Remembrance of Repasts
Remembrance of Repasts

David E. Sutton

David E. Sutton Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Southern Illinois University. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Berg, 2001


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Book chapter



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Introduction: A Proustian Anthropology?

DOI: 10.5040/9781350044883-intro
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The Remembered Octopus

“Food and memory? Why would anyone want to remember anything they had eaten?” This sardonic comment, made by an Oxford don, seemed to sum up the response when I presented a paper on the topic in 1996 at the department of anthropology at Oxford. Indeed, as I sat with my fellow gowned colleagues surrounded by all manner of forks and spoons, and experienced for myself the extreme emphasis on form over substance at Oxford High Table, where a profusion of potatoes and overboiled vegetables was presented and just as quickly whisked away, I realized that this comment was not at all out of place. And although my topic did not receive such derogation when I presented it to US anthropological audiences, neither was there the normal buzz of suggestions: “Oh, if you are studying that, you must read ...” Instead, when I consulted with the person who was most focused on the issue of memory in the department of anthropology at the University of Chicago on possible sources on food and memory, the response was a hardly less sardonic “Try Proust!” My only encouragement came from colleagues working in Greece or other Mediterranean contexts, who would share with me their own anecdotes about tales of long-remembered meals.

And then there were the Kalymnians themselves... From the first time I visited Kalymnos as a high school senior on a study-abroad program, clues abounded to the connection that existed on the island between food and strategies of remembering. Kalymnian friends noted and continually mentioned my dislikes (my complaints about the predominance of eggs in our daily meals), as well as my penchant for their Kalymnian version of beef stew. But they not only noted, they remembered these likes and dislikes, and brought them up again on And then there were the Kalymnians themselves... From the first time I visited Kalymnos as a high school senior on a study-abroad program, clues abounded to the connection that existed on the island between food and strategies of remembering. Kalymnian friends noted and continually mentioned my dislikes (my complaints about the predominance of eggs in our daily meals), as well as my penchant for their Kalymnian version of beef stew. But they not only noted, they remembered these likes and dislikes, and brought them up again on And then there were the Kalymnians themselves . . . From the first time I visited Kalymnos as a high school senior on a study-abroad program, clues abounded to the connection that existed on the island between food and strategies of remembering. Kalymnian friends noted and continually mentioned my dislikes (my complaints about the predominance of eggs in our daily meals), as well as my penchant for their Kalymnian version of beef stew. But they not only noted, they remembered these likes and dislikes, and brought them up again on my return trips two and eight years later. So it was not a total surprise when I began fieldwork to hear the frequently phrased injunction: “Eat, in order to remember Kalymnos.” I had my own ideas of what this meant, and had collected fieldwork stories in the exotic mode for the folks back home: from the sea urchins that I watched Kalymnians collect with their bare hands, open with a fork and eat live, to the octopus, pounded on the rocks and eaten fresh off the grill, to the roasted goat, whose severed head was dangled over mine when someone decided “playfully” to wake me from an afternoon nap. But there was a difference here, because my Kalymnian friends did not have such, from my perspective, “exotic” foods in mind. Any meal could potentially be the object of this injunction. And as the comment was repeated, I began to realize that this was not simply a suggestion made to a foreigner to take back culinary souvenirs of his stay along with the photographs, postcards, and in the case of Kalymnos, the ubiquitous sponges that are the more common objects of tourist expropriation from the island.

In telling me to use the transitory and repetitive act of eating as a medium for the more enduring act of remembering, they were, in fact, telling me to act like a Kalymnian. As I listened to their own stories about the past, as part of my research project, which focused on the topic of historical consciousness, I began to realize the extent to which ordinary foods permeated their memories. This was evident in fifty-year-old tales of plump purple figs served to a fiancé return-migrant from the United States, as well as in more mundane stories that began “It was during the German occupation on Rhodes. I was eating a bag of apricots, when my friend Yiorgos came by and suggested we investigate the abandoned Jewish synagogue . . .” Did Kalymnians really remember such far-off incidental details of their lives as a bag of apricots? If not, what were the apricots doing in the story? As I thought about these issues, other questions began to swirl in my mind: concerning stories people would tell about their own food-related generosity, as well as the reverse, people claiming to steal fruit in memory of dead neighbors. And what about the memorials for the dead that center around the sharing of special foods? Was it the ordinary or the extraordinary meals that people claimed to remember, or perhaps something in between? As I began to think back over my fieldwork a whole battery of questions centering on food and memory posed themselves. But how could I contextualize these questions? Was there relevant theory to be consulted, or could I only “try Proust”?


