Any Scotch Will Do as Long as It’s Not a Blend of Course: Cultural and Gender Signification of Food and Alcohol

I remember big family gathering where drunken relatives would get us youngens to sip and taste the alcohol they were drinking, usually an after dinner brandy. Of course, already drunk, they would laugh at my cousins and me as they told us to breath through our noses while we tasted the harsh liquors that made our faces crunch up in horror and distaste. The idea was that we were supposed to learn how to drink and learn how to drink properly. The other idea was that if my cousins and I knew we could drink at home, we wouldn’t overindulge as teenagers at parties.

My brother tells me a story about our grandfather teaching him (my brother) how to drink scotch. After taking a sip, my brother stood up saying “This would go great with some coke.” Of course, my grandfather explained to my brother that the point was to enjoy scotch for its taste and that adding a mixer or ice would take away from the taste. As I got older and started drinking, my aunt introduced me to good wine, my brother taught me to drink scotch, and my uncles taught me how to drink beer. My friends taught me what it looks like to overindulge.

The more I bartended and learned about alcohol and food, the more I saw how all food serves as a sign for modern society and culture and the more I became a snob. As Barthes says, “People may very well continue to believe that food is an immediate reality (necessity or pleasure), but this does not prevent it from carrying a system of communication” (22). In serving the public, I quickly began to see the signification. A man on a date orders a steak and scotch to signify his masculinity and “refined” taste, but he nullify it by ordering his steak well done and his scotch with coke . The woman, to signify a feminine refined taste, orders fish with vegetables and a glass of Sutter Home blush wine. These choices are a break down of the signifying system of what these foods represent while also illustrating how food is gendered.

Right now as I write this in a coffee shop, I got up to serves myself coffee from the table the cafe has set up. Next to the table the owner and a woman sit, and as I poured my coffee, the woman apologized, “I’m sorry. I think we used up all your soy milk or cream, whatever was there.” “I like my coffee to taste like coffee,” I responded. She looked at the owner and said “Why is it men drink coffee black?” As I shrugged and walked back to my table, the answer became obvious: because black coffee signifies masculinity for men and seriousness for women. This signification is the same that manifest itself in people’s food and alcohol choices. A steak signifies manliness; a well-done steak signifies ignorance. When a man orders a single-malt scotch, it signifies good taste as well as status. Here is a man who appreciates the finer things in life and is willing to spend the money to enjoy it. Additionally, woman who orders a good wine that pairs well with her food demonstrates her knowledge and status; a woman who orders blush wine reveals her ignorance.

The manners in which certain foods signify appear to be a glitch in Barthes’ system. Barthes’ makes the observation that once food is the standard for consumption, “as soon as it takes on the characteristics of an institution, its function can no longer be dissociated from the sign of that function” (21); however, scotch, wine, and steak have become an institution symbolizing wealth, class, and good taste, but only when consumed properly . When not consumed properly, these items can signify the exact opposite of what they are meant to signify and reveal the character of their consumer. The man who orders a Macallan single malt scotch and puts more than one ice cube in it or adds a mixer is signifying the opposite of taste and class just as the woman who orders blush wine is signifying the opposite of good taste and refinement.

Furthermore, food and alcohol signify gender as strongly as clothes. This signification is the same that works in sexual engagements. A man who experiments with having sexual encounters with men is gay or at least bisexual; a woman who engages in sexual encounters with women is not necessarily lesbian and is just “experimenting.” This same societal rule applies to food. A man who orders a salad with a crisp white wine is considered feminine while a woman who orders a raw steak and a beer is seen as down to earth or as “real” for eating like a “real” person. While I know this signifying systems mean very little, I still can’t help to scorn the man who can afford to order Macallans but puts ice in it; just like in Starnucks, I judge the guy who gets the salted caramel Frappuccino® with extra whip cream.

————Notes:
I think there is a cultural significance to this as well. Most of the people who would get their steaks well done are Central American or from the Caribbean. My Cuban family eats its steaks well done while my brothers and I eat our steaks medium at most. I don’t know what this cultural difference signifies. This cultural difference correlates to the alcohol as well. It was mostly South Americans who would drink their scotch with a mixer, but my family is the one who taught me not to mix good scotch with anything, which was later reinforced as I started bartending. I don’t understand it.

Scotch’s status symbol is perfectly illustrated in a scene from Swingers http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_GNoto7sVRc
Mikey makes it a point to order a scotch, single-malt, of course, because he is trying to signify wealth and status.

I was going to put “properly” in quotation to signify that there is no real proper or improper way to consume these food items; however, as I stated before, I am a food snob and believe these foods do have a proper way to be consumed.

