Reading Guide to: Mennell, S (1985) All Manners of Food, Oxford: Blackwell

Chapter one

Our likes and dislikes are learnt, and are not innate or biological. There is a parallel between eating food and becoming a marijuana user in Becker, and readers might remember the struggles they had once to learn to like coffee. We have to develop an extensive language to describe food and to make fine discriminations.

Social groups develop standards of taste, and the stand as themselves vary and have different force. All societies have food preferences and taboos -- the Jews and bacon, the British and insects, the Chinese and dairy products. The same goes for differences in cooking -- British cooking is probably not objectively deficient compared to French cooking, it is simply that the British like it that way.

Do the differences in taste merely reflect what is available? There have been changes in tastes, however. Nor is it a matter of inherent palatability or nutritional value, neither of which are necessarily connected to desirability, as in the case of sugary baby foods and their popularity. Standards of palatability are culturally variable anyway. People can prefer adulterated food rather than 'natural' food -- as the example of instant coffee shows. What this reveals is that the cultural level needs to be analysed rather than the tastes of individuals.

Some structuralist work is available here, as in Levi-Strauss, Mary Douglas, Barthes and Bourdieu. There clearly are powerful cultural elements in the choice of food, its cooking and serving, thus:

(a) Levi-Strauss's works on the basic units of cuisine --'gustemes'-- which are ordered according to structural laws of opposition and correlation. Thus contrasts such as those between endogenous/native and exogenous/exotic, or central/staple first as peripheral/accompaniments, marked/not marked (for example savoury/bland) are combined in different ways, and might well be used to analyse the difference between English and French cooking (page 7). Thus English dishes are endogenous, central and bland, although served with flavoured accompaniments, while French dishes are the reverse. There are important class differences as well as natural ones according to Levi-Strauss, and this leads to the famous work on the culinary triangle (representing the into relationships between categories such as raw/cooked/rotten) which are used to symbolise all sorts of social relationships as well as indicating important distinctions between human beings and natural beings, nature versus society (examples are provided on page 9). One quick example is worth noting -- the pragmatic reasons for boiling food is to try and preserve as much of the fresh and the juice as possible, so boiling becomes a symbol for a plebeian way of life, while roasting wastes a lot of the meat, and so it becomes an aristocratic symbol. Mennell notes that this is still the case for Britain, but not, apparently for Czechoslovakia.

(b) Douglas is less committed to the structure of universals and binaries, but still offers a way to decipher a meal, especially the sequences within it, or the sequences over a whole day or a week. She has been used to help explain the ritual of Sunday dinner, or Christmas dinner as a family meal [there is a nice Open University Unit on this, I recall -- Christmas dinner runs through a whole sequence of natural and highly processed foods, using different cooking methods which symbolise some sort of social unity and a proper stance towards nature and social life]. Food encodes social arrangements such as hierarchy, exclusion and social boundaries, so that drinks may be shared with relative strangers, but meals are seen as family affairs, so one crosses a social boundary if one receives an invitation to eat.

(c) Barthes also searched for some underlying code, some units or transformational rules. Thus he saw the change in taste from white bread to brown as a sign of refinement, or associated the preference for bitter flavours with the upper classes, or detected an emerging opposition in the USA between preferences for sweet and for crisp foods. These distinctions are 'not logical, yet they were often significant' (11). Barthes offers a typically a historical analysis, though, although we notices that some advertising appeals for the past in order to dignify foods, such as Napoleon brandy.

(d) Bourdieu was influenced by Marxist structuralism, and this can lead to a rather over static 'reproduction' orientation. In his Distinction, all tastes were eventually linked to social class through the notion of inherited cultural capital, and this underestimated social mobility between different tastes [see file] . He used survey data to establish different styles of life, and claimed to have discovered only surface changes, minimising the historical dimension again.

Structural analyses like these have clear limits, in that deep structures are only derived from surface appearances, and have difficulty in actually explaining new kinds of surface appearance. They tend towards circularity as well. But the impetus behind them is really to attempt 'process reduction', according to Elias. But there are changes, for example when Africa was colonised, imported foods became important in Britain. There are internal dynamics too, not just the growth of knowledge about food, but genuine changes in rules and conventions. These changes seem to occur first, and then post hoc justifications are found for them.

