The Semiotics of Cutlery: Eating food symbolically off course.
The Semiotics of Cutlery: A Dinner Table conversation over 8 Courses
Hunger is a universal human drive. Every day, we wake to rumbles with the physiological necessity to eat. Functional as this is, as a species we take great delight in eating. Food solves our alimentary needs and appetite drives us to seek out different food experiences; as Socrates advised ‘the best sauce for food is hunger’. Food involves a very sensorial experience, using all of our senses. How we eat is very personal and at the same time influenced directly by the social and cultural environments in which we live. In an increasingly globalised world, with such a diverse buffet of foods, recipes and cuisines there is a something almost surprisingly elementary about the uniformity of cutlery.
What we eat is not just about our biological needs, it is also instrumental in how we think about ourselves. So anything that we eat with, as utensils, will be very semiotic in nature.
“To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art.”
I’ve been focusing lately on changing trends in food, diet and eating, and drinking behaviour. To inform my next post, I was looking for a semiotic explanation of cutlery that we use for eating and what meaning is inherent in the choices we make. What are the different ways that we manipulate our foods? Does this change the meaning of the food? Who are using these different techniques? How are they different? How are the distinct forms of eating utensils more-or-less appearing in the cultural record? While I’m primarily interested in cutlery that we use to eat with, there is some interesting crossover into the kitchen domain here. The following eight courses focus specifically on these questions.
2. Soup Course
That different cultures eat meals differently has been observed by nearly everyone from the layman to academic, the adult to the curious child, and the gourmand to the gourmet. Even if you are locked within one culture with no outside cultural interaction, we find there are different social expressions of cuisines that indicate class and other social structures. Why particular cultures favour one particular way of eating over another is testament to an endlessly fascinating diversification of such a physiological animal need. How we eat as a cultural and social expression of this is just as appetising to degust.
As a more civilised ape, collectively sharing the same physiology, it stands to reason that anyone could have made an observation on this topic. As a result, I will leave it to Jerry Seinfeld to start this discussion on cutlery. As he expresses in this bit, his confusion with Chinese culture through their choice of eating implements. (video embed on website)
3. Fish Course
Why do we use different tools to eat with? Without wanting to cast too wide a net on this topic (since I’ll widen the topic in the next post); we can role-play a primordial mindset as a starting point.
Essentially, we have a choice of eating with our hands or using specialised tools as tool making animals. Although there is no reason that we need cutlery at all. If we consider why we would eat by hand, we can reasonably expect eating behaviour and rituals will revolve around the types of food and methods of food production that are available.
From a Western perspective, eating by hand can appear to be breaking a social taboo. Oprah famously demonstrated a modicum of cultural ignorance expressing: ‘’I heard Indian people eat with their hands still”; suggesting a wide held Western belief that eating with cutlery is more ‘evolved’ or at the least more civilized than eating by hand. Contrary to this many meals from India to Ethiopia, Mexico to Indonesia are still eaten by hand. Surely Oprah has eaten a hamburger before?
Cooking with fire is what unites cuisines. It is a common theme in mythology that fire is what set man on their path from more savage times. The theft of fire is as a common mythical theme across Mediterranean, Indian, Pacific and American Indian belief systems, to name a few.
In Greek myth, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. In the full story, prior to this theft, Prometheus tricked Zeus at Mecone into accepting the less-prime cuts of a sacrificial Ox in order to help man by reserving the prime cuts for food for eating (considering the relative cost to a tribe of killing domesticated animals). This trickery was followed by the subsequent theft and gift of fire to help with the cooking and digestion. In hindsight, it is strange that we don’t honour Prometheus as the Patron God of the BBQ today; although, obscured as it is, the Olympic torch is a mythical memory of Prometheus’ sacrifice memorialised every four years.
In an earlier post I discussed how the biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham suggested that it was the use of fire in cooking that allowed for additional calories to be easily digested by early primates, resulting in a direct escalation in human evolution (I also discuss the alternative hypothesis for human brain-size development in the post). There is evidence that primates have been eating cooked foods from approximately 1.9 million years ago. A cave in South Africa has the claim of the oldest extant evidence of a ‘barbecue’ (although this doesn’t necessarily mean they had the means of fire production yet).
Wrangham draws links between the evolutionary process and the development of cultural forms of cooking, suggesting that our social and eating behaviour has been influenced by our evolutionary biology:
…while cooking gave humans dietary flexibility, it also constrained our species into being creatures adapted to diets of high caloric density, prepared around temporary food-piles, and committed to the control of fire and the social relations that were therefore necessitated. Cooking may be cultural, but current evidence suggests that its effects have fed back into our biology, and have thereby created constraints that importantly shape and define our evolutionary biology.