Calacro on Derrida

I think I figured out what annoys me so much about Calarco despite his insightful commentary on animals. While looking at dense, very difficult philosophers, Calarco fails to identify and explain just how he reads these philosophers. It appears that Calarco believes his readers know the material he is analyzing well, and he believes that his readers will automatically agree with his readings.

In looking at Derrida, Calarco explores how Derrida stated that his (Derrida’s) philosophy always had the animal in view. Calarco states how Derrida challenges simply binary oppositions and questions the manner in which the Western tradition has separated itself from the animal. And then, he begins to really analyze Derrida’s texts, and this analysis is where he loses me as a reader; for instance, Calarco says that Derrida “gestures” at thinking otherwise about the animal, but “This positive project is… not fully worked out as his critical and negative projects” (105). Why does Calarco not give an example from Derrida’s work of this? What does Calarco mean when he creates this positive/negative critique (project) of Derrida’s work? Calarco goes on to explain Derrida’s strategies, “The first is to develop a series of ‘infrastructures’ (such as ‘diffarence,’ supplement, arche-writing, etc.) that are not exclusively human” (106). Here it would be nice if Calarco would clarify what he means with this statement. My understanding of Derrida’s “infrastructure” is that it is not a structure at all, and that many of these terms overlap, and furthermore, many of these terms, for Derrida, were undefinable. Why doesn’t Calarco explain to me, a Derrida reader, what I have “missed” as Calarco puts it? (106).

I believe Calrco means the loyal Derrida reader has missed that these terms meant to decenter the logos (and the human) apply to more than just humans (Calrco 106). However, any close reader of Derrida’s work on the animal would completely agree. Derrida’s complete project, in fact, has been to expose how ideas of purity (a pure distinction between animal and human, spoken and written language, pure/dirty, etc.) are problematic.

Derrida’s second strategy is to bring the animal “within the scope of the ethical and political” by using the first strategy. Calarco points out how Derrida brings animals within the discussion of ethics and politics, especially when Derrida employs Levinasian ethics to state that animals “confront us with as much ethical force as human beings do, if not more” (Ibid.). However, Calarco points out that Derrida’s work is context and text specific. Calarco goes on to explain that he will not have the time to go into the specific works (thinkers) that Derrida explores. Calarco’s imperative is to examine the ways in which Derrida’s works are theoretically important for the question of the animal. Derrida’s work opens up a space for a “’proto-ethical’ imperative, a “concrete ethicopolitical postion”, and a “reworking of the basic anthropocentric thrust of the Western philosophical tradition” (108). Calarco states that he will explain Derrida’s general positions on ethicoplotical issues, but I wonder how much of this outline a reading of Derrida or actually Derrida? Not that I think it matters because most would agree that Derrida’s is always looking at way to rethink and challenge the Western tradition. Therefore, Derrida’ s proto-ethical stance can always be used to rethink political position, including the anthropocentric and ethicopolitical position in question here.

Calarco examines Derrida’s analysis of why animals are being used for “the so called well-being of man” (Derrida qtd. in Calarco 109), and he states that besides Derrida’s questions, there are a number of other questions to be asked. However, the answers do not appear to be readily available. I would argue that the answer to Calarco’s questions—what besides technology, economy, population growth, and insensitivity could be the cause of so much animal cruelty—is all of the above; furthermore, it is because of all these factors of human chauvinism that the animal has been so radically othered and degraded. When asking these questions, some thinkers have compared the violence of the holocaust with the violence against animals, and here, Calarco has some insightful ideas that Peter Singer addresses in The Lives of Animals. The comparison might be extreme, but, to put it in Calarco’s terms “Perhaps the issue of violence towards animals can provoke thought in this philosophical context only if it is compared with the worst forms of interhuman violence” (111). In other words, the violence may not be one of equality (and comparing suffering, even among human beings, is always problematic), but the question examines how the species in power exercises its power over the weaker of the species. The comparison is searching for an (any) analogy to make and should not be dismissed outright.

Derrida’s position is to undercut the idea of natural and distinct oppositions, so can comparing human to animal suffering not be a way to blur the clear cut distinctions further? Calarco’s analysis is astute on this issue: “The very difficult task for thought here is to bear the burden of thinking through both kinds of suffering in their respective singularity and to notice the relevant similarities and parallel logics at work where they exist” (112). These comparisons break down the human/animal binary and open up a space for thinking about the animal question. Calarco astutely points out that the point for Derrida is that the very comparison, the questions of animal cruelty, and the tension between animal advocates and animal violence apologist illustrates just how important the question has become. However, Derrida remains ambiguous as to a possible solution or answer to these questions, which makes sense because posing an answer can fall into logocentrism and reinforce anthropocentrism. After all, Derrida is very suspicious of absolute answers; therefore, how could he ever propose any? For Derrida, anxiety is the mode of ethics. One can never be comfortable about ethical choices because one can never fulfill the ethical call to the other.

