Remove cinnamon sticks. Take out the plums and place in bowls. Add the remaining juice to the apple and pear mixture, stir and pour over plums. Warm the Slivovitch brandy, light with a match and pour the flambe over the macedoine. Serve with Greek yoghurt.

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