Review: Nourishing the Nation

Venetia Johannes. Nourishing the Nation: Food as National Identity in Catalonia. Berghahn Books. New York: 2022. ISBN: 978-1-80073-203-2.

Mary Black (Southern Illinois University Carbondale)

Picadasofregitallioli… I can smell and taste each sauce that Venetia Johannes vividly evokes inNourishing the Nation: Food as National Identity in Catalonia. In this book, Johannes seeks to show “how food is used to express Catalan national identity” (3), an attempt to shed further light on nationalism from an everyday, lived perspective by focusing on the discourses around food meanings more than on Catalans’ everyday eating practices. Johannes’s research mostly took place over the course of 15 months, the first two studying the Catalan language in Barcelona and then in her field site of Vic, a town of around 40,000 people in central Catalonia. She chose Vic because her Catalan acquaintances told her it was “one of the ‘most Catalan’ towns,” a symbolic center associated with some of the literary and religious icons of Catalan culture. Her research methods included ethnographic interviews with her informants, photo-elicitation, the study of written materials, and participant observation.

Johannes’s book is exhaustively documented, from her history of Catalonia to her historical research on Catalan cookbooks, her review of the Catalan gastronomic calendar, and her description of the mainstays of Catalan cuisine. She cites cookbooks as lenses through which to examine nationalism both through Appadurai’s idea that “cookbooks tell unusual cultural tales… [and] serve the dual purpose of being both mundane guides to the everyday activity of cooking and provide an idea to which readers can aspire” (quoted on p. 41) and because cookbooks can help create what Anderson called an “imagined community” via print capitalism. She traces how nationalism gained force in Catalonia during the Renaixença in the late 19th century, when the Catalan language was codified and conferred literary status and newspapers began to be published in it. Johannes reaches back to the first Catalan cookbook, dating from 1324 (Llibre de Sent Soví), to give credence to Anderson’s claim that though “nation” is a relatively modern construct, nations hark back to a distant past to justify their existence. Johannes then continues tracing Catalan cookbooks through to the present day, showing how their appearance often dovetailed with peaks of Catalan nationalistic fervor (42). Johannes’s research is extraordinarily thorough and enlightening, and her bibliography is a veritable goldmine for researchers of Catalan cuisine.

Johannes goes on to accurately describe the hallmarks of Catalan cuisine, both the sauces mentioned above and combinations like agredolç (which she translates as “sweet-and-sour” but in the context of Catalan cuisine refers more to the combination of sweet and savory in a single dish) and mar i muntanya, or sea and mountain, dishes that combine meat and seafood. Her extensive description of the Catalan gastronomic calendar illuminates a modern unifying invention that illustrates the deliberate creation of that imagined community: Catalans imagining themselves seated around the table on the same days eating the same foods. She pinpoints community meals, especially around traditional activities and festivals, as an important part of commensality in Catalonia. As she says, these meals act as the “means by which inhabitants of a nation can come into contact with one another, and make the imagined community into a reality” (96), once again referring to Anderson’s conceptualization. She also makes an interesting point about cookbooks being used as a covert way to assert Catalan identity via print media at a time when the language was banned by the Franco dictatorship, given the “gendered, feminized, trivial” nature of cooking (52). “The publication in Catalan of certain seemingly non-threatening genres… [whose] language could be trivialized as unsuited for serious topics such as politics or history” (55) was allowed, even though they turned out to be a potentially subversive medium.

While Johannes’s introduction states the need for a unity of discourse among her informants, she also succeeds in showing the multiplicity of opinions and contradictions on different issues related to Catalan food. One example is the discourse around Catalan cuisine as an ancient, “unbroken tradition from the medieval golden age” (44), despite the fact that one of its features is precisely its permeability to other cuisines and ingredients, that is, its cosmopolitanism. None other than the celebrated chef Ferran Adrià (of El Bulli fame) contests the continuity of Catalan cuisine since Middle Ages by claiming that the medieval and modern cuisines are totally different, and that their connection is a sociopolitical spin (read: Catalanism). She also points out the contradiction in large-scale paellades, a form of community-wide commensality in Catalonia featuring a dish originally from Spain, paella, despite the dismissive discourses around Spanish cuisine in general. She highlights the food authorities’ attempts to get Catalan cuisine designated intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO, in contrast with her lay informants’ indifference to or even ignorance of these efforts, and the commercial interests behind decorating food items with symbols of Catalonia like the flag, a gimmick that many of her informants reject precisely because it is new and not traditional. Finally, she illustrates another contradictions in the view of Catalan cuisine as a cuina d’aprofitament (subsistence cuisine), made with whatever may be available, while noting that at the same time Catalans boast about the rich variety of local foods available. It seems that in Catalonia the concept of national cuisine is as malleable as the purposes it is meant to serve.