Elias has a more suitable developmentalist approach. The social forces which shape tastes are themselves the product of self development, and we must search for 'structured processes of change'. Elias uses the term figuration to describe a pattern of interdependence, and entanglement of individual behaviours, cultural tastes, ideas, social strategies, political and economic forces. Thus a sociogenetic analysis of change can be pursued, leading us to be able to see why some changes occur and not others, and how the consequences of change have further effects. Thus, for example a major force in patterns of conflict and competition generally is provided by a contest between various social groups expressed in countless ways. An overall balance of power can develop, but this can be uneven or even, fluctuating or directional. These changes can affect tastes and thoughts about ourselves as well as actual behaviour.

Applying this to food, we can see that the nutritional and aesthetic factors have only a relative autonomy. Mechanisms of distribution are an issue, as in [marxist?] analyses of the food industry, but so are tastes and styles of cookery. We need to do much more historical research. Generally, it tastes seem to be socially shaped by 'religions, classes and nations' (17), and class is an important factor especially in Europe -- for example we display our tastes in food to symbolise ourselves and our ambitions, as when we invite people to either haute cuisine or junk food. There are national differences such as those between Britain and France, which can turn on matters such as whether food is a means or an end in itself. However, national cuisines are never completely separated. Several other themes can also be detected, such as the role of social controls on appetite, the history of cookery, the interplay of class and national differences, the emergence of professional cookery and an autonomous interest in style. Evidence to be cited include a variety of cookery books, popular papers, and fashionable magazines. We should also analyse the development of repugnance, or bad taste too.

Chapter 2 The Civilising of Appetite

The issue of taste emerges as an important element only when there is enough to eat, when the effects of hunger and problems of supply and distribution have been overcome. We can apply Elias here:

First, appetite is a psychological states, involving a desire to eat. It follows from hunger which needs to be interpreted and represented in consciousness [a reference to Blumer here] the level of appetites may be affected by physiological and social pressures together, as in the recent discovery of 'eating disorders'.

Long-term develop effect mental trends may be detected in what is 'normal eating'. This itself involves considerable capacity for self control, since we can also easily display abnormal qualities such as overeating, abstaining, bolting our food, lingering over it excessively and so on. According to Elias, medieval feasting seemed excessive, although we don't really know how much over-consumption took place. Such feasts were atypical anyway, and should be understood as part of a broader rhythm of bingeing and starving, which affected even the diet of aristocrats. Food binges were followed by diet of bread and water, commonly as a response to ill-fortune in terms of stocks or harvests. There were also emotional oscillations, Elias says, and it is hard to establish whether such volatility was the result of swings in diet, or whether both were symptoms of some underlying common cause.

There was certainly a general unpredictability and precariousness to existence, leading to a 'reflection in personality, believes and social behaviour' (23). The greater calculability of existence produced a greater stability in these areas, partly as a result of internal pacification, but also from the advances in division of labour, the growth of trade, and a steadier production and storage of food. Social behaviour changed as well. Thus Elias tells us that travel in the middle ages was dangerous, both because of the likelihood of accident and from a definite lack of restraint of aggression (24). Eventually controls over these hazards developed and became universal.

Life was insecure because of epidemics, fires, insecure food supplies, and just as harvests were failing the population grew. For example, between 1500 and 1660 in England, one harvest in six was a failure. There was a Europe-wide famine 1315 - 17, and a massive depopulation afterwards, so that 'East Prussia lost nearly half its population at the beginning of the 18th century' (25). Local shortages arose because of inadequate transport and organisation, and this led to frequent panic buying, hoarding and speculation. The populace often relied on various 'coarse foods' such as bread made out of bark. Famine also led to an increased likelihood of mortality from disease. Stocks and transport improved gradually, after 1750, but trade also increased dependency, and led to food riots such as those over the restrictions of the Corn Law. The fear of starvation remained, especially in the country and among the lower classes, who faced constant danger and panics.