Calarco turns his attention to Derrida’s engagement with other philosophers, first Bentham, explaining that while Derrida would agree with Bentham, Derrida wants to take Bentham’s question of animal suffering further. For Derrida, ethics towards animals should not be limited to suffering alone. The question of animal suffering carries a Derridian trace of the questions that come before it and questions it will lead to. However, Calarco states that to understand what Derrida is explaining here that one has to “pass through this idea of the event” (118). The Standford Encylopedia of Philosophy summarizes what event means for Derrida:

If we reflect on experience in general, what we cannot deny is that experience is conditioned by time. Every experience, necessarily, takes place in the present. In the present experience, there is the kernel or point of the now. What is happening right now is a kind of event, different from every other now I have ever experienced. Yet, also in the present, I remember the recent past and I anticipate what is about to happen. The memory and the anticipation consist in repeatability. Because what I experience now can be immediately recalled, it is repeatable and that repeatability therefore motivates me to anticipate the same thing happening again. Therefore, what is happening right now is also not different from every other now I have ever experienced. At the same time, the present experience is an event and it is not an event because it is repeatable. This “at the same time” is the crux of the matter for Derrida. The conclusion is that we can have no experience that does not essentially and inseparably contain these two agencies of event and repeatability.

And now I am lost again…

It is this kind of analysis that hinders a reading of Calarco’s argument. What does he mean that we have to understand the event? And then he goes on to discuss Derrida’s engagement with Levinas. It appears that Calarco is analyzing how Derrida the encounter with the animal is an “event.” The encounter with the animal is an event (I have an experience with the animal right now, which is predicated in the past but is happening now). In this encounter, I can now immediately experience the animal and this can motivate me to “anticipate the same thing happening again” with the animal. Therefore, my encounter with the animal “is happening right now is also not different from every other now I have ever experienced. At the same time, the present experience is an event and it is not an event because it is repeatable.” Therefore, I am less moved by my animal encounter because the animal embodies such a different from than mine. (maybe?)… I believe the ultimate point is that the question of animal suffering veers away from ethics in that rather than just treat animal ethically, the question demands the answer, and if the answer is no, animals do not suffer, then that answer justifies the mistreatment of animals. This question—and the possible answer—is somplicated because most human do not see the embodied suffering animals endure in the many ways animals are used for science, food, and entertainment. Pushing the Levinasian question further, the encounter with the face of the animal because the locus of animal ethics (just as it was the locus of philosophy for Levinas). The proto-ethical question is how can animals address humans?

Calarco examines Derrida’s statement that the latter has always had the question of the animal in his work. Here, again, Calarco uses loaded Derridian terms without a clear explanation as to how the terms apply for the former’s analysis. Calarco inspect Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am closely. His analysis is insightful; however, there is something uncomfortable about his close reading of Derrida’s insistence that the cat is an actual, real, little cat staring at him. Yet Calarco’s analysis is sound. Calarco takes up Steve Baker’s reading of the cat as cat and comments that Baker is missing the point: “At stake here among other things, are a number of questions that concern not only the problem of employing reductive language to refer to the Other, but also finding a nonreductive way to mark the effects of the Other within the very discourses…that are grounded on a forgetting of alterity of the other” (125). While I agree with Calarco, I also believe that Derrida is referring to an actual cat, and I agree with Baker who analyzes Derrida’s attempt of informing the reader that the cat is an actual cat and not a “figure” of a cat, precisely for the reasons Calarco points out. To refer to the Alice in Wonderland analogy employed, it appears dangerous to follow this rabbit hole to deeply. Derrida does not want to reduce the other (the cat) to a totalized representation of a cat, and Derrida is well aware that the language can too easily lead to such reductions; therefore, Derrida explicitly points out that he is referring to an actual cat and not some (playing with language) image of cat-ness. Other than this slight disagreement I have with this section, I believe Calarco’s analysis of what Derrida is doing in TATIA is extremely insightful.

