Orality and Multi-Sensoriality: the Secret Ingredients of Food’s Longevity and the Power of Memory

By Elisa Pastorelli

The uninterrupted transmission of knowledge of oral traditions, of gestures, of words, of the practices that characterize and give significance to food and eating culture has enabled its deepest tangible and intangible foundations. By taking part in practices and knowledges related to food, people recover from the complexity of contemporary times, reconnecting with the past and collective memory[i] of their community. In the following, I aim to highlight how this has been made possible by two interconnected factors that characterize the memory power of food and food practices: multi-sensoriality and orality.

As readers of the Recipes Project will know, cookbooks — the most ancient of which is De re coquinaria, allegedly written by Apicius in the 1st century AD — primarily spread, especially during the early modern period, in noble and bourgeois contexts. In other environments, recipes were part of an oral tradition of words and gestures that reiterated and ritualised the knowledge shared by a community. Even during and after the rise in literacy through the modern era, knowledge and practices connected to food continued to be handed down orally — and refunctionalized and re-signified — especially in “lateral areas.”[ii]

The preference for orality as a means of spreading and passing on to future generations is due not only to sacred, social values but also the sensory skills involved in preparing and consuming foods, which are sometimes simplified and ignored in writing. Le Breton defines eating as a “total sensory act,”[iii] but he refers to the consumer product, which is seen, smelled, touched, and, in the end, tasted. Heldke highlights how the senses are also central to the procurement and preparation of food, skills  that are “‘contained’ not simply ‘in my head’ but in my hands, my wrists, my eyes and nose as well.”[iv]  Cooking is thus a bodily practice that, as pointed out by Bourdieu, is the result of the way bodies are informed by a series of habits instilled in a shared environment and articulated in movements and gestures that are part of that culture.[v] We must also consider how cultural factors—along with biological, psychological, and social ones—are central in processes defined by Fischler as “formation du gout,” whose phases largely involve and depend on the senses.[vi] As cultural and social environments change or evolve, so too does the interactions between the senses — sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell — and the food world. Nevertheless, while cultural and social environments change or evolve, the senses still remain etched in the memory of those who move or survive against changes. As Le Breton notes, “The best taste is a cultural prism projected onto food, a filiation of childhood or special moments.”[vii]

 
The preparation of a particular arbëreshë fresh pasta (fuzjiet) represents the bodily knowledge and practice used for preparing food. In particular, the iron spindle used to prepare it must not only moving but also making a precise sound. Image credit: Elisa Pastorelli

 

When a sociocultural environment varies, this “best taste” is assessed through the involuntary memory of the senses. In his Remembrance of Repasts, for example, Sutton focuses his fieldwork on the Greek island of Kalymnos on the reasons why and how food triggers the memory in powerful and effective ways. Food experience mostly evokes memories that concern not the action of eating itself, but the emotions and the relationships related to a past moment.[viii] Since these experiences are not just cognitive but also emotional and physical, food builds “embodied”[ix] memories that preserve past moments which can be lived again through senses. Aromas and flavors, and especially the senses that characterize them, generate nostalgia and activate involuntary memories that bring the taster back to previous times and places.

During my fieldwork in the Arbëreshë communities of Molise, for example, my older interlocutors always connected the bitter taste of chicory, dill, and wild turnip—which are still jarred in oil—with nostalgic moments of the past, when the great majority of people were poor but happy to stay alive together, eating these wild herbs and corn every day. Similarly, when talking about homemade sweets featuring almonds, honey, figs, and cooked wine that are still prepared during celebrations, they nostalgically told me about how and when, as children, they received those treats during past feasts.

Rooted in cultural memory, food is particularly useful for migrants to return home—at least for a while. Mankekar highlights how Indian-Californian customers go to Indian grocery stores in the San Francisco Bay Area, not only to shop but also to engage, through smells and aromas, with representations of their homeland.[x] Food often returns people to an imagined homeland, shaped by the “armchair or imagined nostalgia” as defined by Appadurai.[xi] Another example is offered by the Sicilian community of Silkwood—which migrated to North Queensland starting in the late 1880s—that makes, eats, and shares Sicilian food during the Feast of The Three Saints to feel connected to Sicily, even if younger generations had never been to Italy.[xii]

Multi-sensoriality and orality sustain knowledge and practices connected to eating culture, allowing them to endure over centuries. In this way, food is a means of self-representation and self-celebration, which is profoundly connected to processes of identification and construction of extensive “imagined communities.”[xiii]

 

 

[i] See Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992).

[ii] I’m referring to Bartoli’s Law of Lateral Areas, according which innovation spreads from a center to peripheral areas. See Giulio Bartoli, Saggi di linguistica spaziale (Torino: Vincenzo Bona, 1945).

[iii] David Le Breton [1953], Sensing the World. An Anthropology of the Senses (New York: Bloomsbury Academy, 2017), 185.

[iv] Lisa Heldke, Foodmaking as a Toughtful Practice, in Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Transformative Philosophies of Food, eds. D.W. Curtin and L.M. Heldke (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), 218.

[v] Pierre Bourdieu, La distinction. Critique sociale du jugement (Paris: Les éditions de minuit, 1979).

[vi] Claude Fischler [1990], L’Homnivore. Le goût, la cuisine et le corps (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2001).

[vii] Le Breton, 198.

[viii] David E. Sutton, Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory (London: Bloomsbury, 2001).

[ix] Jon Holtzman, “Food and Memory,” The Annual Review of Anthropology, 35 (2006): 365.

[x] Purnima Mankekar, “‘India Shopping’: Indian Grocery Stores and Transnational Configurations of Belonging,” Ethnos 67.1 (2002):75-97.

[xi] Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 76-78.

[xii] Franca Tamisari, “Working for the Saints. Food, Memory and the Senses in the North Queensland,” Queensland Review 2 (2023): 70-83.

[xiii] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (Londra: Verso, 1983).


Elisa Pastorelli completed her joint bachelor’s degree in European Literary Cultures at the University of Bologna and Strasbourg in 2020 and recently received her Master of Science in Cultural Anthropology, Ethnology, and Anthropological Linguistics from the University of Venice. Her thesis, which investigates heritage and reinvention between feasts, senses, and gastronomic lexicon from past to present in the arbëreshë communities of Molise, will be published as a monograph in the Il Mondo in Tavola Series. Combining an ethnographic method with the heterogeneous collection of studies offered by the anthropological but also sociological, linguistic, and semiotic perspectives, Elisa uses food as a lens to investigate how particular forms of food production, distribution, and consumption are culturally and socially framed and valued through discourses of ‘heritage,’ ‘tradition,’ and ‘identity,’ especially in contexts of migration and multiculturalism. She collaborates with the scientific Journal of Agriculture and Gastronomy edited by the International Library “La Vigna” (Vicenza, IT).



Cite this blog post
Jess Clark (2024, February 11). Orality and Multi-Sensoriality: the Secret Ingredients of Food’s Longevity and the Power of Memory. The Recipes Project. Retrieved April 22, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/vvh9

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