A course off the menu

August 22, 1997

Pioneer Mary Douglas recounts the ridicule that torpedoed valuable work on eating rules and argues that research into food choices has been neglected for too long in anthropology

I first got interested in the ritual aspects of food around the age of five. We had been sent home from Burma to be brought up by my grandparents who had retired to live in a bungalow in Devon, (I and my sister aged three). This was where I learnt to read off the day of the week from the lunchtime menu. Sunday lunch was a roast, a chicken, leg of lamb or beef or pork. It must have been a big roast, or we had very small helpings, as it served for the next three days as well, Monday, cold with salad, Tuesday, shepherds pie with cabbage or sprouts, Wednesday, rissoles with bubble-and-squeak, or curry. On Thursday, a fresh start with liver and bacon. Friday was fish, Saturday was fishcakes or sausages and mash. Then we were back again on roast.

There was no need to ask why, the principles were obvious, the celebration of Sunday, and then the left overs for the rest of the week, fish fitting in with Friday abstinence, and the easy-to-serve cold meat accommodating the extra housework and laundry of Monday. The system of the laundry was more difficult.

"Why are the sheets dirty on Monday, Granny?" My grandmother was flummoxed, as she would have said. She might have answered that the seven-day-week is a coordinating principle for household activities, and that it is an arbitrary convention from the point of view of the bedding but founded in tradition. I did not understand her answer, so the problem of arbitrary convention has remained with me, and the experience of living in an orderly household was the start of my interest in the coding of material objects.

The 1960s were a great time for communication studies and linguistics. In anthropology the study of communication blossomed in structuralist studies, led by Claude Levi-Strauss who applied linguistic analysis to South American Indian food systems. The idea that food is a way of communication was touted in the early 1970s. But no one tried to work out how food communicates.

So when Michael Nicod was looking for a master's thesis topic in the anthropology department of University College London, where I was then teaching, I suggested that he study the rules governing food in working-class London families. He would study human food habits, just as ethologists study the eating habits of chimpanzees. Unlike the ethologists he would have to eat the same as the research subjects in whose homes he lived, and they would have to know what he was doing. He was interested, mentioning only that he would rather study French food, and preferably middle-class food, but he stayed on plan and in due course produced a remarkable report.

The idea of grammar was fashionable at the time. Roland Barthes's great book on fashion, Le Syst me de la Mode, was a linguistics approach to dress as a system of communication. Nicod planned to work on the grammar of food. Asking, "What does food mean?", about a particular item of food, is the same as saying,"What does this word mean". For example, if a person I hardly know invites me to dinner at his house, what does it mean when baked beans on toast appear on my plate? It might mean that I am counted as an intimate friend entitled to homely food, or it might mean that I am a despised guest, unworthy of a decent dinner.

Barthes never made a grammar of any particular dress code, he only showed what might be done. Instead of words he had items of dress, defined by the fashion trade. Instead of words matched to objects he had these items of dress matching events in the world, garden parties in summer, barbecues, and so on. Grammar has sequencing rules, for example for putting adjectives before or after nouns. Likewise for the dress code: the human body itself gives a sequencing principle, gloves for hands, hats for heads. The seasons make another sequencing, different clothes for different times of the year. The point is that items of clothes have no meanings in themselves, only in their sequencing and assembly. By the way they are grouped and separated they give the meanings to events. So when big hats are seen at Ascot, it is not the hats but the races at Ascot that get a new meaning as a fashion focus for a new set of race-goers. Barthes's clever trick was to have found a way of looking at fashion and clothing as systems that respond to things happening in the world.

Following this simple grammatical model, Nicod aimed to find the sequencing rules for the food of the families he was studying, through the day, through the week, through the year, and also the rules connecting items of food with each other, like roast potatoes with beef but chips with fish. He found a strongly rule-bound system. For instance, a meal is not a dinner unless it figures potatoes; hot food is dinner, cold food can be for tea; sweet is after not before savoury. He also found an aesthetic principle governing the structure of a meal and of meals through the day, a principle of diminishing heat, moisture and size and increasing sculptural qualities. The ideal celebratory meal had a structure that started off with an appetising hot and messy dish of gravy over meat and potatoes (on one big plate), and became more of an architectural achievement as it went on through pudding (on a smaller plate), and tea with an optional small coloured biscuit (on a still smaller plate). Who says the French meal system is more structured than the English?

In those days anthropologists' projects depended on comparisons of culture and Nicod was on to a method for saying whether one domain of living was more structured than another. But the research was never published. Partly perhaps it was so original that, apart from the French tradition of semiology, it did not fit into received patterns of ideas. Partly the department was small and diversified, so that to everyone except the biological anthropologists his project was bizarre. Another reason may have been the timing: the early 1970s witnessed horrifying world famines. At such a time work on a grammar of food could seem inappropriate.

It must be important to know that even the simplest foods in the most economically strapped households are subject to elaborate aesthetic judgements. Famine relief workers have reported starving persons choosing to die of hunger rather than go to a clinic without clothing. It is something fundamental to do with being human. But it is difficult to calculate the immediate pay-off for food research which offers no advice for nutritionists or welfare agencies. Once Nicod tried to explain his objectives to an incredulous radio interviewer: "Do you mean to tell me that you are studying the place of the biscuit in the English food system?" Someone I met later, joking about the ludicrous jargon of sociologists, quoted Nicod's term "food event" to crown it all.

"What is wrong with the good simple English word, 'meal'?