In “Animal Subjects” the traditional discourses of animal liberation are examined, which Calarco says falls into “fundamentally anthropocentric” categories and thus forces an ethics on to animal studies because it uses the language of inherited scientific, biological, and philosophical language. Peter Singer, for instance, defends animal right by way of analogy (wouldn’t Derrida say all language is analogy/metaphor—never fully present). Derrida, of course, wants to question and examine these inherited ways of thinking. Calarco points out that using these ways of thinking are the same ways of thinking that work against animals. He argues that most humanist and ethicist draw lines and make distinctions and use the very logic that has gone against animals in order to try to argue for animals; he uses Tom Regan as an example, caliming that Regan fails to take into account animals without a higher order cognitive thinking. This critigue of Regan appears valid, but should the question not be how can arguments (even anthropocentric ones) be used as points of departure for animals’ rights. However, Calarco does say that Derrida’s questioning of the Western philosophical tradition is a “novel and provocative” thought in concern for animals.

Calarco then deconstructs vegetarianism unfairly in order to support deconstructionism. He claims that such a diet overlooks other ethical problems in food consumption, and on that point, I would agree with him to an extent. I am sure most vegetarians understand that even their vegetables and fruits might be ethically questionable in terms of who is picking the vegetables and fruit and how, but to say that it is “far from the ethical ideal” might be too strong a statement. While it can be easily argued that it is not “ideal” and that veganism is a more radical ethical statement, I would argue that vegetarianism is an immense political, ethical stance. This point along with what follows begins to come to dangerously close to an absolute; as if Calarco’s approach is the “best” (and it almost sounds like the “only”) way to approach the animal question. The two questions posed appear to be the same question worded differently (136).

I don’t know what to eat.

When I was bartending during undergrad, I was also taking a class on Eastern Philosophy, which dealt mostly with Eastern religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, etc). I came across Buddhism a couple of years earlier through Alan Watts, who was recommended to me by a friend. The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Watts changed my life and was the reason for me taking the Eastern philosophy class. However, taking the class was conflicting with my work. Buddhism teaches the Four Noble Truths and the Eight Fold Path. I was having a problem with the Eight fold path: http://www.zenguide.com/principles/eight_fold_path.cfm. The fourth precept states “right action” which means that one should refrain from actions that harm others and to respect others’ rights. The fifth precept states “right livelihood” which states that one should avoid jobs that harm animals or others. As a bartender, I was feeding people the flesh of slaughtered animals along with “intoxicants”, so I began to worry about my karma. I struggled with this dilemma the entire time I worked in the restaurant business. It was also during this time, because of this class, that I tried to be a vegetarian (which lasted about three weeks). This week’s readings bring me back to those moments in my life. These simple Buddhist precepts are still applicable, and when coupled with Singer’s pragmatic approach, all this leads to the ethical conclusion that I must stop eating animals.

Peter Singer elucidates the problem I have with eating animals, which is the question of suffering. The problem is not that the animal dies; as Singer, in another essay, points out: “in what way is painless, unanticipated killing wrong in itself” (88). The problem is that the animal does suffer. Safran Foer’s book is filled with examples of chickens with breast so big they can’t stand, cows that scream as their calves are taken away, and turkeys and pigs that can no longer survive in the wild nor reproduce naturally because of how much science has manipulated their genes. These genetic cruelties along with the unnecessarily cruel killing methods of these animals leave me with a very real ethical problem. Singer’s question is one of the driving forces of my problem: it is not the killing that bothers me, it is the suffering (Singer 28). For instance, a study in 1996 found that slaughterhouses:
were unable to regularly render cattle unconscious with a single blow. The USDA, the federal agency charged with enforcing humane slaughter, responded to these numbers not by stepping up enforcement, but by changing the policy to cease tracking the number of humane slaughter violations and removing any mention of humane slaughter from its list of rotating task for inspectors (Foer 230).

Knowing this happens—that the USDA doesn’t care about treating our food humanely nor sanitarily—exacerbates my problems with continuing to eat meat. I would like to know that the animals I eat are, at least, killed quickly and painlessly, but that is certainly not the case.

Furthermore, I can no longer deny the ethical call of the face of the (animal) other. Emmanuel Levinas posits that ethics is first philosophy, so all philosophical thinking must begin in ethics. Levinas states that I exist in a world among alien entities that are “other than” me. In this world, “I take precedence over the various objects I find around me…. I learn to manipulate and control them to my advantage, either as the member of a group which I identify with myself or simply as myself alone” (Lingis 12). Therefore, as a member of the human race, I control and take advantage of animal others in order to satisfy my palette. Other philosophers, from Hegel to Sartre, have dealt with the other, but Levinas argues that these philosophical systems either reduce the other to a version of myself (make him the same as me), or I categorize the other and justify my power over him (totalize the other). However, Levinas’s philosophy is one of “transendence,” in which when I encounter the face of the other, I am obliged to respond to the other. When I meet a person, Levinas asserts, I can either try to make the other into the same (into me, assimilate the other) and stay within my group that I identify with, or I can transcend by trying to speak to the other—encounter the other in the other’s infinite transcendence. However, humans feel that because of rationale, logic, language, or some other thing that humans have that animals don’t, that humans get to use and treat animals however they see fit. But why not extend this Levinasian ethic towards the animal?