This hypothesis also suggests that inventing and evolving how you cook would have been a competitive cultural advantage. At its most simple, piercing a piece of meat or vegetable on a stick appears to be the starting point for cooking in a fire.
The natural learning from this type of behaviour would have been the awareness that fire makes both wood and stone harder (we have to allow some evolutionary time for those calories to increase our big brains to work this out). There are examples extant of fire-hardened spears from the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic (ca 350,000 BP); evidence of fired-stone tools can be dated to 164,000 years old. These experiments likely led to the further evolution and experimentation with cooking utensils and cutlery.
4. Entrée Course
Claude Lévi-Strauss, in an iconic structuralist approach, introduced the ‘Culinary Triangle’ as a model of understanding the deeper underlying relationships of cooking and ‘fire’. Culture is transformative and also a movement away from the raw and natural state of ingredients. Fire as an agent uses air or water to transform ingredients into cooked meals. Fire here, as in the Prometheus myth, is symbolic of civilization and progression. Edibility codes have a place of prominence as they stand on the boundary of ‘nature and culture’.
5. Palate Cleanser
This model informs us of the other binary opposition of cutlery, hot foods that need to be ‘enclosed’ by a utensil. It’s obvious that it’s difficult to eat, or is to drink a soup without such a utensil.
This can also be seen in the etymology of the two main cutlery forms here: knife and spoon. The word cutlery derives ultimately from the Latin cutellus for knife. The English origins of the word come from the 13thC French coutelerie which means ‘cutting utensils’. The word spon (spoon) is from the old English ‘”chip, sliver, shaving, splinter of wood”, which later took on more a culinary scooping meaning. If we think of a contemporary food here, a taco chip is a spoon in how we eat with it, but also in a shared meaning of the word spoon here.
Therefore, the primary binary-opposition that we might find for utensils and cutlery will be either:
- Penetrate/Cut – those that are used for ‘Air’ cooking transformation
- Enclosure – ‘water’ cooking transformation utensils.
Interestingly, there is a Freudian, phallic, dimension to this opposition. Simply, men penetrate but women enclose. Thinking from a more symbolic perspective, there is a parallel here to thinking of the Sword or the Chalice. This is the masculine and feminine symbolism that is found from Tarot cards to the Arthurian knights on their quest for the Holy Chalice. Thinking back to Levi Strauss’s Culinary Triangle, the roles of air and water are central. In Tarot, the Suit of Swords is connected to the element of air; the Suit of Cups with water. From a more mythological level and within belief-systems, while not exclusively so, many masculine gods (sword) are sky or air gods and feminine (enclose) goddesses are associated with water.
More broadly, Levi-Strauss has raised frequent identifications between sex and food. These underlying structures work in a ‘linguistic’ fashion, with marriage rules and food taboos sharing similar metaphor structures. This understanding of food and relationships has been identified and subsequently explored more broadly in later sociological studies.
If we look in a cursory manner what knives and spoons look like – this appears to be visually semiotically encoded as well.
There is a tendency for knives to reflect more masculine forms; phallic, colours and materials. In comparison, spoons feel more feminine; organic, ‘womb’ like, and are made from different coloured materials. Another consideration here is that if your purpose is to cut, you need to be a different material than something that scoops.
It’s possible to think of the spoon association with bowls and baking, evoking mother and the womb. In comparison, the knife domain is often a more masculine performance role, e.g. the ritual in cutting the Turkey or ruling the BBQ. Although, it’s important to recognise that current foodie-trends continue to blur these gender and cooking definitions.
6. Main Course
From a semiotic perspective, we can look at cutlery through this primary opposition of cut/enclose. This can, at the very least, shed light on the forms and uses of long neglected and indispensable treasures of our kitchen draws. The model I am going to use is a semiotic square that was developed by Algirdas Julius Greimas, which is a simple way to map out complex underlying structural meanings. The focus here is not so much on the depicted utensil as a sign-vehicle but the relationships and meaning underlying these utensil classes.
Here we can look at how meaning is represented across the binary oppositions of cut/penetrate to enclose/scoop.
It is possible to think of many other variations as alternatives for the meaning-forms above, e.g.:
- A BBQ spatula that has a pronged and bladed side could be an alternative for the Splayde;
- Standard tongs could replace Chopsticks;
- Lobster tongs could replace the Spork.
