A Tale of Easter Ovens: Food and Collective Memory
By Sutton, David
AT A TIME WHEN DRINKS AVAILABLE IN GAS STATION COOLERS PROMISE exotic ingredients to boost your memory powers, my own interest in food and memory meets with bemusement from Mends and colleagues.* Both the study of food and of memory are relatively recent subjects in anthropology and social science more generally, and thus their convergence still provokes surprise and curiosity. In the words of one colleague, “Food and memory? Why would anyone want to remember anything they had eaten?” (see Sutton, 2001:1) In this essay I wish to reflect on this question, and in keeping with the theme of this issue, pose the question in terms of “social” or “collective” memory. In what ways does food, ingested into individual bodies, feed social memory? Recently, a number of scholars have suggested that the topic of social memory suffers from a lack of precision hi definition, a lack of common methodology and a lack of theoretical development (Climo and Cattell, 2002; Golden, 2005; Holtzman, 2006). In this essay I hope to make a small contribution to clarity in exploring what we mean by memory, how food is implicated in very different types of memory, and how these different types of memory relate to each other. This will not be a review of the burgeoning literature on this topic, since this has been done recently and thoroughly by Holtzman (2006). Rather, I will draw on ethnographic examples from my fieldwork on the island of Kalymnos, Greece to suggest some of the ways that food and memory can be productively thought together.
Social or collective memory, of course, emerges from the work of Halbwachs, who argues that memory is only able to endure in sustaining social contexts (see Narvaez, 2006: 61). Connerton begins his book How Societies Remember (1989) with the claim “We generally think of memory as an individual faculty.” Connerton, however, sees social memory as having a crucial normative role in creating social orders and identities. As he puts it: “It is an implicit rule that participants in any social order must presuppose a shared memory.” This is because, according to Connerton, divergent pasts would lead to the creation of divergent presents: “our images of the past commonly serve to legitimate a present social order” (1989: 3). One might be tempted to criticize Connerton here for a lingering functionalism, even if cloaked in the language of identity and power. In fact, Connerton, drawing from Marcel Proust’s Remembrance ofHiings Post, gives examples of the divergence of memories between generations of “the same” social group, which may, as he suggests, lead to miscommunication, but hardly to imminent social breakdown. It would seem to be an empirical question how shared any particular social memory is or needs to be.
Most societies seem to tolerate a huge divergence of memories of all kinds: from episodic memories (Watergate, Vietnam), to bodily/ habit memories (ability to play the piano; memories associated with first taste of sushi) to even the memories that make up the social categories that some argue are the very basis of “culture” (some Hawaiians categorized Captain Cook as a god, others a chief, others a plundering rogue). I raise this point not to criticize Connerton, but to suggest that memories can be deeply social in the sense of being shaped by our interactions with the humans, objects, and institutions that make up society, without necessarily needing to be widely shared. IMs is, indeed, what Proust showed us, in describing deeply personal, embodied memories such as eating the Madeleine cookie dipped in tea, or tripping over a paving stone-memories that were significant to Proust because they allowed him to reconstruct the rich tapestry of social life he describes in the course of his novel. What I am suggesting is that Halbwachs is in a sense right in claiming that all memory is social (no memory is, then, asocial). But we could also say that all memory is personal: organized through individuals with their own particular trajectories through the social landscape. The same could be said for “culture,” as anthropologists have been arguing for some time now (for example, Garro, 2006; Rosaldo, 1989; Toren, 1999). This also suggests a revisiting of Pierre Nora’s well-known discussion of milieux de memoire (environments of memory) and lieux de memoire (spaces of memory In some ways the notion that food is a key “site” of memory- to a greater or lesser extent in one society or another-is apposite. Whether, however, Nora’s larger view that traditional societies have milieux de memoire, richly layered environments of memory, while “modern” societies must settle for lieux, particular spaces or sites of memory, is more of a problematic issue. As I will suggest, the lack of milieux de memoire does not necessarily preclude memories of food being deeply social.
Within food studies much recent scholarship-well represented in journals such as Food, Culture and Society and Food and Foodwoys- has shown how food is a key mediator of social relationships, a symbol of identity and a marker of difference, whether defined by gender, class, race, or ethnicity. So how to bring these two strands of work together? Different writers have suggested different schemes for dividing up memory, which often include variations on the following: episodic memory, semantic memory, and bodily/habit memory. I will be considering all these different categories in what follows. In a recent review of works on food and memory, Holtzman has usefully suggested a number of such different types of memory that this literature explores, including nostalgia and the relationship of food to identities, “real” or “invented”; food as the marker of epochal transformations-for example, from “tradition” or “the good old days” to “modernity”; food and sensuous/sensory memory; and food’s use in ritual contexts to stimulate memory (and forgetting, hi the case of some mortuary rituals). In what follows I will be looking at all of these, and adding another category, what I call “prospective memory” or the active planning in the present for future memories.
But how do these categories help us analytically, besides alerting us to possible phenomena to pay attention to in our research? As noted above, I will not be arguing that there is an overall distinction to be made between social and individual memory. Rather, and once again picking up on a suggestion by Holtzman, we might think of the power of food for memory in the fact that our relationship with food “intrinsically traverses the public and the intimate” (2006: 373). As he puts it, the ingestion of food “always has a deeply private component” at the same time that it is publicly transacted through sharing, ritual, or even shopping, musing that “One might consider … the significance of this rather unique movement between the most intimate and the most public in fostering food’s symbolic power, in general, and in relation to memory, in particular” (373). I will argue that what makes food such a powerful site for exploring memory is the very fact that, unlike, say, public monuments, in producing, exchanging and consuming food we are continuously criss-crossing between the “public” and the “intimate,” individual bodies and collective institutions.
This is immediately apparent if we look at some of the different aspects of food memory outlined above, hi my own work on food and memory, for example, I argued that food plays a key role in such social processes as gift exchange and ritual, processes that focus on creating continuity with the past and thus on building memories. On the island of Kalymnos, a special food called kofltvo is given to friends and neighbors, often literally fed to them, at memorial services for dead relatives, with the accompanying words “in his/ her memory.” Kollivo is even offered to strangers by people at the ceremony, who will take some and walk through the neighborhood, feeding anyone who passes by. Accepting this gift, one is to remember the dead more charitably, while at the same time the gift keeps open, strengthens, or repairs relationships among the living (see Sutton, 2001:31 ff.). This is clearly a process concerning memories of individuals at the same time that it shapes communities.
Taste itself, like the body that does the tasting, is both individuated and deeply socially shaped. Bourdieu (1984) has trenchantly illustrated this in his analysis of class eating practices, and as is underlined in recent television commercials for Burger King offering their hamburgers as a rallying point for beleaguered male identities. Yet such class or gender identities are still actuated in individuals whose taste may diverge even while their “identities” converge, especially in contexts where children are enculturated to develop “individual” tastes and preferences (see Ochs, Pontecorvo, and Fasulo, 1996). My point with these all too brief examples is simply to stress that “social memory” is not an identifiable object, separate from some other type of memory, but rather that there are social and individual aspects to all memories, a point that will have implications for my analysis below.
The Greek island of Kalymnos in the eastern Aegean, a few miles off the coast of Turkey, is known as the island of sponge fishermen. In the heyday of the sponge industry, around the turn of the twentieth century, Kalymnos counted around 30,000 permanent residents. Now, with sponge fishing in deep decline, Kalymnos hovers around 12,000 people. However, unlike other islands whose economies rely solely on tourism, Kalymnos does not lose the majority of its population during the winter months. Kalymnians continue to thrive on a combination of fishing, the remnants of the sponge industry, migrant remittances, state and European Union projects, and tourism. One of the many “customs” that Kalymnians see as setting them apart from other Greeks is that of cooking Easter lambs in closed containers that are placed hi ovens instead of roasting them on spits. There are two elements here, starting with the containers themselves. In the past they were all made of clay, but increasingly people have substituted large olive oil cans or special scalable stainless steel pans for the clay containers. second, the ovens that are used: when I did fieldwork in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the majority of people took their pots to bakery shops to be cooked in the baker’s oven (a common practice for a number of dishes, particularly during the Lenten period). A small minority had their own brick ovens in their backyards which they used for preparing the lamb. I was told that in “the old days” it was only the rich or shepherds who lived on the mountainside who had their own outdoor ovens. When I returned to do fieldwork in 2006, I found that an increasing number of Kalymnians were building their own outdoor ovens-they were considered a “must” for new house constructions, and were even being added in the backyards of many older houses. As I explored this shift with many Kalymnians, I found that it involved complex negotiations of taste, nostalgia for “the old years,” ritual performances, and the exchange relations they entailed with neighbors and relatives, as well as “prospective” imaginings about what might be memorable in the future. These ovens partake, then, of all the categories of food memory mentioned above, and thus represent the ideal locus for the exploration of how these different memories are tied together and feed off each other.
In my earlier work I suggested the importance of what I called “prospective memory”-that is, people actively planning to remember meals and how tasty they would be. I suggested that in the case of Easter this was tied to the cycle of fasting and feasting, in which a lot of talk during fasting days centered on people’s longing for the Easter lamb, how good it was going to taste, even the diarrhea that would be caused by its over-consumption. This discourse is stimulated by the presence of the baby lambs themselves, which typically live in a family’s yard for a week or more, are constantly bleating, and are an object of play, and sometimes pity for younger family members before their slaughter on Easter Saturday (see Sutton, 1997). Nor are the lambs themselves bought from a butcher, but from known friends, people with whom one has established a relationship of trust to provide well-cared-for animals.
What was striking about prospective memory is that it seamlessly connected past, present, and future as people complained of their hunger in the present while reminiscing about previous Easters and looking forward to the upcoming celebration (see Sutton, 2001: 29- 31). Here, as I will detail below, I found the impetus for building ovens was in many cases just such prospective memory, or active planning to make Easter celebrations memorable in the future.
This view of the importance of ovens would not make sense if not for the elaborate food-related discourse m which Kalymnians discuss and debate the different sensory and aesthetic qualities of food and how to produce them (see Sutton, 2001, chap. 4; cf. Adapon, 2008). This was certainly the case when it came to techniques of lamb preparation and their effect on the finished product. I found these discussions among young and old, male and female on Kalymnos, and not only provoked by my questions. People debated not only the differences in lambs cooked in bakers’ ovens and outdoor ovens and the effects of using a clay pot or metal container; they also commented on the use of different kinds of wood in the outdoor ovens, and on which tree branches to put in the pot with the cooking lamb. These differences were all said to have an effect on the outcome in terms of the color, smell, and taste of the meat, all of which were felt to be important in order to enjoy the Easter feast. A discussion among several male office workers, all in their 30s and 40s, was typical:
Yiorgos (responding to my question about what dishes on Kalymnos were considered “traditional”): Actually, we are losing our food traditions. No one uses the clay pots to cook lamb in for Easter anymore and this makes all the difference.
David: What about people building ovens to cook their Easter lamb?
Yiorgos: Yes, but using aluminum cans, you may as well cook it in a normal oven. Because you don’t put branches at the bottom and a little water to steam the lamb with the scent of the grape vines. [Note: Some suggested that these grape vines, which were moistened and twisted in a circle then placed under the lamb, helped keep the lamb from sticking to the clay pot].
At this point a coworker, Mihalis, interrupts, saying that they use an aluminum can, and they still put branches and water in it.
Yiorgos: Really? In aluminum? But the water will evaporate so rapidly, it won’t make a difference.
Yiorgos and Mihalis continue discussing the virtues of clay versus aluminum, Yiorgos noting the importance of the fact that the new aluminum baking dishes designed for this purpose have lids, whereas with the clay pots (and even with makeshift aluminum cans) you created a seal between the lid and the pot with a flour dough. This dough helped to circulate the heat in the oven to evenly cook the lamb. Another issue was what kind of wood to use to heat the oven, with many Kalymnians suggesting olive and almond branches as best, though some also had additional mountain scrub branches of various kinds that were added for extra “scent.” This detailed discourse among men did not simply reflect the fact that the lamb was “outdoor cooking” (indeed, it is still prepared by women). Nor did it reflect that Yiorgos, as a bachelor, did his own cooking. Rather, I found that men were equally interested in, and able to discuss, the aesthetic and technical aspects of food and cooking, even when they did very little cooking themselves (see Sutton, 2001: 26). Instead, it ensured that Kalymnians continue to care deeply about their food, and through this very bringing to mind of past meals by way of talk of technique, to ensure that food is memorable on Kalymnos.
Easter is interesting in that men don’t simply talk, but actively participate in the preparation through the heating of the oven. The wood is allowed to burn for 3 to 4 hours to get the oven hot, then the coals are removed. As quickly as possible, the men load the lambs (that their mothers and wives have prepared) into the oven, and seal it up with makeshift bricks and red clay for mortar. This is done quickly so none of the heat is lost. This activity is often the opportunity for the display of male skill in the speed with which the wall is built to seal the oven, another factor seen to influence the outcome-that is, the eventual taste of the cooked lamb. A number of men may stand around watching the owner of the oven, giving suggestions on where smoke is still escaping, or how many bricks are still needed.
Another aspect of food memories is the way that the objects associated with cooking become a kind of “inalienable possession” that is removed from circulation because it represents family or community identity (Weiner, 1992). While it was not quite true that no one on Kalymnos in 2006 still used clay pots, I found that they were a rarity. This surprised me at first, given the stress people put on matters of taste. I discovered that many people still had these pots, but kept them as family heirlooms rather than using them for the Easter celebration. This seemed odd to me at first, but a number of people explained that they were too valuable to expose to the hazards of an oven (particularly to send to the baker’s oven, where they might be broken accidently). As one woman in her forties, a shop owner, explained to me:
Irini: I have the clay pot, but I’m trying to preserve it because it’s very old, valuable, so I don’t use it. I have a new aluminum casserole dish that I use instead. I don’t want to break it because it’s old, ancient!
David: From your mom?
Irini: Keep going…
David: Your Grandma?
Irini: Keep going… three generations, four, or even more.
David: Did you grow up in this neighborhood, in this house?
Irini: Yes, I grew up here, as did my mother, and my children-a chain (olisidho).
Increasingly, the cooking pots for lambs were joining the ranks of other heirloom objects, removed from circulation and meant to stand for a past, both a past of family memory, and of island-wide collective memory of what these pots represented. They are “objects that are valuable because they have been removed from the stream of commodities and have acquired an almost totemic personal and family history so that they could not be sold, but only passed down from one generation to the next” (Sutton and Hernandez, 2007: 75). I would add hi this case community memory to personal and family memory, because the pots are associated specifically with a Kalymnian way of preparing Easter lamb, distinctive from the rest of Greece. Thus they were featured in a recent Greek cooking show (hosted by Elias Mamalakis) highlighting Kalymnian foods and preparation methods.
A seemingly more practical concern was expressed when I asked Skevos, a Kalymnian civil servant, why he and his wife didn’t simply buy new clay pots so that they wouldn’t have to risk the heirloom pots. He explained that while it is possible to get new clay pots, they are of low quality, and are not likely to last more than a couple of years. Here a different fear of breakage comes into play: not the breakage that will mean the loss of a valued heirloom, but will mean that one has to buy a new one, an expense that many Kalymnians seemed to feel was not worth the money. Whether or not these new pots were more friable than the heirloom pots, here Mihalis employed a discourse where the past is seen as superior to the present in its more lasting, less disposable material objects. We will see other refractions of this discourse below. Many people, then, were willing to go to the expense of outdoor ovens, while presumably losing out on the taste of clay pots. In the following section I track the relationship of ovens to sensory memories of taste, nostalgia for past periods of island life represented by food, and “prospective memories” or the active planning in the present for future memories. In discussing the building of ovens with Kalymnians, I found that they were in some ways ideal objects for memory work, not only evocative of the past, but the site for struggles over social and family relations in the present. “WE WILL HAVE A DRIVE-BY SHOOTING, CHICAGO STYLE”: OVENS AND FAMILY SOCIAL RELATIONS
In this section I explore how the past and present are woven together in one woman’s story of building an oven. In it we see how different kinds of memories-social, sensory, memories of “the good old days”are seamlessly woven together. These are memories thick with the feel of embeddedness in a community that shares many of the reference points of the teller. Eleni is a woman in her mid- forties, married with 3 children ranging from 14 to 26. She lives adjacent to her mother and father in the typical Kalymnian matrilocal pattern. The two households are hi some ways indistinguishable: they share a courtyard, and there is constant movement back and forth between them by the various family members. It is in the shared courtyard that they have recently built an outdoor oven. Eleni begins by explaining what they used to do before they built their own oven.
Eleni: At first we used to go to my brother’s. We were happy to be all together like that, family and Mends together; we had a steady yearly count of who would come, and we went as if it were a holiday; some would bring cookies, the owner (her brother) would provide the oven, some would bring beer. But we gradually lost patience with each other and animosities developed among people; children would mess up the garden, some relatives would complain, the housewife always had to have the place clean and tidy, always be prepared to serve coffee … so it was a tiresome thing to own an oven in your own home. And then they decided to get us to leave-not out of meanness or anything but they told us that since they had decided not to make lamb anymore, that we would have to go the next year. I didn’t care. But is it not easy to go to a bakery and use their oven, because although you have to pay euro50 the end result is that it does not smell like Easter, like the natural smell of burning wood the food should smell like.
Here Eleni describes what they used to do in the “old years” (cf. Sutton, 1998), a practice repeated over many Easters, a memory in the imperfect tense. Because the parents had built the brother a house on the outskirts of town, they had enough land to include an outdoor oven in the backyard (prior to the recent rage for such ovens). Note that Eleni’s memory doesn’t actually extend back to the period of 20 years earlier, when they had to use one of the public bakeries for their Easter lamb, but to a relatively recent past since the building of the brother’s house. Like all memories, memories of food are prone to this kind of telescoping in which the idealized aspects of the past are what are best recalled. Indeed, the brother in the story had married a tourist woman from Scandinavia, and the relations this couple has with the rest of the family have often been rocky.
It is interesting that Eleni claims that everything was initially harmonious. In doing so, she draws on a discourse about the past as a time of easy sociality and generosity, of closer-knit social relations that have been lost in the present, what I have referred to elsewhere as “memories of gemeinschaft” (Sutton, 2001: 53 ff.). Eleni then shifts to a different memory register, the sensory memories of taste, to talk about why she couldn’t imagine going back to using the bakers’ ovens, exaggerating the cost, but stressing the fact that in order to celebrate Easter, you must taste the tastes that have become Easter’s familiar, recognizable signature. These kinds of embodied taste memories are, as I suggest with the discussion between Yiorgos and Mihalis above, instantly recognizable on Kalymnos, drawing as they do on community discourses that stress the intimate details of the tastes of different foods, different methods of preparing dishes, and different qualities of ingredients.
Eleni continues to describe their decision to build an outdoor oven, elaborating on the importance of her memories of taste:
And that is why I told my husband to build an oven for us. He did not want to because he knew what was going to happen if he did build it: that is, that the owners would end up being like invited strangers. I insisted, though. Mostly because of the taste. My kids tomorrow they will get married and there’s enough money to go around but there won’t be any taste if we did not have an oven. And the custom is only once a year and you have to live it in a nice beautiful way, you have to taste it, it is not part of your everyday routine. It is not like you do in any other occasion when you go to some other place and do it there; hi everyday life in the old days we would find a bakery and we baked our foods there when we did not have a regular oven at home, and it would taste good; but there is something special about lamb that requires it to be cooked hi a wood burning oven in order to be tasty.