The Church required periodic fasting, at one time for three days a week and on all the major Saints' Days, and for the whole of Lent. There were also strict rules about the types of food that might be consumed, at least until the Protestant Reformation. The common people were little affected, however and were still able to have food binges. In this sense, religious fasting was a series of external constraints rather than self restraints. The Church in fact was rather in favour of the view that people needed to eat drink and be merry, and were more worried about drunkenness than gluttony. The secular authorities were worried about public displays of eating and wearing fashionable clothing, especially when it concerned the emergent rising strata, but found it difficult to control and regulate these events.

Medieval doctors opposed obesity as evidence of a lack of exercise, but bulk generally was seen as a sign of prestige (30) especially 'healthy stoutness'. Pressures towards self restraint started to appear in the 16th century, and by the mid-18th century, gluttony was an exception. Thus Louis XVI was considered a coarse eater, and so was Dr Johnson, who focused his attention on the food rather than the company, mixed his sauces, and attacked his food, according to Boswell.

The civilising of appetite is interwoven with increased food supplies and the growth of table manners. Such manners are an indication of pacification. They seem to have arisen as a series of constraints on the rich from those below them (32). There were increased demands on cook so s to make food even more palatable it became possible to eat for pleasure rather than to assuage hunger. Cooks also increased the practice of consuming as a sign of social rank: the original quantitative differences gave way to qualitative ones which were 'inexhaustible' (33) and thus socially very useful. The first breaks with medieval cookery arose in Renaissance Italy, and then it spread to the nobles of France in the 17th and 18th centuries, then to the French middle-classes by the 18th century. This spread is connected to a much broader interest in greater delicacy in self restraint, and leads to the development of small, delicate, costly dishes, to knowledgability and to culinary and dietary delicacy -- all these imply restraint and discrimination. The trends were underpinned by a bourgeois need to economise and to be selective, making the bourgeois home a centre of gastronomic theorising. Rising political security and economic surpluses were the pre-requisites for the development of bourgeois rationality anyway, according to Elias.

The emergence of a 'regime alimentaire' is also justified by none other than Rousseau, as part of the perceived connection between diet and good health in the 18th century. Even here, a rational understanding alone was not enough. By 1822, discrimination became a matter of expressing a difference from 'the vulgar' who saw a good diet largely quantitative terms. Discrimination was accompanied by moderation. The fear of being overweight began at the top of the social scale, where beauty was seen as slenderness. It was common to condemn the greed of servants who failed to adjust their appetites to town dwelling. Obesity still attracts condemnation when found a among the lowest strata, and is still seen as a sign of slowness in adjusting to affluence. There is a general interest in those who deviated from the normal established patterns of restraint, with the emergence of weight watching from the 1950s, and slimness and sex appeal is still linked, at least since the end of the Second World War.

Thus an increasing balance of power between the social classes resulted in more equal distributions of foods, similar cuisines, and a convergence on the idea of moderation rather the extremes. This is not a linear development, though -- for example the rhythm of bingeing and fasting lasted longer in, the countryside and royal families were often seen as exempt from modern trends. The material changes are also closely connected to qualitative issues concerning good cooking and good food.

Chapter 11 Food Dislikes

Dislikes and aversions vary strongly and are also socially formed. A sense of delicacy can easily turn into a sense of dislike, and a growing sense of refinements is also associated with the growing repugnance too. A sense of social politeness easily turns into a sense of disgust, for example at bodily functions.

The long process of rationalising and civilising tastes has led to a position where some people can feel revulsion even when they are hungry. Food taboos as such are often associated with pre-industrial societies, but the capacity for repugnance seems to remain constant, and can appear as an individual pathology. However, it reflects social developments again. For example, Douglas says repugnance arises if a social boundary is crossed, but the boundaries themselves clearly develop and change.

