Sound bites: Claude Levi-Strauss

Claude Levi-Strauss

“Cooking is a language through which society unconsciously reveals its structure.” —Claude Lévi-Strauss

In The Origin of Table Matters, Lévi-Strauss explains and elaborates on his use of a “culinary triangle” concept, which maps foods in raw, cooked, and rotten states onto a triangle’s three points. For Lévi-Strauss, cooking was not merely practical but metaphorical: the means by which a given society transforms raw food into cooked and determines when cooked food has gone rotten may be read symbolically, illustrating that society’s anxieties about what it means to be civilized or to belong to a community. Among other examples, he describes nineteenth-century French custom of placing the unmarried older sister of a new bride on top of an oven “so that she might be warmed up.” Elsewhere in France in that period, unmarried older siblings might be asked to eat a salad of raw vegetables on the occasion of their younger sibling’s nuptials. Lévi-Strauss notes that these customs tend to play on the contrast between cooked-ness (the oven; the state of being married) and rawness (the salad; the state of being unwed and perhaps on the verge of going off). These rituals mingled the culinary and the linguistic.

For more, see “Raw, Cooked, Rotten” at Table Matters.

Sound Bites will be a series of (hopefully) monthly posts featuring quotes from notable thinkers and writers on the subject of food.

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