This complicated passage shows the fluidity of individual and collective memory. Eleni begins with a memory of the decision to build the oven, which she claims was made based on her insistence, motivated by her own taste memories. This leads her to recount a “prospective memory” in which she projects her family into the future, imagining it with and without the oven and the proper taste of Easter lamb. She follows with a generalizing statement about the importance of ritual observance: “the custom is only once a year . . . you have to taste it,” once again neatly tying together the social and the sensory. Finally, in switching between the second person and the third person plural, she also makes a statement that distributes the memory of different ovens among herself, her family, and the wider Kalymnian community. Note also that the building of the oven itself was not based on any do-it-yourself booklet or suggestions from a local home store. Rather, Eleni’s husband Nicholas drew on his own embodied skill, as well as the direction of his mother-in- law, Eleni’s mother, who told me that she explained to him how it should be built, its dimensions, etc., based on her recollection of her own mother-in-law’s (now defunct) oven.
These memories are embedded in a number of ways that traverse the individual and the collective. They are embedded in the stories of individuals and families, at the same time that they are about both individual and shared discourses about taste and smell; they tell the stories of families from the point of view of particular family members-Eleni feels that the taste of Easter lamb is more important, while her husband worries about the social consequences of building the oven-at the same time that they draw on collectively shared discourses about what things were like in “the old years” in order to anchor and make sense of one’s particular experience. Let us follow Eleni’s story a little further in order to examine how these memories of ovens are intimately related to social action in the present, serving as a commentary and planning out of one’s relationship to a larger community of extended family, friends, and neighbors.
Eleni: When we built the oven at that time the kids were young and they did not have any mothers in law [referring to her sons who were not married, and thus still ate at home). So we told a Mend to join in because he was to go away next year. He did come, and he told us that he never wanted to leave. We invited another friend, Pantelis [the son of a neighbor that they have been close to for a long time], and he said the same thing too. And then, there is this cousin of ours who is crazy and wild and asked if he could come in. And we told him he could come in until the kids grew up and got married, and then he would have to leave. And we said the same to everyone. But no one would leave and they would all argue with us. And now as a result I have to always be ready to treat people with coffee and octopus and other things [this year they made sausages], not so much because I have to, but also because I want to because it is the custom to do so. While in the old days, in the old ovens we fasted, baked, and joked and though mad at each other, that is how we spent the time. Now people will get drunk, they expect alcohol and whiskey and beer and we do provide them with that and we don’t even get any respect from them, even though we honor all our customary obligations … but rather they become annoying with their demands to bring in other people-we don’t have the space for other people…. In a couple of years we, the owners we’ll end up having no space for our own pot. So this year was an upsetting one for us but I hope next year won’t be the same; ’cause I will let them know the rules in advance, or else we will have a Chicago-style driveby shooting! I have elided some of the details here to give a feel for the complex social negotiations that go into deciding who gets to use space in the oven which can fit 8 to 10 pots. Eleni, in fact, spends much longer recounting the ins and cuts of these negotiations, which are tied not only to decisions about one particular year, but once again, thoughts of future reconfigurations and claims that people will make on their oven. In deciding who there is room for, a balancing of different kinds of social relations comes into play. There are a series of relatives related through men (since women tend to be all included in the immediate family on this matrifocal island). In this case that included Eleni’s husband’s brother and her father’s maternal nephew. There are close neighbors, and there are friends, including those in godparent-relationships. All these different demands must be weighed and evaluated, which may put strains on the immediate family, with different family members pressing for the inclusion of their connections.