Food dislike arises as four types:

(a) As a trained incapacity to enjoy food. Specific drives can be anaesthetised by social pressures, including social conflicts, and they can only be discharged 'in compulsive actions and other symptoms of disturbance... uncontrollable and eccentric attachments and repulsions' (Mennell quoting Elias, page 295). It becomes possible to dissociate eating behaviour from consciousness, and this leads to developments such as the 'nursery food syndrome'. This arises from the provision of special food in nurseries in England, itself a specific historical process. Children were made to eat food which was boring but good for them, deliberately to try and break their will. This leads to a lack of enthusiasm about food ranging through to strong anxieties (anxieties about 'faddy'children were detectable in 1927!). Finicky eating is also a sign of social inferiority, or at least is attributed to social inferiors. This is especially so in England rather than in France or the USA, and indeed there seem to be few food allergies among the French.

(b) As a fear of after effects, especially obesity, but also indigestion, bad breath and flatulence. This was heightened during the Victorian obsession with constipation, and helps to explain the revulsion for leeks, onions or garlic especially. Such fears are only possible when people 'learned to anticipate social embarrassment' (302).

(c) As a fear of social derogation, from being known as a person who likes low-status foods, for example. This is akin to issues about the superiority and inferiority of accents, vocabularies, or other tastes. The issue is not clear, however, even for participants, at sincere arises from an 'unconsciously operating psychological self steering agency', in Elias terms. However this fear is widespread, and partly explains why certain meats, vegetables, white breads and other foods such as sago became unfashionable -- they were abandoned by the upper classes because they were adopted by working classes, and the same goes for delicacies such as bloaters or tripe (304).

(d) For moral reasons, as in vegetarianism. Guilt towards animals was already appearing in the Middle Ages, partly from theological and partly from social causes, and despite widespread early cruelty to animals. Meat eating was already pretty selective in England, however, so that we did not eat horses, dogs or insects. Our interest in animals partly arose from increasing knowledge about them, and also from urbanisation, industrialisation and civilisation generally. The general revulsion towards animal cruelty follows as distance from animals increases, and is more common among townspeople and the middle classes. Vegetarianism in England appeared in the late 18th century, partly fuelled by a fear about the effects on human beings from excessive cruelty towards animals (part of a more general repugnance or shame at the animalistic activities of men, says Elias). The slaughterhouses were removed from public view, dead animals were disguised as food at an early stage, replacing carving joints at the table. Cookery itself conceals the 'cruel appearance of cuts of meat'. Associated with these trends is the development of English repugnance for rare steak, and the serving of animals at table complete with their heads. There were however, lots of national and class variations here.

The eating of offal is another case study. Originally it was associated with waste or refuse, especially in the USA, and also with poor and ethic minorities. There were national variations here, and other variations according to the 'scale of feelings about offal'-- thus liver was seen as less repulsive than kidneys, tongues, sweetbreads, brains, tripe, testicles and eyes (311).The long association with poor people can be seen in phrases such as 'eating umble pie' (umbles were the internal organs of the deer) (312). There were recipes for offal in early English cookery books, but there's been a growing feeling of repugnance. In France, offal was useful for adding variety in ragouts, and there seems to be less repugnance generally. Repugnance can be seen as a function of changes in identification with animals, but other social pressures can override the this too. There are also some cyclical variations, so that tripe can become occasionally very popular again. [So much of this has changed, of course, following the BSE scare in Britain, and all the dreadful exposure of the appalling diet of cattle and sheep in agribusiness which ensued].

Chapter 12

Contemporary eating is a very important leisure activity, showing all the virtues and vices of consumer society.

The mass culture view argues that the public has collapsed into a general mass, with its own mass culture [and mass foods, such as McDonald's --see file]. (The Conservative view sees the changes as the result of a threat from below). However, cookery remains as a very creative activity despite the growth of junk food.

Taking the work of Benjamin, is possible to see the reproduction of food as smashing the bourgeois aura, with all the good and bad effects that follow. Food dishes are always reproduced, and are never unique or permanent with the possible exception of the frozen or tinned gourmet dish. The optimistic side of reproduction was paralleled by Escoffier and his interest in diffusing good cooking, but there is clearly also a danger of the modern high-tech mass-production kitchen, with deskilling and proletarianisation of the cooks.

