How is the experience of eating narrated and memorized? When observing ‘eating’ as habitus in the lifeworld, we encounter problems of memory and subjectivity of eating. How the experience of eating remains in her/his memory is one of the fundamental elements that determine how she/he eats in the present. A centenarian remembers what he ate in his childhood vividly in detail.
Since the beginning of FEAST Project, I have been making short films under the sub-project entitled “Narrative of Hundred Years of Food”. From 11th to 18th May, 2018, I had a chance to exhibit the research results of the field work that I conducted last year as a visual installation “Food-scape in Mindscape” at RIHN exhibition hall (You can see the event info from here). What are the findings of the exhibition? Especially what is the linkage between food, narrative, and transition towards sustainable future?
As the title of the exhibition indicates, it featured the narratives on food by a hundred-year-old gentleman and a three-year-old girl. One of the foci was on how vividly the old man describes his experience with food. Shimpuku-san, who celebrated his centenary in September 2016, lives in Ohgimi village in the northern Okinawa Island –Okinawa is one the regions known for longevity. He lives in his own house with his wife, son, and daughter and he still goes to work in his shiikwaasa-lime (Citrus depressa) orchard every morning.
When asked about his memory of food, he immediately answered that he could not forget the taste of sweet potato he’d had in his childhood:
“Our family grew sweet potato in one half of the paddy field. The other half was used for the double cropping of rice. We stored sweet potato in our storage. It was delicious especially when they just started to sprout (because they were a little bit dehydrated and, hence, sweetness was condensed). I still remember the taste now. Every time I eat baked sweet potato, it reminds me of the taste of my childhood! (translated by the author)”
The centenarian describes the taste of sweet potato of his child days well and his daughter adds, laughing, that he is so fond of baked sweet potato that he never misses a chance to buy. This indicates that the memory of food lasts for a long period of time and that the taste might even stay in one’s memory for nearly one hundred years.
If that is the case, the experience of food in her/his childhood might have a crucial importance for her/his identity. In order to compare with the centenarian’s narrative, the exhibition also featured that of a much younger generation. The camera visits three-year-old Tama-chan during lunch time, who lives in the center of Kyoto city with her parents and her younger sister in her mother’s belly. The film shows how this three-year-old-girl concentrates on eating; For about twenty minutes, from the utterance of “itadakimasu (thanks for feast)” before meal to “gochiso sama (thanks for feast)” after meal, she enjoys eating tomato, cucumber, and curry biryani prepared by her mother without getting distracted.
Tama-chan’s attitude towards eating is not something she grew up with, but brought about by training from her mother and grandmother. The interview footage shows how they trained Tama-chan. “In the beginning, she could not concentrate,” said her mother. After the training, however, she learned what she should do and since then she mastered how to eat food without being distracted. This training comes from their family tradition. Tama-chan’s mother tells that she was also trained by her mother, i.e. Tama-chan’s grandmother, in the same way. She says that she serves Tama-chan only her hand-made dishes, not ready-to-eat food, because her mother did the same when she was a child despite her busy work schedule as a nurse. Thus, she thinks she should do the same for her daughter. Transition of eating praxis takes place within the sphere of family ties, which consequently makes it part of family tradition.
At the same time, however, there are things about food that cannot be transferred between family members, or even within an intimate daughter-mother relationship. When asked about her favorite dish that her mother cooks, Tama-chan’s mother says that she likes chikuzen-ni (a braised chicken and vegetable dish) most, and she requests her mother to cook the dish every time she comes back from traveling abroad. As she was so fond of the taste that she wanted to recreate her mother’s taste, she once asked her mother the accurate portion of ingredients. Unfortunately, however, her attempt completely failed. That is because her mother said to simply eyeball the ingredients, and their eyes are not the same! Tama-chan’s mother concludes that it is difficult for her to cook the same taste as her mother. Interestingly, Tama-chan’s grandmother says the same thing. She is fond of the braised ebiimo (eddoe, Colocasia antiquorum var.) cooked by her mother, i.e. Tama-chan’s great grandmother, but she cannot recreate the same taste as her no matter how hard she tries.
Taste is personal. At the same time, however, it is also constructed and molded through human relationship. This represents dual characteristics of food. On the one hand, taste is peculiar to every individual personality and it cannot be manufactured like industrial products. As previously stated, a daughter cannot recreate the exact same taste as her mother. On the other hand, taste can be transferred by way of such ordinary praxes as cooking, serving, or co-eating. According to Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist, habitus can be defined as an embodied disposition influenced by social circumstance. Regarding taste, some can be passed down as the family tradition, others cannot. This dual characteristics of taste reveal that taste is a product of food as habitus.
This duality of food comes from the ontological condition of how humanity lives, exists, and subsists as an existence in this world. Normally, human being is interpreted to be an individual existence which exists as an autonomous agent. In his book Sein und Zeit (Being and Time), Martin Heidegger defines human being as an existence which begins to exist when she/he begins to exist and ends to exist when she/he ends to exist (1). (fig. a). According to his view, a being of human existence is limited by two particular ends–birth and death– and he thinks that human being is thrown into this world from the world of non-existence as an independent, isolated, or separated existence. However, if seen from another point of view, especially the feminist view of reproduction and care, as Christine Battersby, a feminist philosopher, mentions (2), the existence of humanity can be defined as inter-dependent; humanity necessitates intensive care both in the early and late stages of her/his life, and the very beginning of human being during pregnancy cannot be separated from her/his mother’s existence. Along with dependency, the limit of individual existence can be blurred beyond two ends of life (fig. b) and both ends might not be no longer defined as ends. That humanity provides care and requires to be cared means that interdependency is already built in the ontological condition of human existence. Hanna Arendt, a political philosopher, thinks that human condition is determined by how humanity acts in this world. The German version of her book The Human Condition is entitled as Vita activa oder vom tätigen Leben, which means “vital life or active (not passive) life” (3). Humanity is defined through its vital activity and when we observe everyday activity of our species, we confront the double face of human existence; the existence separated from the world as an individual and the existence inter-dependent with other worldly beings. The duality of food habitus, one instantiated as taste which belongs to individual and is non-transferrable and the other instantiated as a transferrable praxis of eating, relates with this fundamental characteristics of the problem of how humanity exists as humanity.
Although ‘interdependency’ might be one of the key elements of transition towards the sustainable food consumption, it is rather invisible because it is woven in the family, i.e. the intimate sphere. How can we catch the subtle voice of the inhabitants of this sphere and link it to the public sphere? This might be one of the questions concerning the food habitus. This exhibition was also an attempt to answer this question.
(1) Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit (Being and Time), Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag,1972, S.374.
(2) Christine Battersby, The Phenomenal Woman: Feminist Metaphysics and the Patterns of Identity, Cambridge: Polity Press; Christine Battersby, Singularity and the Female Self: Encountering the Other, Women: a cultural review, 22-2/3, 2011
(3) Hanna Arendt, The Human Condition, 2nd edition, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998; Hanna Arendt, Vita activa oder Vom tätigen Leben, München: Piper Taschenbuch, 2007.