Food itself seems to be a topic in ongoing search of legitimacy, as evidenced by a 1999 Chronicle of Higher Education article entitled “A Place at the Table,” which refers to food studies as “a hot new field.” This article, in fact, prompted an internet-sponsored discussion over whether food studies was a legitimate academic pursuit or “scholarship lite.” At least for anthropology, this may reflect the fact that, unlike other cultural domains, such as kinship, ritual and religion, exchange or politics, food does not have its own well-developed specialist terminology and tools of analysis. The uses and meanings of food can on the one hand seem trivial to those who live by the maxim “food as fuel,” while on the other hand it seems a topic where “native exegesis” can be as perceptive as specialist knowledge, as indicated in the following quotation from a British father on the meaning of meals:

I try to eat the evening meal with the household. My daughter doesn’t comply. It’s part of her attitude to food, her attitude to freedom. Generally she likes to please herself, eat what she likes. I’ve tried to persuade her eating isn’t just about eating, it’s a social situation (cited in Bell and Valentine 1997:83).

But perhaps the obviousness and taken-for-grantedness of food can provide focus for research in itself: the fact that the Oxford don found my topic absurd, while Greek and Italian colleagues instantly related to it, is in itself ethnographically interesting. Yet this obviousness can be deceptive as well, because food can hide powerful meanings and structures under the cloak of the mundane and the quotidian. Something as seemingly innocuous and salutary as the rise of micro-brewed beers and Starbucks in the United States in the 1990s, for example, can open a window on to shifting American economic and class structures. Beer and coffee, two of the most democratizing beverages in American society because of their cheapness, ubiquity, and homogeneity, have been transformed into badges of class distinction, as well as icons of the end of mass production and mass marketing. Drinking beer no longer need be an identification with “Joe six-pack,” as urban professionals sip beer from wine glasses (the change in glassware is itself a symbol of the transformation in the status of beer; it used to be necessary to switch from beer to wine to mark your class distinction) at $9.00/six-pack. And the most humble act of American gift-giving, the offer of a cup of coffee (“Joe” once again), must now be prefaced by a discussion of preparation methods and bean origins.[1] The power of food here is to mask these class issues under the guise of “personal preference” and “matters of taste,” the unquestioned baseline of our American economistic view of the world. Many other such examples of food’s symbolic power can be adduced. Feeley-Harnik, in her study of biblical transformations of Passover, notes that the power of linking religion to dietary rules was in the simplicity of its message as contrasted to the arcana of scriptural interpretation: “Food seems to have been regarded as the most accessible, the best way of introducing ordinary mortals to the ineffable wisdom of God” (1994:166). Food, then, can carry hegemonic identities through its very ability to connect the mundane with the pleasurable and the necessary.[2]

Perhaps there is another reason that the topic of food is met with such raised eyebrows. That is that it seems for many in our culture to involve the baser senses, instincts and bodily functions, not suited for scholarly or “mental” pursuits. As anthropologists have argued (see below), there is a hierarchy of the senses in the dominant cultures of the West that ascribes vision to the more evolved cultures and taste and smell to “the primitive.” Food is not generally seen as conducive to thought. It always has the potential, in our puritan-derived culture, to be labelled as a giving in to our “primitive” nature, the line between the gourmet and the glutton being seen as quite thin; and the injunction “don’t eat like a pig” can be found on the lips of many a parent socializing their children into proper manners. Or as Jeanneret (1991: 1) puts it aptly:

All sorts of ideological barriers exist between sense and the senses, between intellectual activity and the consumption of natural produce. The head and the stomach are at odds . . . We have to choose whether to speak or to eat: we must not speak with our mouth full.

Food Memories

These very associations of food with “the primitive,” as well as anthropologists’ longstanding commitment to documenting the quotidian, the everyday, suggest some of the reasons that anthropology has traditionally been in the very forefront of food studies. Anthropological study of food can be traced back to the origins of the discipline, witness the perceptive writings of Robertson-Smith on commensality (see Meigs 1988, for a discussion). Since then, food has appeared as a theme in diverse classics such as Morgan’s (1950 [1876]) depiction of “Montezuma’s dinner” as an example of primitive communism, Boas’s salmon recipes,[3] Radcliffe-Brown’s discussion of food and social sentiments among the Andaman Islanders (1948), Evans-Pritchard’s (1940) analysis of cow-time among the Nuer, Richards’s (1939) ethnography of nutrition, agriculture and social life among the Bemba, and Lévi-Strauss’s (1970) voluminous musings on things raw, cooked and rotten. Anthropological work has produced a broad consensus that food is about commensality – eating to make friends – and competition – eating to make enemies. Food, in the view of both Mary Douglas and those working on ethnicity, is a particularly good “boundary marker,” perhaps because it provides a potent symbol of the ability to transform the outside into the inside. In more current terminology food is about identity creation and maintenance, whether that identity be national, ethnic, class or gender-based.[4] In the US context food has also been shown to be about assimilation, and, for the majority population, about “tasting the other.” As Kalcik (1984: 37) wittily puts it, “The formula here seems to be ‘not-so-strange food equals not-so-strange people’ or perhaps, ‘strange people but they sure can cook!’”[5]

Recent studies have focused on issues of power and hegemony. For example, Cowan notes how women are taught, in the Greek context, to consume sweet things as part of learning their “sweet” gendered disposition. She registers the difficulty of challenging the association of sweets with women, where to resist this formula is both to go against one’s desire, and to make something out of what is perceived as “nothing”: “The very triviality of many of the things people do . . . not only blocks them from consciousness, since they constitute acts of utter common sense, but also serves to trivialize any protest” (Cowan 1991:181). In other words, food must not be seen as providing meaning only through structure, through providing categories of clean and polluted, edible and inedible, as Mary Douglas has well illustrated, but also through the everyday practices that have increasingly come to our attention as part of anthropological interest in “hidden histories,” the “practice of everyday life” and the “history of the present,” to fold recent theoretical developments into a batter of catchphrases.

This ability of food to both generate subjective commentary and encode powerful meanings would seemingly make it ideal to wed to the topic of memory. Memory and its oft forgotten alter-ego “forgetting” generate popular interest and commentary while simultaneously encoding hidden meanings. Like food, memory is clearly linked to issues of identity: gender, class and other. Yet one roams far and wide in scholarly studies of food to find discussions of the perception of foods past. Feeley-Harnik (1994: xv) offers the following complaint:

Across major differences, from yada to gnosis, the biblical writers emphatically insist on the mutuality of eating-speaking and remembering . . . Yet despite the prominence of this theme in the arts, the hints of similar connections in ethnographic monographs (Trobriand Islanders locate memory in the stomach), and some attention to the memory-enhancing effects of acetylcholine and glucose in rats and elderly humans, there is surprisingly little research on this topic.

This in spite of the fact that it is evident to many that if “we are what we eat,” then “we are what we ate” as well.[6] Recent concern with transnational identities has put the issue of nostalgia on the theoretical table.[7] Yet the obvious link of food and nostalgia has produced only some intriguing descriptive material (Bahloul 1996), and Hannerz’s (1996: 27) suggestive anecdote that the first thing a Swedish couple did after a trip to Borneo was to drink a glass of cold milk at their kitchen table: “Home is where that glass of cold milk is.” And while Mennell, Mintz, and Goody have together injected a renewed interest in history into food studies, none of them has shown an interest in historical consciousness, or the understanding of people’s subjective perceptions of foods past.[8]

The one writer who brings us close to a consideration of these issues is Mary Douglas, particularly in her work on “Deciphering the meal” (1971). While this work is known for its famous structuralist analysis of the meal as made up of A + 2B (meat and 2 vegetables), and the many algebraic elaborations that she cooks up on that basic formula, a second key insight she provides concerns not the structure within meals, but the relations between meals. She sees these relations as a system of repeated analogies. Each meal, to be a meal, must recall the basic structure of other meals: “A meal stays in the category of meal only insofar as it carries this structure which allows the part to recall the whole” (1971:67). At the same time, ordinary quotidian meals “metonymically figure” the structure of celebratory or holiday meals, so that these meals simply elaborate the basic structure: A + 2B becomes 2A + 4B. There are significant patternings of meals as well: daily, weekly, and yearly cycles are the most obvious, but they can stretch out over the life-course as well. Because of this, Douglas argues that linguistic analysis is in fact often inappropriate to understanding meals: a sentence can be said in a minute, but a “food sentence” takes a lifetime to complete.

In her earlier work on Hebrew food taboos, Douglas argues that food is used to state repeatedly the message of purity, of the perfection of separated categories, which can be applied to religion, politics, or territorial boundaries (1971:76–7), much like Feeley-Harnik’s argument about identity above. But this argument partakes of a more static structuralism current in the early–mid-1970s: thus its resonance with Sahlins’s (1976) discussion of US food taboos and class eating practices. But in later work, Douglas develops this other, more temporal perspective: she sees the message of meals to be in their power to represent experiences of time, development or evolution: “To treat food in its ritual aspect is to take account of its long spun out temporal processes. It is an evolving system that can be a metaphor for any other evolution, great or small, the evolution of just one marriage, and even of the whole human species” (1982:115). Further, in her discussion of meals as metaphor and metonymy she seems to prefigure some of the tools used to infuse structuralist approaches with history: history as “para-digmatic” repetitions of key themes (“History repeats itself”) or as “syntagmatic” chains of events (“One damned thing after another”).[9]It seems a shame, indeed, that these different structuralisms, of food and of the past, were not brought into conjuncture, even in recent explorations of the seemingly fateful voyages of Captain Cook on his ship the Endeavour. One only has to wonder how history would have been different if Captain Cook had not insisted on including sauerkraut among his provisions: his voyage might have been prematurely cut short by a bout of scurvy (see Lust 1998). Perhaps this theoretical omission is soon to be rectified: it is encouraging that the revisionist Obeyesekere refers to his own recent endeavor as his “cook book” (1995:169).

Among anthropologists of food, then, Douglas seems to take us the furthest into issues of memory. And yet what tends to be neglected in her argument is a remembering subject. Thus we are presented with meals as metonyms, “recalling” other meals, “carrying the meaning” of other meals, rather than people remembering what they have eaten. Yet elsewhere she praises Maurice Halbwach’s view of memory as working by drawing on external stimuli which helps us to renew past experiences: “We remember when some new memory helps us to piece together small, scattered, and indistinct bits of the past” (1982: 258). This seems a perfect description of the parts that Douglas sees as recalling the whole of other meals. But if Douglas did not make the connection fully explicit, her work still provides the best guidepost in the literature on food to experiences of temporality, and we will return to these insights into parts and wholes, patterns and structures, metaphors and metonyms and missing structuralist approaches to history, in considering the work of remembering meals on Kalymnos.

If we approach things from the other direction, and turn to the literature on memory in anthropology for discussions of food, we find suggestive paths leading to similar surprising silences. Memory is a much more recent anthropological topic than food. By and large, anthropologists have been interested in the active, rather than the passive nature of memory. That is, in the fact that memories are not simply stored images drawn out of the brain at appropriate intervals, but are very much formed as an interaction between the past and the present, a point made by those working on memory in a number of different disciplines.[10]To quote Lambek and Antze (1998: xxix): “Identity is not composed of a fixed set of memories but lies in the dialectical, ceaseless activity of remembering and forgetting, assimilating and discarding.”

Anthropological interest in memory develops concurrently with anthropological interest in nationalism, since the mid-1980s. Anthropologists have been attentive to questions of what is publicly memorialized in writing and other official sources, as part of state projects of constructing national identities. They have also been attentive to counter-memories, that is, what is left out of official histories and can be reclaimed through the traditional anthropological recourse to oral sources. As Lambek and Antze (1998: xvi) phrase the issue: “the past and its retrieval in memory hold a curious place in our identities, one that simultaneously stabilizes those identities in continuity and threatens to disrupt them.”

Thus there has been considerable attention paid to the content of memories, especially in political contexts. Somewhat less attention has been paid to the form of memories, and how these forms might be culturally shaped.[11] This is what makes Paul Connerton’s book How Societies Remember (1989) such a touchstone for recent studies of memory. Connerton’s slim volume is indeed often the only reference provided by anthropologists in their discussions of memory (see, for example, Stoller 1995; A. Strathern 1996). It is because he focuses attention on the question of How, rather than What, that he has proved so useful to those approaching these latter questions. Indeed, one could say that Paul Connerton’s book How Societies Remember stands to memory as Anderson’s Imagined Communities stands to nationalism in anthropology (interesting that both books are written by non-anthropologists). Connerton revives Halbwachs’s concern with the group spaces and places of memory, that is, certain culturally determined foci for memorial practices, such as religious ceremonies. As he argues, Halbwachs focuses attention on the social spaces of memory and the “mental landmarks” of the group. Anthropologists have taken off from this, and from the work of Pierre Nora,[12] to examine culturally constructed memory sites such as landscapes (Kuchler 1993), boundary markers (Rappaport 1994) or particular ceremonial or personal objects (Parmentier 1987; Hoskins 1998). Food, we could posit, might be such an object or place for memory practices in certain societies and not others, and ethnographic work is beginning to describe the contours of such sites of food memories (Bahloul 1996; Battaglia 1990), though this work remains part of larger works on “the architecture of memory” or “memory and personhood” rather than the foci of studies in their own right.

But Connerton further argues that Halbwachs is less clear concerning the “actual acts of transfer that make remembering in common possible” (Connerton 1989:39). Or as Tonkin puts it, Halbwachs becomes vague on the question of socialization itself, seeing it as a passive process of reception of cultural materials rather than an active appropriation, a problem that has long bedevilled social theory more generally.[13]Lambek makes a similar point in arguing that we must pay more attention to different societies’ “cultural means of inscription, storage and access” (1998:238). Lambek notes the more objectifying storage mechanisms in the West, based on the technology of film and photography, which go along with our passive and individualized view of memory (1998:238–9). One thinks, for example, of soap operas, in which memory is depicted as scenes replayed from previous episodes with echoey music in the background. This is an example of what Lambek sees as characteristic of Western memory production, which “freeze[s] words and images, . . . put[s] frames around them; and . . . render[s] remembering mechanical and impersonal” (1998:238). Contrast this to other cultural memory production that stresses the way memory is created “between people.”

A less visualist approach to memory also means following Connerton in moving us away from understanding memory, and culture itself, in terms of written, or textual models. He notes that such “inscribing practices” exist, but argues that hermeneutics has given too much attention to them at the expense of what he calls “incorporating practices.” Thus he is much closer to Turner’s view of culture as performance than Geertz’s culture as text. In focusing on performance, he wants to see a different type of memory at work than that which we call “semantic,” i.e., knowledge of how to do something. Thus he coins the term “habit memory” for this more embodied view of ritual performance:

An image of the past, even in the form of a master narrative, is conveyed and sustained by ritual performances. And this means that what is remembered in commemorative ceremonies is something in addition to a collectively organized variant of personal or cognitive memory. For if ceremonies are to work for their participants, if they are to be persuasive to them, then those participants must not be simply cognitively competent to execute the performance; they must be habituated to those performances. This habituation is to be found . . . in the bodily substrate of the performance (1989:70–1).

Connerton does not want to dismiss narrative or textual memories, and neither will I do so in my subsequent analysis. However, he draws our attention to the importance of these other types of memories that can be found “sedimented in the body,” in a way similar to what Bourdieu, always cryptically, refers to as “bodily hexis” or the work of culture through time on posture, gesture and other bodily practices.[14]The corset, for example, does not simply symbolize female constriction, but actually “moulds” the female body to produce certain behaviors and to associate certain habits as being natural and proper (1989:34–5). Strathern notes that manners at High Table act similarly to symbolize class differences and to resocialize the body through ceremony into the naturalness of these proprieties and the difference that they symbolize (1996:33). Thus we are close to Cowan’s analysis of gender and sweetness here, but with the added component of memory made explicit. Once again, it would seem profitable to draw out how food might play into these types of memories, which are more embodied than verbal or textual. In other words, in exploring the question of why Kalymnians insist that I “eat in order to remember” I am drawn to issues of how this process of ingestion takes place, how sensory experience and cognitive processes can be analyzed in understanding the evocative power of Yiannis’s apricots.