Johannes interviewed a wide range of informants, many of them prestigious figures in the Catalan food world, along with Catalan activists employed in or associated with the food industry: restaurateurs, food writers, teachers, producers, and representatives of publicly-funded food-related agencies or organizations (funded by the Catalan, not Spanish, government). Therefore, they naturally had encyclopedic knowledge of Catalan food, coupled with a vested interest in furthering the Catalan gastronationalist discourse, especially those working in agencies whose very mission this is. Johannes mentions another set of informants, “a nebulous group of friends and acquaintances that I came to know through the course of my stay” (32); in order to illustrate Catalans’ extensive regional food knowledge, she mentions a time she was with a group of sardana dancers—a Catalan dance that is an  “invented tradition”[i] from the past 150 years mainly practiced by Catalans with a strong sense of national identity—who began to list different tomato varieties and what region they are from (90). She also mentions walking through a market with a tour guide who was well-informed about the food purveyed there (156-7). And she says that Catalans enjoy engaging in a conversational game that involves “naming as many varieties as possible of a particular fruit or vegetable when in company” (90). Johannes’ research likely elicited some of these conversations, so the question of how often these topics come up unprompted among lay Catalans in social situations would merit further study to determine to what extent the connection between food and Catalan identity is actually salient on a daily basis.

Johannes lived for 13 months in Vic, which is in the geographic center of Catalonia and is, as stated above, considered “very Catalan.” Like every region, Vic is unique, and there is a danger of extrapolating practices there to Catalonia as a whole, which, as Johannes acknowledges, has many different microclimates and therefore regional foods. For example, when discussing the matança de porc, or pig slaughter, she claims, “Catalans try to attend at least one per year” (95). However, had she been based in another region, such as Delta de l’Ebre, she would likely have found very few people who had attended a slaughter but instead considered seafood and rice dishes to be supremely Catalan. There is also the danger of generalizing from what one or a few people say to what “Catalans” as a nation do. For instance, Johannes claims that when watching Barça soccer matches, Catalans sit down with the iconic pa amb tomàquet (bread spread with tomato), Damm beer, and llonganisa sausage (97), which may be true in Vic, or among her friends or informants, but not necessarily in the country as a whole. She also states in her conclusion that she did not address power, class, or gender because “distinctions by class and income are not a central part of Catalan social life, although they do exist” (227), which may be true of her milieu in Vic but is simply not the case in Catalonia as a whole.

To what extent does the “average” Catalan live gastronationalism? Showing pictures of food emblazoned with Catalan flags naturally elicits discourse on food and nation, just as food emblazoned with any flag would. What this book offers is a detailed snapshot of Catalan cuisine, an invaluable English-language overview of the topic with important historical and culinary information. Yet perhaps people anywhere would speak about food in terms of national identity when prompted. For example, even in a country as young and culturally diverse as the U.S., many people can wax eloquent on the different regional varieties of barbecue. So while Johannes found a well-developed discourse around food and nationalism in Catalonia, especially among people whose job it is to create and propagate this discourse, to what extent is this a conscious part of most people’s everyday (culinary) lives?

In her introduction, she says that she focused more on discourses around food, but in her conclusion she mentions focusing on the “lived realities of nationalism” (226). As any ethnographer knows, what people say, what they say they do, and what they actually do can be miles apart. As Mintz said, critiquing the all-too-common studies of the “meaning” of food, “there is a much more mundane modernity equally in need of study, some of it reposing on supermarket shelves” (368). And therein lies a fruitful avenue of future research. For all the beautiful evocations of picada, sofregit, and allioli, understanding the way overworked, overstressed, modern Catalans actually eat, and whether gastronationalism is factored into that, would be invaluable. With the proliferation of hipermercats like Alcampo, Carrefour and Eroski packed with people every weekend, I would wager that at least in urban areas, eating habits have more to do with balancing convenience and nutrition than with cooking ages-old dishes that take hours. This is further confirmed by the recent onslaught of prepared foods, which may be “traditional” Catalan dishes because people naturally want to eat familiar food but are a far cry from what their àvia might have cooked decades ago.

In her conclusions, Johannes suggests tracing the underlying food-related power structures via “a thorough consideration of the transfer of financial resources between government bodies and food-related organisations” (227), an interesting avenue of inquiry but one that again takes a top-down approach that may have little to do with Catalans’ everyday lived realities. Tracing the ways Catalan cuisine has evolved in everyday life in the modern world, the greater acceptance of outside cuisines, and the rise in prepackaged food might, in fact, tell us how, or whether, the “lived realities of nationalism” (226) are found in food. Then again, it would not tell us about their imagined Catalan community, which Johannes’s book sets out to do and more than accomplishes.


Anderson, Benedict. 1983. Imagined Communities. Reflection on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Hobsbawm, Eric and Terence Ranger. 1983. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mintz, Sidney W. 2013. “Time, Sugar, and Sweetness.” Food and Culture: A Reader. United Kingdom: Routledge.

[i] Hobsbawm, E. J., & Ranger, T. O. (2010). The invention of tradition (19th printing.). Cambridge University Press.

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