Because I do not face the (animal) other directly and see its suffering, I continue to eat meat. However, because of the suffering that animals go through, outlined so vividly in Foer and Singer, and because of the rational calls to vegetarianism by Foer and Singer, I can no loner in good conscious eat meat, which is not to say that I can easily just cut out meat completely from my diet. This point is something Singer explores well. It reminds me of so many friends who begin to workout so intensely the first week that by the time the second week starts, they are so sore and discouraged they quit altogether. Singer, rather, rationalizes that this big life change is something that needs to be handled in stages. Whether it is because of karma or the ethical call of the face of the other or the very real ecological problems of eating meat, I know that I can no longer partake in it. Ethics is never easy. Levinas teaches that even when faced with seemingly easy ethical questions we must always be anxious that we are doing right—a lesson outlined by Garret Hardin and explored deeper by Avital Ronell.

I am always anxious that I am not doing enough for the other, and that other should include animals.

Works Cited
Coetzee, J. M., and Peter Singer. “Reflections: Peter Singer.” The Lives of Animals. Ed. Amy
Gutmann. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1999. 85-91. Print.

Examined Life. Dir. Astra Taylor. Perf. Avital Ronell. Zeitgeist Films, 2008. Youtube.com.
Zeitgeistfilms.com. Web. 30 Sept. 2011.

Foer, Jonathan Safran. Eating Animals. New York: Little, Brown and, 2009. Print.

Levinas, Emanuel. Totality and Infinity: an Essay on Exteriority. Trans. Alphonso Lingis.
Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne UP, 1961. Print.

Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.
-James Joyce, Ulysses

Jose did not eat with relish the inner organs of fowls. Maybe he should have used relish to mask the taste.

Burnt sand.

Maybe he should have battered and fried it, but the liver tastes like burnt sand. The texture is crunchy and plastic and not awful but not good.

He wondered if he ruled out the possibility of pleasure because it put up a wall in front of his openness to the experience. How can he describe the taste, which must be subjective since people eat this all the time and like it? This meat brings no pleasure to his palate, and if Taste comes to provide the chief analogy by which the apprehension of the beautiful and of fine artistic qualities and even social style is explicated, then this taste in his mouth can be used to describe the ugly.

Shit.

Not literally shit, but what he imagines the word “shit” taste like. Not actual shit, which can be guessed by the general smell and look. No, liver tastes like what the word “shit” might taste like or the word “yuck.” As the piece of organ hits his tongue there is not the initial taste he expected, which was a taste of blood and urine. (Maybe because Bloom describes his kidney as tasting of urine). He has to chew and chew because the texture is plastic. He chews quickly so the experience can be over. This is the opposite of mindfulness.

His mind thinks of the other choices he contemplated. Cover your heart, Indy.

He is glad he passed on the chicken hearts. It was more from the ignorance of how to cook them than from aversion to them although he does have an aversion to them. Disgust wasn’t the right word, but it was the first word that came to mind.

“What food grosses you out?” he asked the tall blond sitting across the table from him.
They were in a fancy burger joint; the kind of place with buffalo burgers, turkey burgers, tuna burgers, and a choice between angus or prime meat.

James Joyce’s Ulysses played in his head because he kept noticing just how much food comes up in the novel. Also, he had to write about a food he dislikes. He mistook the instructions of eating one food he hated and amplified those instructions to eating a food that he finds gross. Jose did not eat with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He preferred the outer body and fat of beast and fowl—maybe an occasional rib or wing of beast or fowl.
“Crickets,” she said without hesitation.

“Ya, I think eating any bug would be gross, but that seems too obvious. So why crickets?” he asked as he took a bite from a pulled pork eggroll. She made a face and began to explain: “Because… they have all those legs and those weird eyes. It is grossing me out just thinking about it.” She took a slow bite from her eggroll after looking at it to make sure it was pulled pork and not cricket.