In framing collective memory in this way Connerton contributes to current anthropological concerns with “embodiment” and a related literature concerning “the anthropology of the senses.” These writers wish to overcome the “visualist bias” in anthropology and Western culture more generally by avoiding Cartesian dualisms of mind and body, expressed in symbolic approaches that reduce varied behavior to “texts” that contain or symbolize linguistic meanings. Thus in the view of Csordas (1994:10 ff.) much work focused on “the body” such as that of Douglas (1966) simply reads the body “semiotically” rather than attempting to get at “embodied experience.” Such an experiential approach would not privilege mental constructions, but would see the interrelation of cognition and bodily experiences, a “mindful body” as Strathern (1996) calls it. Parallel work by Fernandez (1986) and Lakoff and Johnson (1999) has looked at the way language itself, through the use of metaphor, is deeply shaped by basic bodily experiences such as balancing, and cultural experiences such as farming or forestry. These insights lead to an attempt to recover and evoke such experience ethnographically. Once again, note that they do not lead to a rejection of symbolic or textual approaches in toto, but rather constitute an attempt to supplement such approaches: “The point of elaborating a paradigm of embodiment is . . . not to supplant textuality but to offer it a dialectical partner” (Csordas 1994:12). Similarly Jackson’s phenomeno-logical approach still gives centrality to narrative, but “acknowledge[s] that discourse always belongs to a context of worldly interests and influences” grounded in “the sentient life of individuals interacting with objects and with others in the quotidian world” (1989:18). Jackson exhorts us as ethnographers to “not forget the taste of Proust’s petite madeleine, nor music, nor dance, nor the sharing of food, the smell of bodies, the touch of hands” (1989:11). Here phenomenology joins with the “anthropology of the senses,” and the work of Howes, Classen and Synnott among others, which redirects our attention to “the shifting sensorium,” i.e., to the ways that societies divide up the work of the senses differently to “make sense of the world,” again criticizing the visualist bias that they see as dominant in Western societies.[15] As Classen (1997: 401) summarizes: “It is the task of the scholar to uncover the distinctions and interrelationships of sensory meaning and practice particular to a culture.” This task is seen as political as well as intellectual, since, as Classen argues, Western focus on the visual involved a hierarchy of the senses, whereby the “lower” senses of taste and smell were assigned in evolutionary fashion to the “lower races” of mankind. In revaluing other sensory modes, anthropologists challenge this hierarchy.[16]

As yet those who see themselves working on the anthropology of the senses have focused mainly on smell, hearing, and to a lesser extent movement, with least attention given to taste.[17] This literature also has not yet given much attention to memory, despite its popular status as “sixth sense” in Western culture.[18] Stoller and Seremetakis provide exceptions here. Stoller’s title Embodying Colonial Memories captures his project of describing non-textualized counter-memories among the Songhay of Niger. Once again, he cautions against transforming the body into a text: “For in its textualization the body is robbed of its movements, odors, tastes, sounds – its sensibilities, all of which are potent conveyors of meaning and memory” (1995:30).[19] Stoller’s focus is on spirit possession and dance, and unfortunately he does not touch on food, despite an earlier interest in sauce as social action (1989).

Seremetakis, working in the Peloponnese region of Southern Greece – the place where her ancestors came from – captures counter-memories, but of a very specific kind: the ‘sensory-perceptual dispositions’ embedded in objects such as peaches and other agricultural products, and in gestures such as the drinking of the morning cup of coffee. They are counter-memories in part because they are, according to Seremetakis, under threat from the consumerization of Greek society, and also because they challenge Western epistemologies along the lines noted above by Jackson and Csordas: “sensory semantics in Greek culture . . . contain regional epistemologies, inbuilt theories, that provoke important cross-cultural methodological consequences” (1994:5). Seremetakis’ short essay is a cross-sensory exploration of the materiality of Greek culture, captured in gestures such as picking greens in her fieldwork village (which also happened to be her home village), and suddenly recognizing the body memory involved in this gesture: “I had tasted them [growing up in New York City] . . . and I had heard all kinds of talks around them. When I went out to collect them, the sensory memory of taste, order, orality stored in the body was transferred to vision and tactility. My body involuntarily knew what I consciously did not” (1994:16). Thus her approach brings together themes of embodiment, habit memory, socialization, tradition and modernity, historical consciousness, the senses and memory around the collection, cooking and eating of food. As such she provides a guidepost for several of the kind of issues I wish to raise here, and I will have occasion to discuss her work again in subsequent chapters. For the moment I take what I imagine her response might have been to that Oxford don (or my own, if I had been quicker): Why food and memory? Because whole worlds of experience and interpretation are contained therein!