In this recounting we can see Eleni’s relation to the wider community of Kalymnos spread out against a landscape of past and future Easter preparations. Once again, these individual experiences are sorted and recalled based on a more familiar island-wide discourse (or schema, to use Bartlett’s (1932) terminology) of generosity and betrayal, at the same time that the current Easter is remembered and contrasted in relation to past Easters which were seen as more innocent-even if there was fighting there was no alcohol and no expectations of providing a big party for those coming to share the oven. This once again suggests the easy sociability that is believed to characterize former times on the island, in which all kinds of social relations, including stealing from neighbors, are imagined to have been simpler and more pure than the stress and atomization of social relations in “modern times” (cf. Sutton, 1998; 2001:53-57).
Two interesting features of Eleni’s recollections should be noted. First there is a temporal blurring here; more than simply a prospective memory, she is looking back to her intentions when building the oven. Thus she says “When we built the oven at that time the kids were young and they did not have any mothers-in-law,” which would indicate to an uninformed listener that they are in fact now married (at the time of the interview they are not even engaged). Thus, past, present, and future temporalities are projected onto the locus of the oven. A second blurring is that between people and the pots that they bring to put in the oven. At various points she refers to the people entering or leaving the oven, rather than to their pots. She also refers to the “landlord” of the oven, as if the oven itself is a home that is being invaded by outsiders. All of this metonymical switching is suggestive, giving the oven a kind of personhood, or agency, what some might call fetishism, but which I would argue is the simple recognition that the oven is a key site for reconnecting with the past and projecting into the future. In other words, the oven stands for both good tastes and good social relations, which may have been always better hi the past, but which Kalymnians might be able to reclaim through proper action in the present and future.
JUNK FOOD MEMORIES: THE PUBLIC AND THE PRIVATE
I have used this long ethnographic example to suggest the multiplicity of types of memory evoked by Easter ovens and the preparation of lamb. The spate of oven rebuilding, like other heritage food activity (Kockel, 2007; Trubek, 2008), can be seen perhaps as an invention of tradition, recapturing an imagined lost past at the same time that present day lambs can never quite match the flavor of the past since it was the clay pots, rather than the ovens themselves, which were common practice for the community in former times. At the same time, unlike some commodified heritage foods, “the result of a conscious state policy aimed at both the protection and the promotion of a rural cultural heritage” (Demossier, 2000:146), the oven-prepared lambs remain very much embedded in ongoing social life and the negotiation of relations within families and between families and the wider community. They seem, in this regard, to agree with Pierre Nora’s characterization of milieux de memoire that have not (or not yet) been replaced by lieux de memoire, which Nora sees as part and parcel of the processes of modernity.
But while this distinction may be useful to in contrasting a relatively face-to-face community like Kalymnos with a more anonymous society, it does not preclude the fact that food still serves as an excellent source of all of these different sorts of memory, even if we see food as a “site” rather than an environment of memory. For example, perhaps we can say that unlike Kalymnos, the United States does not have a shared “cuisine,” as Mintz argues, which would imply a shared community eating similar food “with sufficient frequency to consider themselves experts on it. They all believe, and care that they believe, that they know what it consists of, how it is made, and how it should taste” (1996: 96).1 Nevertheless, I would argue that food, even at its most commodified and disembedded from the layerings of knowledge that we see with Kalymnian Easter ovens, would still have the propensity to provoke a kind of social memory (very much in keeping with Halbwachs’ observations).2
Take, for example, an essay by novelist Jill McCorkle, with the inauspicious title “Her Chee-to Heart.” She recalls incidents from her childhood such as the following:
I was enamored of a boy named Michael in the first grade who licked Kool-Aid powder from his palm whenever the teacher wasn’t looking. He moved away before the end of the year, and yet thirty- one years later, I still remember him with a fond mixture of repulsion at the sticky red saliva that graced his notebook paper and admiration for the open ease with which he indulged his habit. I loved Pixy Stix straws, which, let’s face it, were nothing more than dry Kool-Aid mix poured right into your mouth. Sweetarts. Jawbreakers. Firecrackers. Mary Janes. An item that I was told was very bad for my teeth (McCorkle, 1998:149).
