A Zine Project from The Anthropology of Food
Introduction by Dr. Tony VanWinkle: faculty in Sustainable Food Systems and Director of the Rian Fried Center for Sustainable Agriculture
This project was one of the culminating projects for the spring 2019 Anthropology of Food class at Sterling College. The title for the Zine is drawn from one of the classic anthropological theories of food and cooking, developed by French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. The Raw-Cooked-Rotten triad constitutes what Levi-Strauss called the culinary triangle. The triangle provides a conceptual model within which preparation methods can be placed relative to their position in relation to these three basic states. It also reflects structural-functionalist ideas common to an earlier era in anthropological thinking. At its most basic, this perspective sought to explain the borders and margins between nature (raw, rotten) and culture (cooked), between the elaborated (cooked) and the non-elaborated (raw). Such categories were thought to reflect deeper mental-cultural structures that shaped the expressions of larger cultural systems. As Levi-Strauss put it, “not only does cooking mark the transition from nature to culture, but through it and by means of it, the human state can be defined with all its attributes” (1969: 164). While many contemporary anthropologists have challenged such a binary theoretical orientation, the Raw-Cooked-Rotten triad can be adapted as a useful index for situating current food trends and issues into larger political-economic and socio-cultural contexts. This can include everything from fad diets and dietary discourses to food-identity and power-inequality issues, to issues of food waste, recovery, and sustainability.
The zine represents our collective reckoning with such topics and considerations. Throughout the semester class participants prepared and/or shared dishes or food items that were meaningful to them in some way—dishes or ingredients that evoked feelings of belonging or nostalgia, or feelings of loss or longing, or anywhere in between. This exercise was inspired in part by the words of Vertamae Grosvenor, who in her foreword to Ntozake Shange’s If I Can Cook, You Know God Can, wrote, “Although we may leave home, get rid of our accents, and change our names and diets, the aroma of certain foods will trigger warm memories and fill us with a longing and taste to return home. Once in Rome, I passed someone’s apartment and the smell of collard greens ‘gently stewing in the pot,’ as Langston Hughes wrote, made my eyes water and my knees buckle. I wanted to go home” (1998: xii). This was not an exercise in purity or authenticity, however, and allowed for the inclusion of branded processed foods as much as for the “home-cooked meal.” Recipes or descriptions for all of those dishes and food items are included in the zine. In addition to our shared food items, every participant contributed one additional element of their own choosing. As you will see, this ranged from prose and poetry to visual art and music, to other creative non-textual expressions. The spirit of the zine is one of both exploration and homecoming. In this way, it echoes something of the anthropological task of making the strange familiar, and the familiar strange.
Levi-Strauss, Claude. 1969. The Raw and the Cooked. New York: Harper & Row.
Shange, Ntozake. 1998. If I Can Cook, You Know God Can. Boston: Beacon Press.