In summary, because the topic of food and memory is indeed unexplored in anthropology, I plan to be fairly eclectic in suggesting possible paths and theoretical approaches, illustrated primarily through my Kalymnian material, that might productively begin this exploration. My approach will be to use food to address some of the formal issues of memory processes that have been usefully raised by recent work on embodiment and the senses, while at the same time suggesting some other neglected avenues. At the same time I will be using memory to energize studies of ‘food past,’ by explicitly adding the question of historical consciousness to work that looks at food in terms of ritual and everyday uses, that looks at histories (of production and consumption) and identities (ethnic, gender and other). Food and memory, I argue, provide a space both for extending current theoretical approaches into new ethnographic contexts and for productively creating new theoretical tools and combinations.

Plan of the Book

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.[20] 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 mémoire, 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 gemeinschaft, 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 3 I 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 (Shore 1996). 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 (a point developed in Sutton 1998:135ff.). 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!

[1] On micro-breweries, see Bertsch 1997; on the rise of speciality coffee, see Frenkel 1998; Roseberry 1996.

[3] That Boas was on the road to an anthropology of diverse sensory experience is indicated in his broad treatment of aesthetics in Primitive Art (1927). For a discussion, see Forrest (1988: 22ff.)

[4] On food and ethnicity see Brown and Mussell 1984; on class see Bourdieu 1982; Goody 1982; Rasmussen 1996; Sahlins 1976. On gender see Counihan 1999; Meigs 1992, Allison 1991; Caplan 1994. Food has also been examined as a potent source of kinship symbolism, because of its ability to create “shared substance.” As Meigs puts it, “Underlying the Hua understanding of food and food rules is a world view that emphasizes relatedness. All organisms are linked in chains of mutual influence; borders between bodies are permeable; . . . Through his or her continual acts of food exchange, both as producer and as consumer, the individual is constituted as part of a physically commingled and communal whole” (1988:354–5). Similarly, Carsten notes that for Malays, “Food creates both persons in a physical sense and the substance – blood – by which they are related to each other” (1995:224), thus echoing a point made in Robertson-Smith’s classic work on the Religion of the Semites: “. . . after the child is weaned, his flesh and blood continue to be nourished and renewed by the food which he shares with his commensals, so that commensality can be thought of (1) as confirming or even (2) as constituting kinship in a very real sense” (cited in Meigs 1988:353).

[5] An earlier generation of food studies engaged in debates over material vs. symbolic approaches, “good to think” or “good to eat,” while most people recognized the truth in both positions. Another version of this debate was between synchronic structural approaches (represented by Mary Douglas) and historico-materialist approaches (represented by Sidney Mintz, Jack Goody and Stephen Mennell in various forms). Once again, each position has its strengths and weaknesses, a fact attested to by Mintz’s recent collection of essays (1996), which attempts to inject more “meaning” into his earlier approaches. But these debates, which stimulated the field earlier, seem to have run their course (for a review of the positions, see Wood 1994).

[6] “We are What we Ate” is the title of a recent collection of short stories by various authors working in a Proustian vein (Winegardner 1997).

[7] See for example, Appadurai (1996:66–85).

[8] Mennell (1995) looks at changes in food practices and table manners in France and England over several centuries, arguing for a shift in manners in line with Norbert Elias’s work on “the civilizing process” (Elias 1978). Mintz (1979, 1985) traces the production and consumption of sugar as a key site for examining the links between expanding capitalism and industrialization in Europe and colonialism in the New World. Goody uses a cross-cultural examination of food practices in Europe, Asia and Africa over time to argue for the relationship between production, social hierarchy and the differentiation of eating practices. Mennell has discussed the subject of perception of time in relation to food, using Elias’s scheme to argue for a historical trend toward rationalization and quantification of time (1996). But this leads him to a consideration of changing time-allocation and “foresight” in relation to food, i.e. growing recognition of the after-effects of gluttony, rather than a focus on memory.