"And what is the point of calling dinner a 'potato event'?

"It takes the biscuit! Ha, ha!"

Well, the project needed terms not laden with middle-class cultural values and terms that explicitly linked eating to the events of social life. The minister for education was challenged in parliament to justify student grants being spent on frivolous research into the meaning of biscuits. I think it was answered with reference to the freedom of the universities, but I am grateful to Huntley and Palmers for the box of biscuits they sent me for bearing the brunt of the attack.

When Aaron Wildavsky invited me to develop research on culture at the Russell Sage Foundation in 1977 I chose food complexity as the main theme. Aaron was soon to be dismissed after only six months as president. I fear my topic did not help his arguments with the foundation's hardnosed trustees. But I was obstinate, I felt it was very important.

The whole world is turned upside down by agribusiness but no one can say that the powerful demand it responds to is triggered by physical need. It is not hunger that calls forth exotic passion fruit, fresh mangoes and dates, nor fear of starvation that delivers huge hard tomatoes, sturdy asparagus and very solid "soft fruits", strawberries specially bred to travel long distances all the year round. "Is your journey really necessary?" was on posters at railway stations in the war. We may wish to protect the environment but its problems start at our hospitable tables. "Is your avocado really necessary?" No ascetic movement is round the corner threatening the collapse of the food trade routes, nor any angry caricaturist cruelly satirising us in our restaurants. Even so, it is important to understand the social pressures we are exerting on the food industry.

The first step was to go on from Nicod's insights to develop a general method to compare the degree of structure involved in different meals. I was lucky to find Jonathan Gross, a mathematician who was interested in complex structures in the perspective of information theory. Complexity is the combination of variety with logical order. A dietary system that responds to changes in another process, like Roland Barthes's dress system responding to the world, or like my grandmother's menu responding to the days of the week, would score more for complexity. A diet that changed according to who was at the meal would have another dimension of complexity.

Four teams of American anthropologists, each studying food habits in a different ethnic community, collaborated in working out a common programme of research. We wanted to know why some people give themselves so much trouble over elaborating their food. The Americans were determined not to impose their own culture on their research, yet they wanted to make comparisons. They gave the term "food event" as much of a bashing as Nicod had given to the term "meal". If three or more people gathered round a vending machine to eat and converse together, did that count as a "food event"? The Oglala Sioux Indians snatched handfuls of berries off bushes as they rode by, and shared them, did that count? Eventually they constructed a scale of complexity they could all use.

Jointly we produced a book, Food in the Social Order, in which each team gave a summary of the situation of the ethnic group being studied, and tried to explain the gamut between the most modest, hasty, unceremonial moment of the foodtaking series (usually breakfast) and the grandest festivities. There were several suggestive results. If some homes were used to making formal and complex distinctions in their food everyday, they tended to do so even more on big occasions. The opposite was also true: those who normally went for simplicity celebrated big occasions with increased volume, not increased complexity. So what? Does this abstruse information make any conceivable difference to any one?

Well, you might be interested in social integration. The more that everyone in the community is likely to drop in on everyone else, the less complexity in the meals offered. Conversely, the more complexity, the fewer random arrivals at the table. This applied to the very poor families in North Carolina who used each other's kitchens as support networks when they had no food in the house. If the shopper has little idea who will be present for the meals, perishable fruit and vegetables will be foregone. The same for festivities, when every woman contributes her best dish to the church lunch, there is no scope for making it all into a logical pattern. Obviously, elaborate meal structures, with value set on the right sequence, soup before the solids, the pudding before the cheese, or whatever, and the right sauces and garnishes for each thing, go with a different kind of society. The more that food is ritualised, the more conscious of social distinctions are those who eat it. This is a long way from the television programmes that call on us to rejoice in more and more refinements of taste. It casts a slur of bad taste on the extravagances extolled by the food writing industry. Cultural complexity can be competitive and exclusionary as well as traditionalist.

There ought to be a link between the way that people spend their money, how they dress, furnish homes, use their time, and the way they eat. The complexity of the food should be a clue to everything else going on. We have brainwashed ourselves into thinking that everything we need to know about food habits can be gathered in statistics of family size, social class and education. This suggests a funny set of judgements about why people eat what they do. Some households are traditionalist, in everything. Others are strivingly mobile and busily networking; presumably they make the demand for kiwi fruit and strawberries out of season. Some households are severely moralistic in their diet and demand exotic spices to flavour otherwise bland vegetarian foods. The cultural bias has little to do with money, and it does not depend on social class or income, though it has something to do with occupation.

Reams have been written about cultural theory that explains why people eat what they eat. It is partly to signal that they are not like the other people who eat whatever it is, meat, blood, pig, beef, and partly to build up a satisfying model of the order of the day and the year, keeping or rejecting the traditions of the older generations. Subsequent work on the comparison of household cultures put traditionalist complex food systems into the same group as regular routines, own places at table, fixed times for washing clothes, traditional ingredients and saving for holidays. It sounds just like my grandparents' house in Totnes, and it is true that not many people dropped in there at odd times for a meal. But it had other merits, stability, predictability, and readiness to adopt grandchildren.

I am sadly aware that the comparison of food rituals and lifestyles has still not gone far beyond the descriptive stage. Between the famine relief end of the research spectrum and the competition for five-star restaurant ratings at the other end, the uses of food are not being recognised or studied. A form of false innocence flourishes in any empty space in our knowledge of ourselves.

Mary Douglas is professor emeritus, Northwestern University Illinois, United States.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments