The Literary Mode of Identification, or What to read, how?
For me, the key source of information here is newspapers, which are, most surprisingly, a still deeply neglected fount of data for anthropologists. The range and sorts of relevant information here is very broad. For instance:
(a) reviews of restaurants
(b) interviews with chefs
(c) letters to the editor
(e) articles by columnists
(f) feature articles
(g) news on certain kinds of events: the staging of competitions, the giving of prizes, the presence of politicians at key food-based events, etc.
In the course of my own research on local notions of cuisine, in the general Basque area of northern Spain, I have encountered much material of great interest in pieces from all of these six categories. Of course, I have often had to read ‘against the grain’, scanning articles or letters which are not directly concerned with food matters but which may well still contain highly appropriate material: the gems, we might call them, hidden within the coal. It pays to read fast and to learn how to skim; and the more one comes close to commanding a body of knowledge the faster one can skim.
Next in our survey come books and, again, relevant ones may be of an exceptionally wide variety:
(a) cookbooks: both essential and potentially profoundly misleading. Above all, a cookbook should not be taken as indicative of what locals ate in the time and area it was written. Books, even cookbooks, are written for a diversity of reasons and it is often more profitable to enquire why they have been written than analyse their contents in an uncritical manner. Also, cookbooks are literary products and have to be seen as such. It was Evelyn Waugh, after all, who said his favorite bedtime reading were the books of Elizabeth David.
All cookbooks have fictional dimensions. The question is: of what kind and to what degree? Some, for instance, act as deeply idealized folkloric records; the authors of these salvage ethnographies are concerned to ‘save’ seemingly traditional recipes before they are lost. Other books are lengthy expressions of cultural nostalgia (Fragner 2000). The script here seems to be: ‘this is the world we have already lost, but which we can try to re-create through cooking’. The world they have lost, however, is almost always rural, green, and harmonious; there are no ugly towns, dirty chimneystacks or working-class discontent in the visions they perpetuate. Cookbooks may also appeal to the aspirations of their readers, feeding their fantasies about the identities they wish to achieve rather than lending substance to the identities they already possess. Thus contemporary cookbooks which focus on the folkloric, the nostalgic, or the aspirational (as so many do) may tell us less about culinary conditions than about collective imaginations, present-day values, popular dreams, hopes and aims. They have to be seen not as descriptive documents but as prescriptive ones, giving us an inkling of the culinary worlds their authors would like to see.
It is important here to remember that the claims to existence of any contemporary nation are partly legitimated by its self-vaunted possession of a prestigious culture, and that an ideologically significant part of a culture may well be its distinctive cuisine. For these reasons, the modern rise of nationalism and regionalism has boosted the production of cookbooks. Indeed in some cases it may well be the nationalists or regionalists themselves who are funding the publication of these books. It is common for claims to be made about the great age of much local cuisine. For, as Zubaida (2000: 41) argues, ‘This supposed historical antiquity and continuity are cited as, somehow, a confirmation of the authenticity and superiority of the present-day national cuisine. History, then, becomes the measure of national virtue, including food.’ According to this line, eating in a local manner is to consume history, to uphold virtue.
When looking at a Basque cookbook for the first time, the questions I usually ask myself are: who wrote this? For whom? When? Where? What position did the author hold? What local contexts can this book be fitted into? Who are the publishers? Who funded this book? What might the author have gained from producing it? What interests, beyond the immediately individual, was he/she seeking to promote? How successful was the book? What image of the Basqueland, of local society, and of local cooking is the author trying to portray? What are the proportions between the different kinds of dishes (meat, fish, vegetable, sweet, etc.)? Are significant proportions of the dishes from distinct sub-zones of the area in question? In other words, these books are not simply to be broached, but to be interrogated.
(b) Novels, especially bad novels: the less artistry the local author displays the better, for then all the more likely he/she is to tell us about local life in a relatively unmediated, unpolished manner. From reading local novels, I have been able to learn about, for example, the social importance granted to cultivating a fine palate, the role of food in romance, and the centrality of feasting.
(c) Memoirs: another neglected source of data, most likely because the trawl, on occasion, can be long and the catch relatively meagre. However in my Basque case, the sorts of information I have been able to glean from examples of this genre include accounts of recently defunct rules of behaviour and forms of interaction, both formal and informal, as well as eulogies to the local diet and styles of cooking. As in other domains of activity, what is here more important is often the mode of praise rather than its content.