[9] See for example, Sahlins 1981; Hanson 1983, and the collected essays in Ohnuki-Tierney 1990 for illustrative examples of this type of anthropological approach to history.

[10] See for example, Murphy 1986 and Comaroff and Comaroff 1992 on the way memory uses tropes to condense and recontextualize experiences and meanings; see also Carr 1986 for a philosophical discussion of the relation between group existence and a group story; see also Sacks’s (1995: 172ff.) discussion of the work of Bartlett and others in cognitive psychology. As he cites Bartlett: “Remembering is not the re-excitation of innumerable fixed, lifeless and fragmentary traces. It is an imaginative reconstruction, or construction, built out of the relation of our attitude towards a whole active mass of organized past reactions or experience.”

[11] See Stoler and Strassler (2000) for a critique of the focus on “event-centered memory” in post-colonial studies that assume that “subaltern” memories that will challenge colonial histories are there waiting to be tapped. Stoler and Strassler suggest that an attention to the form of memories – often non-narrative and focused on sensory experience – provides a more complex picture.

[12] Nora has edited several volumes on history and memory in France. The English translation of the introduction to these works provides a useful entry point (Nora 1989). While he has worked with the concept of spaces of memory (lieux de memoire), he has also been criticized for his evolutionary perspective on traditional and modern societies (i.e., the idea that modern societies have marked out spaces of memory because they no longer inhabit landscapes of memory (milieux de memoire).) While Nora’s phrases are evocative, they make a too radical break between worlds of tradition and modernity. As Lambek and Antze (1998: xv) note: “It is unlikely that there ever were untroubled, homogeneous milieux de memoire, worlds of pure habit . . . or that such milieux were not characterized by specific formulations of memory in their own right.”

[13] See Tonkin 1992:105ff. Recent work on socialization and cultural theory includes Gottlieb 1998; Pallson 1994; Schieffelin 1990 and Toren 1993.

[14] For a comparison of Connerton and Bourdieu in relation to embodiment and habit memory, see Strathern 1996: Chapter 3.

[15] To cite Howes (1991: 4): “The anthropology of the senses is primarily concerned with how the patterning of sense experience varies from one culture to the next in accordance with the meaning and emphasis attached to each of the senses . . . only by developing a rigorous awareness of the visual and textual biases of the Western episteme [can we] hope to make sense of how life is lived in other cultural settings.”

[16] Relevant here also is recent work on “materiality” from a Marxist perspective, such as Stallybrass’s account of the development of the concept of fetishism in the West to describe non-Westerners’ fixation on “trifles,” or other objects seen as valueless to the Western mind inculcated into the ultimate values of market profit: “What was demonized in the concept of the fetish was the possibility that history, memory, and desire might be materialized in objects that are touched and loved and worn” (Stallybrass 1998:186). Pels (1998) also argues for a re-evaluation of fetishism and “materiality” in terms of a less symbolic and representational approach to objects. As he puts it: “the ‘material’ is not necessarily on the receiving end of plastic power, a tabula rasa on which signification is conferred by humans: Not only are humans as material as the material that they mold, but humans themselves are molded, through their sensuousness, by the ‘dead’ matter with which they are surrounded” (1998:100–1). On fetishism and materiality, see also Cohen (1997).

[17] On smell see Bubant 1998; Classen, Howes and Synnott 1994; Corbin 1986; Rasmussen 1999; and for a harbinger of this approach see Gell 1977. On hearing see Feld 1982, and on movement Farnell 1994. An exception on taste is the work of Howes and Lalonde (1991), which plays on the double meanings of taste in Western society, and suggests historical reasons for its development, without however examining the actual experience of taste ethnographically.

[18] Indeed, memory is not mentioned in Classen’s recent review of the field of sensory anthropology (1997), despite her discussion of the works of Stoller and Seremetakis.

[19] Some oral historians have been sensitized to such concerns. Even in narrative accounts, Chamberlain (1995) argues that Barbadian men tend to tell their life stories in terms of facts and figures, whereas women focus more on textures and sensory qualities, which convey important information, at times “counter-memories.”

[20] Cf. Kuchler (1987) on the production of memory through the destruction of carved “gifted” sculptures.