The Grammatology of Food

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Humanity enjoys life. Humans have several ways of making life enjoyable. One can find sharing of companionship over the table among all human cultures. Food sharing is human. All humans enjoy sharing food. Food sharing traditions have even religious significance. Humanity shares food with God who is paradoxically the provider of all food. Food sharing traditions are polyversal, symbolic, and evocative. What one eats and with whom one shares one’s food makes one’s identity. Thinking food sharing traditions, we can think about how food both unites and divides. The table fellowship is both including and excluding. He who gets to share fellowship on the table becomes an insider while he who is not permitted to sit at the table is considered an outsider. Food builds community and keeps it bonded but in multi-layered societies, food as a marker of the identity often conflicts with several others who are thought to desecrate or contaminate one’s food traditions.

This is particularly so when food becomes interwoven with the sacred. When we sacradize food we also politicize it. But paradoxically, meal sharing can also break these sacred walls and people who stand divided can come to embrace each other over a table fellowship. Table fellowship is a great sign of human hospitality where humans welcome guests as hosts. Table fellowship generates mutuality and the guests then play hosts and the chain continues. There is this excess within our food traditions. Although, they bind us to our community and also build a wall that marks us as violators of the food habits of that community. We also break that wall and eat the forbidden food and hence rebel against closed food sharing traditions in public or closed from prying eyes of the gatekeepers of traditions. When we open and enjoy the alien food of the other, we expand our world and open ourselves to the other.

There is no arche-food habit. All food habits are borrowed from others. The food that we consider as exclusively belonging to us was once other to us. Opening ourselves to the other food, we have come to assimilate it. This physiological as well social digestion of food often leads us to think of food in exclusive terms and generate taboos and prohibitions to save food and its purity. The evolution of cuisine manifests both horizontal and vertical growth. The horizontal dimension manifests borrowing from other food traditions and the vertical dimension manifests the food growing within the walls of specific communities and cultures.

To think food traditions, we may have to employ the grammatology of food. The grammatology of food invites us to think food as a kind of writing. Different food traditions are different grammatologies. We write food and food write us. It does not just shape our bodily lives, it also defines our social intercourse and builds our communities. It is would be rewarding to investigate how food writes us and our societies. Often, food writes us with exclusive alphabets and we do not share food with those that are considered others to us. We write food as other, one that cannot be eaten without being contaminated. Food therefore can become a taboo and source of contamination. It can also lead us to write certain food eating communities as contaminating and we may dislike these food eating people as well as exclude them from our lives. This is why it is important to understand the grammatology of the food that is writing our lives as well as understand how we can rewrite it.

There is a language of food. It has been said that one man’s food is poison to another man. It means food speaks in multiple tongues. We write food in pluriversal way. It manifests our aesthetic choices. We write our food with the ink of gastronomy and gustatory orientations. Gastronomy semantizes our cooking, eating and sharing of food cultures. The rule of taste makes the grammar of food traditions. It gives it personal, passional configurations and brings meaning to our life. We live by the meaning that food gives us. The grammatology of food shapes as well as mediates life for us. We as beings in the world are lost in the translation of the other. Food becomes an important mode of translation of the other. Food writes our relations of self and its other. It mediates the relations of a community and its others. There is a culinary reason at work in our food sharing traditions. We have to understood and deconstruct it.

Deconstruction of the culinary reason can transform our lives and society. This means food traditions are political and have been milked by politicians for political capital. The grammatology of food is thus complex. It is not just material foodism. It has other ways of being with us. There is food photography, as well as scenes of food sharing in cinema and literature. There is a food-ography where food is being written about. This means we write food into our life as well as we write about food. Rewriting food therefore can become a way of rewriting the grammatology of our life. The contestation of the tendency to build monoliths around food sharing cultures that often become including and excluding practices can democratize our societies. We can transform them to become more inclusive while we begin writing new grammatologies that are inclusive and all-embracing.

Food is such a powerful human connector and is profoundly intimate. People connect at several levels on the table of food. New modes of inter-dining can write new ways of being human in the world. Humans do not just live by bread alone. There is a surplus in the bread. This excess dimension becomes the semiotic axis that produces our ways of handling the other. The politics of food produces politics of our society. We can deconstruct reigning politics by redefining and expanding the horizons of the modes of food sharing. The new gastronomy of food sharing can transform the way we welcome or reject the other. Food can otherise the other and restrict our social intercourse. Let us try and understand the reigning grammatologies of food so that we can write new grammatologies that are democratic, tolerant and expansive. Such grammatologies will expand the horizons of food sharing traditions.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao