Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Raw, The Boiled and The Roasted. Excerpt from “The Culinary Triangle” by Claude Lévi-Strauss (1966)

“Observation establishes a double affinity: the roasted with the raw, that is to say the unelaborated, and the boiled with the rotted, which is one of the modes of the elaborated. The affinity of the roasted with the raw comes from the fact that it is never uniformly cooked, whether this be on all sides or on the outside and the inside. A myth of the Wyandot Indians well evoke that might be called the paradox of the roasted: the Creator struck fire, and ordered the first man to skewer a piece of meat on a stick and roast it. But man was so ignorant that he left meat on the fire until it was black on one side and still raw on the other….Similarly, the Poconachi of Mexico interpret the roasted as a compromise between the raw and the burned. After the universal fire, they relate, that which had not been burned  became white, that which had been burned turned black, and what has only been singed, turned red.  This explanation accounts for the various colors of corn and beans. In British Guiana, the Waiwai sorcerer, must respect two taboos, one directed at roast meat, the other red paint, and this again puts the roasted on the side of blood and the raw.
If boiling is superior to roasting, notes Aristotle, it is because it takes away the rawness of meat……..
As for the boiled, its affinity with the rotted is attested in numerous European languages by such locutions as pot pourri, olla podrida, denoting different sorts of meat seasoned and cooked together with vegetables; and in  German zu Brei zerkochetes Fleisch “meat rotted for cooking.” American Indian languages emphasize the same affinity, and it is significant that this should be so especially in those tribes that show a strong taste for gamey meat, to the point of preferring, for example, the flesh of a dead animal whose carcass has been washed down by the stream to that of a freshly-killed buffalo. In the Dakota language the same stem connotes putrefaction and the fact of boiling pieces of meat together with some additive.
These distinctions are far from exhausting the richness and contrast between roasted and boiled. The boiled is cooked within a receptacle, while the roasted is cooked from without:  the former thus evokes the concave, the latter, the convex. Also the boiled can most often be ascribed to what might be called an “endo-cuisine”, prepared for domestic use, destined to a small closed group, while the roasted belongs to “exo-cuisine,”  that which one offers to guests. Formerly in France, boiled chicken was for the family meal, while roasted meat was for the banquet……
The same opposition is found, differently formulated, in exotic societies. The extremely primitive Guayaki of Paraguay roast all their game, except when they prepare the meat destined for the rites which determine the name of a new child: this meat must be boiled. The Caingang of Brazil prohibit boiled meat for the widow and widower, and also for anyone who has murdered an enemy. In all these cases, prescriptions of the boiled accompanies a tightening, prescription of the roasted a loosening of familial or social ties.

Following this line of argument, one could infer that cannibalism (which by definition is an endo-cuisine in respect to the human race) ordinarily employs boiling rather than roasting and that the cases where bodies are roasted …..must be more frequent in exo-cannibalism (eating of the body of an enemy) than in endo-cannibalism (eating a relative).
Sometimes, too, as is often the case of America, and doubtless elsewhere, the roasted and the boiled will have respective affinities with life in the bush (outside the village community) and sedentary life (inside the village). From this comes a subsidiary association of the roasted with men, the boiled with women.
Smoking, of all the modes of cooking, comes closest to the abstract category of the cooked; and since the opposition between raw and cooked is homologous to that between nature and culture- it represents the most “cultural” form of cooking. And yet, on the other hand, its cultural means, the buccan, is to be immediately destroyed. There is striking parallel to boiling, a method whose cultural means (the receptacles)  are preserved, but which is itself assimilated to a sort of process of auto-annihilation, since its definite result is at least verbally equivalent to that putrefaction which cooking should prevent or retard.
What is this profound sense of this parallelism? In so-called primitive societies, cooking by water and smoking have this in common: one as to its means, the other as to its results, is marked by duration. Cooking by watering operates by means of receptacles made of pottery (or of wood with peoples who do not know about pottery, but boil water by immersing hot stones in it): in all cases these receptacles are cared for and repaired, sometimes passed on from generation to generation, and they number among the most numerable cultural objects. As for smoking, it gives food that resists spoiling incomparably longer than that cooked by any other method. Everything transpires as if the lasting possession of a cultural acquisition entailed, sometimes in the ritual realm, sometimes in the mythic, a concession made in return to nature: when the result is durable, the means must be precarious, and vice-versa.
This ambiguity, which marks similarly, but in different directions, both the smoked and the boiled, is that same ambiguity which we already know to be inherent to the roasted. …..The roasted incarnates the ambiguity of the raw and cooked, of nature and culture which the smoked and the boiled must illustrate in their turn for the structure to be coherent. But what forces them into this pattern is not purely a reason of form: hence the system demonstrates that the art of cooking is not located entirely on the side of culture. Adapting itself to the exigencies of body, and determined in its modes by the way man’s insertion in nature operates in different parts of the world, placed then between nature and culture, cooking rather represents their necessary articulation.”  

 Food and culture: a reader. By Carole Counihan, Penny Van Esterik     New York, 1997

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