“It’s interesting what we think of as gross. If you think about it, bugs eat leaves and stuff, so they’re pretty clean.”
“Maybe if it didn’t look like a cricket, I could eat it. But I couldn’t do it if I was putting all those legs in my mouth” she repeating the ritual of looking at her food before eating it. Jose thought about how the food we eat doesn’t look like the animal it comes from. The only time he has ever seen the actual animal he is eating is when his family cooks a whole pig for the holidays or a big event.

They sipped some beer and made small talk about life. Jose thought about what he could eat that he finds gross. And maybe a part of him wanted to rationalize how eating an insect would be too obvious. He was too grossed out at the thought of trying to eat with relish an insect. Where would he even find a cooked insect? He thought if he could find a chocolate covered worm, then maybe he would be brave enough to stuff that down his gullet.

“I think I am going to recreate the Ulysses episode where Bloom buys, cooks, and eats a kidney, and I’ll accompany it with some gizzard” he thought aloud.

“You think this pork is cooked all the way through?” she said.

The next day Jose checked what he had written down for the assignment:
Response Paper:

Eat 2 foods
One that appeals to you
Never tasted
One food you hate

He wondered how accurate his notes were. If all he had to do was eat a food he hates, he would go down to the butcher, as Bloom does, and ask the guy for some mutton kidney.
But the butcher didn’t have mutton kidney—or any kidneys.

“What about liver?” Jose asked since liver is an inner organ of fowl.
“We got some chicken liver over there” the butcher said pointing Jose in the direction of his breakfast for the morning. Jose looked forward to the second part of the assignment.

It taste like good poetry. Silky and smooth like violets or roses. It taste like the word “sin.”

“Are you a fan of desserts?” He asked the Ulysees reading brunette sitting across from him at the coffee shop.

“Oh ya, I like desserts better than I like food; I just don’t have them often.”
He couldn’t think of a food that appeals to him that he hadn’t tasted. If something appeals to him, he is going to try to eat it. However, living so close to Bern’s steakhouse, he thought that indulging in a dessert he had never eaten would qualify as something that appeals to him he has never tasted:

Dulce de Leche Liquid Center Cake 11.00
A rich dark chocolate cake filled with dulce de leche, and served with vanilla bean ice cream and dark chocolate sauce.

The first bite was just chocolate cake accompanied by cold, creamy ice cream and warm chocolate sauce. He thought creamy is the word ice cream taste like. And sticky sweet is the word for chocolate sauce. He thought “heaven” does not apply to desserts, which are too sinful and decadent to be associated with a savior begotten from a virgin.

The next bite was perfect: a combination of the smooth, sticky texture of sweet dulce de leche, surrounded by a moist chocolate cake with a side of cool ice cream and sauce—the texture changed from sticky to moist to the hard cold of ice cream until all the textures and tastes mixed together to form a perfect utopia in my mouth. With more room to describe this experience, he would describe the private booths with their private music, he would describe the brunettes face as she closes her eyes in that thing we all do when we taste something so good we try to deny ourselves all our other senses to concentrate on just taste and smell. If he had more room to describe things, he would relate these private booths for eating this decadent food as an extension of Glenn Kuehn’s essay about sinful food.

But it’s time for lunch…

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.

Symons begins his essay with what he says is a silly critique: “How could you be so interested in food when half the world is starving.” I do not understand what is so “silly” about the question. I understand his implication. He is interested in the aesthetics of food as food employed in and through the meal; he finds value in this exploration and perceives the meal as a space for ethical and political thought as Epicurus taught. However, are current thinkers not thinking about “the pleasure of their own stomachs” because those pleasures are so hard to discuss (as Hume points out)? Additionally, Symons goes on to say there needs to be more talk about food, “both dinner parties and Third World hunger;” however, he never addresses Third World hunger. While I agree with (some of) his conclusions, I disagree with his attitude towards the ethical question of meals. Moreover, I disagree with how he is exploring his subject matter.

Symons’s exploration of friendships formed at meals is insightful (if not obvious), but what he does not explore in meals is more insightful. The silly question comes up again: what about families who cannot afford meals? What does Symons mean by “meal?” The meals Symons discusses appear to be elaborate dinning experiences that are shared in community and where there is more than enough food for everyone. However, in spite of Symons’s oversights, I agree that friendships are “maintained at the table.” I also agree that sharing food requires “a sensible etiquette that adds up to a view of ethics.” However, the ethics inspired by sharing food are limited. One of the greatest pleasures I have when I visit friends and family at home is eating with them, but it is a pleasure because we get to decide when and where to have our meals. What about people who do not have the pleasure or privilege of deciding when and where to eat?