Here, instead of the Easter lamb, the production and exchange of each part of which is a familiar part of community life, we have memories of the consumption of industrial chemicals with tastes and colors that no food has had before. And yet, these chemicals still evoke memories of taste that are embedded in a social situation: one of young love (or admiration), but more important, of the secret resistance to authority and the momentary sense of freedom it provided through bodily ingestion of forbidden substances. Substances that cause strong bodily desires, but which are restricted or forbidden by memories and emotions that, then, also pass over the boundary between the most private of acts and public, collective identities (in the sense of children staking out their identities in relation to parents and teachers). McCorkle captures this sense of a larger childhood identity toward the end of her essay, summarizing many of these memories, which move from one to the next in a chain of associations (as with Kool-Aid to Pixy Stix in the above quote). McCorkle concludes:
I bite into my Hostess Snowball and retreat to a world where the only worry is what to ask your mother to put in your lunch box the next day or which pieces of candy you will select at the Kwik-Pik on your way home from school. Ahead of you are the wasteland years: a pack of cigarettes, some Clearasil pads, a tube of Blistex, and breath spray. But for now, reach back to those purer, those sugar- filled, melt-in-your-mouth, forever-a-kid years (154-55).
Here it is not resistance to authority but rather the sense of childhood freedom from concern with weight, hygiene, and sexuality that is evoked through the memory of taste pleasures: a pre- adolescent identity that is called upon to ground these individual tastes in the social. Like the Easter ovens, these candy memories are deeply social without necessarily being shared, the emotions are recognizable but the specifics may be highly variable, since, as with the ovens, they are part of ongoing social life.
THE POWER OF FOOD
My point is not to argue there are no differences between my two examples of memories tied to food. Indeed, it might not be inaccurate to say that the Easter ovens are embedded in milieux de memoire, while American junk food (and fast food eateries perhaps as well) are lieux de memoire, some of the few common topoi of relatively general, shared food memories, but lacking the multiple, overlapping referents of my Kalymnian example. Either way, I want to suggest that both these can be analyzed to recognize individual and collective aspects. The power of these memories is that they unite very different levels of experience, whether we think of them as mind and body or sensory and social, or something else; they move seamlessly between taste and social relationships, and this wholeness allows them to stand for and powerfully evoke entire periods of time-”the good old days,”"childhood years”-and thus capture individual biographies and collective identities. To return to Holtzman’s point, it is the fact that food “intrinsically traverses the public and the ultimate” even in relatively disembedded context, that makes it such a powerful vehicle for studying memory. In other words, I am suggesting that it is at some level intrinsic to our experience with food that this should be so.
* For their thoughtful readings and comments, I thank Bill Hirst, Arien Mack, Amy Ttubek, and Peter Wogan. Special thanks go to Leonidas Vournelis, for the long discussions of these issues, and for translating the longer text.
1. By this definition, we would have to consider that there are enclaves of “cuisine” within the wider U.S. society, such as New Orleans. See Beriss (2007). 2. In my earlier ethnography I tracked food memories tied to such commodities as feta cheese, which is “embedded” in Kalymnian life only as a commodity bought at the store. But given its iconic status as a “Greek” cheese, as well as recent controversies over “foreign” feta, it is equally provocative of collective memories for most Kalymnians as is locally produced cheese. See Sutton (2001:80-85) for a full discussion.
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_____. Memories Cast in Stone: The Relevance of the Past in Everyday Life. Oxford: Berg, 1998.
_____. Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory. Oxford: Berg, 2001.
Sutton, David, and Michael Hernandez. “Voices in the Kitchen: Cooking Tools as Inalienable Possessions.” Oral History 35:2 (August 2007): 67-76.
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DAVID SUTTON, Assodate Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology at Southern Illinois University, is interested in questions of memory, food, gender, skill, and practical knowledge. His publications include Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory (2001) and Memories Cast in Stone: The Relevance of the Past in Everyday Life (1998). He is also coeditor of The Restaurants Book: Ethnographies of Where We Eat (2007).
Copyright New School for Social Research, Graduate Faculty Spring 2008
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