I've an essay in the latest New Philosopher magazine: "Even simple food is not simple". Beginning with the English travels of Italian author Giuseppe Lampedusa, I'm taking issue with the idea of "pure" food: food that is simple, authentic, somehow more real than other meals.
Ninety years have passed since Lampedusa tripped to England’s north, but the sentiment is thoroughly familiar. He was eating what many today call “real food”. It comes with a list of adjectives: proper, authentic, pure, honest, simple. Obviously this changes by country: real food in York will not be that of Amsterdam or Taipei.
The point is that some meals are more “true” than others, often those associated with the working or lower-middle classes, against the high bourgeoisie or aristocracy.
As French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu observes in Distinction, eating reflects economic and social reality: for manual labourers, meals are supposed to be ‘substance’, as opposed to the ‘form’ of posh decorum. For workers, food ‘sustains the body and gives strength…hence the emphasis on heavy, fatty, strong foods, of which the paradigm is pork’. Whether or not simple foods actually encourage muscle and grit is another thing entirely, and modern Anglophone countries are not France. Still, Lampedusa’s ham reveries were no coincidence: he was dining on the fare of ‘plain-speaking, plain-eating’ folks, as Bourdieu puts it.
What sociology makes clear here is that pure food is not pure. Like the most fussy minimalist cuisine from a three-star restaurant, simple meals are cultural too. They suggest somewhere outside the universe of symbols, but they do this by—suggesting. They connote, imply, signify.