It is through food that I build relationships with my friends and family. Every trip home involves sharing a decadent meal at a Cuban restaurant with friends; most of the time I spend with my family is sitting around a table, whether at my brother’s house or at a fancy establishment my aunt recommends. Sharing foods and places to eat and exploring new places to eat involves me in an entire process of building friendships and strengthening familial bonds. Furthermore, going to places to eat enhances my taste for fine foods. As Hume would point out, I can only know what fine food is—the art of food—by engaging in that standard, and I have been fortunate enough to have an aunt who has impeccable taste in cuisines. However, these relationships and exposures to fine foods, my ability to engage in the pleasures of my stomach (and palate), are only possible because I am privileged, and my problems with Symons’s analysis and exploration of Epicurus is his oversight of this privilege.

Symons’s oversight to the ethical of food choices is most acute when he criticizes scholars who examine food as a sign of social and cultural status. He appears to deny Barthes’s reading of food as signification. Food does mean, and the upper-crust drinking champagne “to demonstrate their social superiority” is not a deceptive way of reading food as Symons would imply; furthermore, inverting this approach, “as if people could be said to eat gruel to show they were poor” does not work in the same manner. The poor eating gruel is not a choice in the same way that the rich drinking champagne is. The poor eat gruel, precisely, because they are poor. I understand that Symons is implying that a rich person eating gruel would not signify poor-ness; however, a poor person can’t even afford champagne in an attempt to signify rich. On a basic level, these foods do signify a social status. Even a rich person eating gruel would signify the rich person’s connection to “the people” or “the street” or to some romantic past when his or her family was poor and had to work hard. This signification works the same way as when a rapper from a poor background raps about drinking Cristal or Don P.

Symons appears to want to justify his studies of the pleasures of the meal by trying to force a faux ethical stance when he should just assert that his thinking aligns with his elitist stomach. I don’t mean to say “philosophizing” food in the manner Symons wants to is bad. The basic difference here is one that can parallel literature: it is the difference between W.B. Yeats who wanted an art that can affect the world and change it, against an Oscar Wildean view of art for art’s sake. Of course, “eating is living, and living is eating,” but Symons’s tautology fails to explore the implications of those who do not get to eat, who do not get to share meals, who do not get to drink mimosas with their Sunday brunch with friends and family.

I am taking a food and theory class that is fascinating. I am really enjoying the class, but the professor has not been impressed with my responses to the readings at all. Hopefully, this one is better:

Because Pig is a Filthy Animal, and I Don’t Eat Filthy Animals: Why Do We Still Follow the Rules


This clip from Pulp Ficiton posted here ran through my head as I read Jean Soler and Marvin Harris. Dietary restrictions for religion have always fascinated me, and I finally have some answers as to where Kosher and Muslim laws come from; however, there was not much said about Catholicism. Growing up, I was always told that I could only eat once a day on Fridays during lent, and that when I did eat, I could not eat meat. Even today, while I no longer go to mass nor participate or believe in any of the catholic dogma I was taught, I still feel that tinge of guilt if I find myself eating meat on Friday during lent. This guilt goes beyond what Jules (Sam Jackson) is talking about in the clip (that I am eating something that is “filthy”). I do not feel bad because I believe meat is unclean, and after reading a decent amount of Derrida, I certainly don’t believe in the purity of food as discussed by Soler (64).

For instance, Soler points out that unleavened bread has not been fermented and is therefore clean and pure; however, as Derrida would assert, the idea of purity is a myth that has been socially constructed. In Dissemination, Derrida says “The purity of the inside can only be restored if the charges are brought home against exteriority as a supplement, inessential yet harmful to the essence, a surplus that ought never to have come to be added to the untouched plenitude of the inside” (128). Derrida argues that the Western philosophical tradition warns that a pure inside is always threatened by something form the outside, and this idea is what Soler is describing when he points out how unleavened flower “is true to its natural state” (Soler 62) and not changed by something from the outside. Therefore, one idea of food laws is to keep the body pure. However, a kosher food like coffee stains the idea of purity. Caffeine “alters a man’s judgment” (Soler 62), but because it comes from the earth, coffee is “pure.” While I know the myth of purity is simply a myth , and I can stand back and understand why Soler posits, “Uncleanness…is simply disorder” (64), I still feel that tinge of guilt when I break a dietary rule from a religion I no longer follow.