- Alternatively, modern novelties such as the Chork or the Spife fill these meaning dimensions with arguable success.
There are some innovative modern hybrid interpretations such as those offered designer Candace Kita
Or simplification with this modern-design twist on chopsticks called Rassen
8. Dessert Course
While I’m going to talk more about the cultural differences of food consumption and what this communicates in my next post, at a very general level there are conventions to how we understand the cultural performance of eating different cuisines.
This overly simplistic grid does illustrate that as stereotypes the east/west cuisines do lend themselves to utensils and implements that are either left or right of the semiotic square. This appears to be more specific for eating than for food preparation. Obviously, it’s harder to cut something in a bowl.
Contrary to Oprah’s understanding, eating with our hands is still a big part of both non-western and western eating behaviour. What is interesting here, which I shall pick up in the following post, is recognising a less-delineated understanding of what a kitchen is. There are established food taboos that Levi Strauss and other writers such as Mary Douglas have focused on in creating a strong sense of what is right and wrong in culture and the implications of this meaning. Western attitudes towards hands being involved in eating are inflamed by our almost puritanical war on germs across all parts of our society. It’s a difficult task to reconcile our hands being intermediaries between our food and mouths. Therese Saint-Paul suggests this fear might be one of the factors behind the rise of cutlery:
In Ancient Greece and Rome, guests would lie on couches and eat with their hands. The invention of the fork and the habit of sitting up straight at a table not only indicated a change of perspective towards food in the late Middle Ages but also distance between people. The fork was, at the beginning of the Renaissance, a cultural reflex of distancing from food destined to others (perhaps a reflex of protection against contagion from the plague in the fourteenth century). This also paralleled the growing social movement towards individuation and isolation.
In different cultures, awareness that the role of right and left hands eating are prescribed for different chronological points of the meal, might contribute to this. Even though in reality, just behind a wall of the kitchen, trendy and haute cuisine techniques from the most complex epicurean feasts to the simple salad are often ‘handmade’:
Consider massaged kale salad, the dish that, two years ago, had people rolling up their sleeves and getting intimate with their salad bowls.
Realistically, the notion of a kitchen is a western luxury when you live in a one room house. In this different world, the notion of food preparation also extends to the eater to finish a dish themselves in their hands and interestingly, with considerable more autonomy. The fussy western chef looks down on those that seek to season a meal for themselves.
In finishing off this last course, we can reflect that most of the cutlery we eat is divided by two central roles:
- The cutting or culinary dissection of what is on our plates to easier eating sizes.
- The enclosing of the food with a tool to make it easier to eat.
Interestingly, the opposition is less about knife and fork or fork over knives, and more about fork and spoon when we look at the function they perform.
Both of these tend to correspond to foods that are eaten either dry or wet, which suggests the types of cutlery that is required. Broadly we can surmise that the availability of different types of foods has been instrumental in the development of different cutlery on a cultural level. As Jerry Seinfeld notes, this does not mean that a given culture wasn’t aware of the alternatives; there are other considerations at play here, to be discussed in the next post.
Since I started this post with Seinfeld, I shall finish on the final course with another Seinfeld clip that illustrates how embedded and codified these conventions are in western thinking. (video embed on website)
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It’s really weird to try different eating styles. Chopsticks for rice! So it appears conventional in China to lift your bowl and scoop rice into your mouth. In Singapore we ate at an Indian restaurant and no cutlery was offered – most folk ate with fingers off a banana leaf – we looked for and found the cutlery as much as I would have liked to fit in! Chicken tikka is fine with fingers but sloppy rogan josh is not. But haven’t all eating implements developed with convenience and practical use? Status is very defined in one’s use of fancy cutlery sets – fish knives, steak knives, cake forks etc. ‘Lower classes’ use one set for all food – ‘posh people’ have relays of cutlery types they are educated to use with ease setti9ng them apart. Hygene is certainly a motivation – deli belly in India is common for westerners.
Different cutlery can also make food taste different. The general preference for drinking from glass to plastic illustrates this.
Status can also be in how you eat with cutlery. It’s the old cliche that gentry places food into their mouths, rather than lower their heads to the implement.
Behavior also changes across cultures, belching and passing wind are signs of appreciation in some cultures and future ostracism in others.
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Really awesome read!
Was just reading Barthes Empire of Signs and his essay on Chopsticks when I stumbled upon this blog. Has added a greater allure to the humble chopstick 🙂
It is a great essay, although most of what Barthes writes, reads amazing. I personally think that some meals taste better with chopsticks. As with many things, simplicity can’t be improved on.
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