Review: Food is Culture

Food is Culture

By Massimo Montanari
Columbia University Press
(168 pages)

Reviewed by Lidia Marte
The University of Texas at Austin


Massimo Montanari’s book Food is Culture is a small book that offers a rich serving about food’s role in the history of humanity. The preface summarizes it best with “how food came to be, how it came to be cooked, how it came to taste good and how it became metaphor and discourse,” in summary, that food is cultural. As Montanari explains in his introduction “food is culture when produced, prepared and eaten.”

The best way I can describe this book is as a historical exploration of the mutual domestication of food and humans, illustrating how food is a cultural process decisive for human identity by drawing mostly from Western European Middle Ages and the renaissance as key defining periods in food production and food industrialization. The reader is guided through this journey with the central intention of showing how ‘nature’ as taken for granted is artificial or culturally defined. Montanari gives marvelous details on how the human species domesticated itself through food production, consumption and especially through cooking.

Montanari is a professor of medieval history and history of food, and has been writing about food history in Europe since the 1970s. This is the work of a mature scholar revisiting his ‘life long’ reflections on culinary questions. It is an easy and enjoyable book to read, with few theoretical abstractions. His prose is engaging, accessible, and gives a literary treatment to a subject of which much serious work has been published.

I confess this book is for me simultaneously provocative, inspiring and conflictive. I find it inspiring because in covering such a wide array of food aspects in the emergence of humans, it leaves very productive gaps for further exploration. Montanari has a firm grounding in his historical investigations of secondary sources and he is also keenly aware and observant of present food transformations. The book reads as a continuous reflection, yet each section offers excellent stops and detours.

All the sections offer rich historical details that may be new even to food experts. In the first section, Creating One’s own Food, he offers an excellent discussion of the radical spatial-temporal transformation of food production as humans shaped their food supplies and needs culturally beyond the seasonal recurrence of environmental cycles and disrupted the place-bound occurrences of certain plants and animal species. To me, the most productive and beautifully written discussion is in the last section titled Food, Language, Identity. In The Grammar of Food, Montanari offers a grounded definition of the ‘syntax of meals’, which while not a new concept, is here given one of the clearest discussions of food grammar that I have read.

Rather than weak points I find in this book areas that are provocative and foster debates. In his introduction, for example, Montanari explains that this book is not attempting a scholarly discussion of sources, and that he is an “interdisciplinary tourist,” so one does not expect him to justify or cite sources, even though it would have been welcome. Not mentioning the works of Mary Douglas and Sidney Mintz among the few sources he sprinkles in some sections seems to me a surprising oversight. It never becomes clear throughout the book what his concept of culture is (nor his idea of ‘the cultural’), yet many hints are suggested implicitly. The closest to a definition of ‘culture’ is that “culture is at the interface of tradition and innovation,” which is very ambiguous, if perhaps insightful. Non-specialist audiences would benefit from a clearer definition beyond these hints.

As a feminist ethnographer I am sensitive about the author’s use of the generic ‘man’ to refer to all humans (more than thirty times!). My objection is not meant to be frivolous linguistic nit picking. It is part of my response to the omission of gender in his discussion of the domestication of foods and also to his not discussing the social reproduction of humans, for which females (as mothers and ‘domesticators’ of food practices) have been crucial. The transformation of hominids into humans through cooking is, for example a key activity at the heart of gendering systems in which women have borne the creativity and burden of food transformations through plant knowledge and development of agriculture and especially in the alchemical transformation of these plant and animals into culturally specific meals.

In the section on The Invention of Cuisine, although the author has a good discussion of peasant orally transmitted cuisine (in relation to written recipes), his understanding of such groups’ foodways seems at times simplistic. It is understandable that written historical sources leave few traces of oral cultural processes, yet there is an erasure of the creative complexities of their food practices and the meanings they generate even when he refers to the present.
A short sentence at the end of the book summarizes the productive and inspiring contentions this book provokes for me: “It is history that has created us” (p. 140). It is confusing and difficult for me to reconcile the book’s marvelous discussion of how humans through purposeful actions and relations have transformed ourselves and the planet, with encountering at the book’s closing this statement about a Hegelian supra-historic force. Where are the creative agency, geopolitical negotiations and the choices that humans made and keep making in this mutual transculturation of organism-environment? My issue is not with the historicity aspect; indeed I think the consensus that cultural anthropology may be reaching is precisely that culture is none other than the “long dureé” of history. As said long ago by Marx, “humans make their history,” even though we don’t know how we do so except in retrospect.

This is an excellent book for the general public. For scholars and students specializing in food studies (particularly for anthropologists) there is not much new information, but the writing is provocative and inspiring, and it might revive a dormant food interest or project. The book’s wide scope is such that one can imagine many implications concerning the topics discussed. The section subtitled The paradox of Globalization is relevant to any reader as it touches on our role as consumers of ‘ethnic’ foods, which have acquired generic labels through marketing obscuring the complex negotiations underlying this invention.

Although one has the impression that Montanari is primarily addressing a male, middle-class European audience, understandable since this is a translation from the original Italian, it is a nice poetic irony that women, who are by far the majority of scholars and lay readers deeply interested in food, will probably be its main audience.

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