I also feel guilty if I do not have pork on New Year’s Eve. My family (as most Cuban families) has a long tradition of cooking an entire pig in a Caja China all day on New Year’s. The holiday would not be the same if I didn’t share this experience with my family. Food after all, is story; isn’t this idea what these articles are exploring: that the story we tell ourselves about food shapes our society, beliefs, and food restrictions ? While these articles do an excellent job of exploring the origins of these diet restrictions, my question is why these rules are followed today when we know the anachronisms of these rules? I believe that Derrida’s deconstructed reading of purity applies in my New Year’s example and breaking the rules example. The holiday’s purity depends on following a [pure] tradition older than my parents and my parents’ parents, just as following the rules do.

The Pulp Fiction scene is a good starting point to begin discussing how these rules have survived because it illustrates a morally ambiguous character’s food restrictions. Besides the initial health reasons that Harris points out, these dietary restrictions are more complicated. For instance, my friends and I would go to bars and drink and smoke and ingest things that were by no means healthy or clean, yet on the way home, at Taco Bell at four in the morning on Friday, my lapsed Catholic friends would refuse to eat meat and remind me that I shouldn’t eat meat either . While the Pulp Fiction example is extreme, it relates. Jules is a hired killer, who, we see from the pervious scene, has no restrictions against eating meat (he takes a bite out of Brett’s burger). However, he won’t eat pork. Certainly, his reasons don’t concern health. He smokes and kills people, and yet he will refrain from eating pork because he views it as “filthy.” There are endless examples of people who do not believe in the religion they were brought up on, do not go to church, do not abide by any of their religion’s other rules and yet follow the dietary restrictions of their religion.

Slavoj Zizek has an interesting anecdote that I feel can be applied to explain why people hold on to dietary restrictions. Zizek describes his aversion to sharing food at a Chinese restaurant, which led to his friend’s psychoanalysis of Zizek’s fear to share a sexual partner. Zizek’s answer to this fear is a variation on De Quincey’s “art of murder.” The true horror for Zizek is “not sexual promiscuity but sharing a Chinese dish” (ix). What Zizek’s reading of De Quincey is describing is that art is amoral, so murders can be either mundane and dull or artistically beautiful in execution—murder can be art. De Quincey states, “If once a man indulges in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination” (2). That is to say, how many people have entered eternal punishment by some banal and innocent murder, which when perpetrated was no big deal to them, and ended up uncivilly eating meat on Friday during Lent .

Zizek’s reading of the “art of murder” can be applied to the non-religious who still follow religious food laws. The dietary restrictions followed today stem primarily from original sin. Forbidden food signifies the first sin humankind committed; therefore, lapsed Catholics still equate the food they are not supposed to eat with the introduction of pain and sin into the world. For example, after eating the fruit, woman has to feel pain during childbirth, man has to toil the ground, man rules over his wife, the snake has to crawl on the ground, and man and woman are thrown out of paradise. All for eating some fruit; meanwhile after murdering Abel, Cain gets a mark of distinction and “knows” his wife. It appears the punishment for eating the fruit might have been more severe than for murder, which is why I think lapsed Catholics won’t eat meat on Fridays despite not following any of the other rules, and the reason is because of De Quincey’s art of murder.

Zizek equates the idea of the art of murder to a “displacement” that underlies our Western philosophical attitude since the time of the Enlightenment and is why my lapsed Catholic friends refuse to eat meat while indulging in other sins. Zizek makes the connection between Immanuel Kant’s enlightenment ideas and the injunction to obey traditional authority. As Zizek describes: “We must be careful here not to miss what Kant is aiming at—he is not simply restating the common motto of conformism, ‘In private, think whatever you want, but in public, obey authorities!’ but rather its opposite: in public, ‘as a scholar before the reading public,’ use your reason freely, yet in private (at your post, in your family, i.e., as a cog in the social machine) obey authority” (ix-x). This idea is precisely what is happening with morally ambiguous characters, like Jules, and what is happening with people like friends of mine who will, in public, drink to excess, smoke, do drugs, but in private, will not eat meat during Lent. Furthermore, I believe that the food restrictions are followed because foods are a narrative; therefore, for example, part of my childhood memories are the smell of fish and chips and my mom’s special cocktail sauce after a day of playing outside on Lent Fridays. Following the rules is a way for one to remember the past so that it is not about the rule any longer but about the memory tied with food.

Works Cited:
Derrida, Jacques. Dissemination. Trans. Barbara Johnson. London: Continuum, 2004. Print.

Quincey, Thomas De. “On Murder Considered One of the Fine Arts.” W. W. Norton Company.
Books.wwnorton.com/books. Web. 3 Sept. 2011.

Foer, Jonathan Safran. Eating Animals. New York: Little, Brown and, 2009. Print.

Žižek, Slavoj. Enjoy Your Symptom!: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and out. New York:
Routledge, 2008. Print.