The Language of Where Food Comes From
“Thus we can hope to discover for each specific case how the cooking of a society is a language in which it unconsciously translates its structure—or else resigns itself, still unconsciously, to revealing its contradictions” – Claude Levi Strauss

Levi Strauss’s interesting culinary triangle looks at how societies’ methods of cooking are a language that reveals universal truths about societies. According to Levi Strauss, all societies “…cook in some manner at least some of its food.” Boiling, roasting, or smoking and a society’s application of language to these methods reveal certain universal traits about society. Susan Honeyman’s study of lure foods in narratives indirectly supports Levi Strauss’s thesis. A society’s discussion and use of lure food in society reveal society’s attitude toward children; it is a language the same way that cooking is a language. Tales of food and food itself are used as an Althusserian ideological state apparatus to “…socialze their [the texts’] audience as consumers first and workers incidentally or not at all” (Honeyman 211). These studies reveal how food and the story societies tell about food reflect on the societies as a whole; therefore, cannot the production of food and the distribution of food also reveal societal attitudes? If the ways a society talks about food and cooks food is a language, the way a society produces and distributes food is also a language that needs to be explored. The way Levi Strauss and Honeyman explore food illustrates an outdated relationship with food; a relationship that has been replaced with mass production of factory farmed food, which is now cooked by microwave and oven, not boiled or roasted.

Honeyman’s exploration illustrates the transition between a society where food is scarce, which is a society that more closely represents Levi Strauss’s study, to a society which views food as a commodity to be mass produced, which is the society that Mead is exploring. If Levi Strauss is making the distinction between culture and nature by looking at boiled versus roasted food, what kind of distinction can be made between societies that care for their food—ethically treats their food with respect and inflicts the least amount of harm possible to the meat they eat—versus Mead’s description of a society that has a disease of affluence and has seen the rise of commercial agriculture? For Mead, the ethical problem is how so many people with so much can ignore so many people with so little. Technology lets society know that there are many people around the world (and in society’s own backyard) starving, and technology has the capability to feed all these starving people but somehow does not.

However, I believe the problem is much more complicated than what Mead outlines, and that the problem is much more complicated than simply recognizing the reality of the problem as she implies (Mead 18). The only reasonable way to feed the growing population of earth is through factory farming, and factory farming accounts for more greenhouse gasses than the cars we drive and the energy we use, according to Jonath Safren Foer’s study Eating Animals. As Foer points out, “Globally, roughly 50 billion land animals are now factory farmed every year. (There is no tally of fish). Ninety-nine percent of all land animals eaten or used to produce milk and eggs in the United States are factory farmed” (34). Without getting into the details, I want to point out that because so many birds are packed so tightly together, the birds have to be fed antibiotics in order not to get sick, which means we are breading a super-influenza that will be resistant to medicine. The same goes for most of the animals we ingest; the animals have been fed synthetic food and nutrients and medicine, but this method is the only way to produce enough food to feed the world. Therefore, Mead’s ethical problem appears much more complicated than merely feeding thousands of starving people around the world. There is probably a way for technology to figure out how to get all this food to the starving millions, but will this solution merely keep millions of starving people alive just to have them die later of a super-flu? What does the language of our factory farming practices say about the society we have become? More than having enough food to feed millions of starving people, we need to ask how we have so much food? At what environmental and health cost are the animals we eat getting to our plates? If Levi Strauss can categorize society into nature versus culture by analyzing the manner in which the society cooks its meat, what would he say about our soceity’s treatment of the animals that are cooked? Certainly, eating animals that have been fed synthetic feed and medicine and processed into chicken nuggets falls under Levi Strauss’s “cultural” category but with much more negative implications than what he outlined as culture in his study.