Adorno's work on music might be paralleled here. What Adorno called fetishism arose as an effect of the best sellers in reducing choice and programmes. Similar effects might be detectable from the standardisation of dishes and a limited repertoire offered by modern menus. Supermarket stocking policies have reduced choice, '[driving] out the vast array of English puddings' (319), or eclipsing regional cheeses. Adorno's 'regression of listening' to an infantile stage arises from a fear of the new, and this can be compared to the situation with food: junk food can be seen as regression, and so can 'ornamental cookery', where the same favourites are endlessly reiterated with different trimmings, and provided all the year round. The palate has been 'forcibly retarded' by the food industry. The notion of individual taste has been liquidated along with the individual subject, and needs are now manipulated. [I suspect that much of this would have to be revised these days as supermarkets have diversified and as junk-food providers acquire 'connoisseur' eateries].

Is possible of course to defend the food industry as merely responding to demand [but Mennell defends Critical Theory as allowing for this beautifully --see file on the culture industry]. There are also signs of greater variety. At least commercial limits on the modern diet are far less as onerous than the old physical limits. Ultimately, there seems to be a trend towards diminishing contrasts space and increasing varieties (322).

As an example of diminishing contrasts, there were marked contrasts in the diet according to class in the Middle Ages, both in quantitative and qualitative terms. The growth of internal restraint on conspicuous banqueting, and improvements in the supply of food, and the reduced population after the Black Death, and the general shift in the balance of power towards the poor leads to a state in the 20th century where it became a 'good form to express and even to feel shock and horror at hunger...' (323). What better example of the spreading civilisation of taste? Contrasts associated with the seasons also diminish.

Even haute cuisine used to increase contrasts, but since the early modern period it has combined methods such as boiling and roasting, and developed more standardised printed recipes. It began to develop a blend between French and British cooking, and even a trend towards greater simplicity in the 19th century and a move to frugality after World War One, especially when combined with a health movement. The growth of public eating also democratises haute cuisine, as well as the changing class connotation of food (the upper classes used to eat both caviar and black pudding, apparently). There has been some upward mobility too.

The increased varieties of dishes reflect an increased variety of social contexts, such as different kinds of public restaurants and private households. There was some underlying hierarchy of prestige too for a long time, which may be diminishing in England in the 20th century, although it still seems to persist in France. There has been a pluralism affecting eating, emanating from both right and left (328) This has been paralleled with the decline in the domestic style in art, and the increasing number of waves in fashion, including waves of international influence. Thus we have influences from Italian, Chinese, Indian, Graeco-Turk and American cuisine. French cooking is still minuscule its impact on British diets, but there is an 'ideological sway' appearing among the knowledgeable.

Variety appears in cookbooks, and in magazine columns (and TV cooking programmes these days]. There are increasing links between professional and domestic cookery, and eating out is more popular than ever. Food technology and marketing has increased variety, but there are diverse motivations, not just commercial ones, but including a genuine interest in cooking.

Iin conclusion, Elias is useful to explain the reduction of contrasts and a comingling of traits in both culture and conduct. Specifically in terms of food, he reminds us that likes and dislikes are 'always entangled with people's affiliations to class and t space o other social groups' (332). Contrasts become ever more subtle and complex, as do new forms of hierarchy. Thus the relationship between French and British cooking show a number a broad forces are responsible for shaping taste, and also demonstrate considerable 'fluidity and indeterminacy' (332). This sort of flux and movement is best explained by figurational sociology.

Brief Comment

I have left out an awful lot of detail in the other chapters, but if you read them you might find this to be a rather curious history, with a wide variety of historical sources, some of which were admitted to be pretty unreliable. I'm not convinced myself that we actually need any kind of figurational approach to pursue this concrete and slightly eccentric historical accounts, although it does seem to have permitted Mennell to square his specific interests in detail with his allegiances as a sociologist. Nevertheless, overall, figurational sociology appears to give us permission to say almost anything -- there is both hierarchy and pluralism, certain detectable broader forces and a residual indeterminacy, sometimes support for Critical Theory, sometimes not, and so on.