Lecture VIII: The Material Culture of Food

Food is one of the basic commodities which humans need for survival. Its ubiquitous quality has made it the centre of countless rituals and symbology for virtually all cultural groups. The significance of food is evident in language, as well as in artistic endeavours.

Andy Warhol, Campbell Soup canFig. viii01: Andy Warhol, Big Torn Campbell's Soup Can, 1962

There is a ritual associated with food that changes with time and with different cultures. In eighteenth-century upper-class homes, for example, table arrangements focussed on symmetry and grandeur, with food served on platters set at the center of the table; the piece de resistance was an elaborate dessert. The daily menu described by a visitor to Quebec City in 1749 also notes a variety of dishes served in one meal, and suggests that some desserts may have been of the type served in Europe. Nineteenth-century upper-middle-class food rituals continue to show evidence of the formality of the meal, and reflect a preoccupation with categories and specialized systems, in the designation of at least one substantially-large room specifically for dining, as well as in the wide array of eating implements, such as marrow spoons and oyster forks.

Charleston dining room, 18th centuryFig. viii02: Charleston Dining Room, decorated for Christmas. Woodwork from William Burrow's House, circa 1772. Winterthur Museum.

DrummondFig. viii03: Drummond House, Montreal, built 1888, demolished about 1930.

As the twentieth century unfolded there was a progression from the habitually formal, to the more casual ritual meal. Family events or religious festivals such as Christmas are still seen to warrant meals that require abundant time and effort, and yet even these usually have less pomp and circumstance than those of the century before. But everyday eating has generally become relatively fast and simple, thanks in part to food products aimed to speed up and facilitate the preparation and serving of meals. Factors that have influenced this change include a focus on casualness and informality versus an adherence to genteel traditions such as dressing for dinner; the mechanization of cooking and the decline of servants, returning the act of preparing and serving to those who are eating the meal; and the increasing number of women in the work force. The rise of car culture produced the drive-in, and fast food added a new dimension to eating out as well.

HaggisFig. viii04: Haggis, ritual food of Scotland, served on St. Andrew's or Robbie Burn's Days.

ad for Chicken Fix'nsFig. viii05: Ad for Chicken Fix'ns, Montreal Gazette, 6 Nov. 1996.

Baker's Dairy RestaurantFig. viii06: Baker's Dairy Restaurant, Spadina Avenue, Toronto, 1920s.

Special-occasion ritual meals now often take place in restaurants, where in many cases certain formal aspects of eating (correct table settings; multiple courses; and being served by someone) have been sustained. Montreal has special status in this regard, as a recognized centre of gastronomy. In the home, the ritual of special-occasion eating also sometimes extends to the entire process of meal preparation and consumption through the use of extravagant, costly, and aesthetically-pleasing tools, machines and implements.[gazette] This seems to reinforce the idea that an elaborate food preparation--like an elaborate meal--is reserved for unusually worthy circumstances.

page from Montreal guidebookFig. viii07: excerpt from guidebook, Exploring Montreal, Montreal Society of Architecture, 1974.

Appliances by Design, GazetteFig. viii08: "Appliances by Design," Montreal Gazette, 31 October 1996.

The second point presented in class is that the perception of food has itself been transformed, especially since the nineteenth century. Food is increasingly seen as a commodity brought within the scientific paradigm, a composite of chemicals to be manipulated by humans ostensibly for their pleasure and usefulness.

Pre-manipulated food was basic, related to the seasons, and subject to spoilage and adulteration; urban centers especially had to deal with the vicissitudes of satisfying the needs of its citizens for fresh food.

cheap fish stall, 1877Fig. viii09: Cheap fish stall, U.K., 1877.

Refrigeration, canning, and freezing were successful means of changing the environment in which food was kept, thus improving quality and supply. Local shortages or growing restrictions were also accommodated with the advent of the train and later the refrigerated truck and airplane. Canada had long been on the trade routes which brought food products here and sent others abroad; now the process was all the more efficient.

plate freezerFig. viii10: Plate Freezer of the type invented by Clarence Birdseye

Increasingly, technological innovation was directed at the food itself. The perception of food as a composite of chemicals is evident since the end of the 1800s. By the turn of the century, food was understood in terms of its constituent elements--fats, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and minerals-- and eventually categorized in terms of their nutrients. Vitamin capsules were available from the 1930s. Foods themselves were redesigned to boost nutrition (vitamins A and D added to milk, for example), or to reduce fat, cholesterol, or calories. Indoor mass-production of animalsand plants overcame seasonal limitations and reduced costs, and hybridization, gene manipulation, and the use of chemical additives have all been resorted to. These strategies have caused some public outcry, and have led to a movement to advocate organic farming and discourage such interventions in food production.

Canada's Food Rules, circa 1960Fig. viii11: Canada's Food Rules, circa 1960.

ad for NutrisweetFig. viii12: Advertisement for Nutrisweet sugar substitute, Eating Well Magazine, Feb., 1996.

chicken farmFig. viii13: Modern chicken farm, rows of laying cages in the round.

ad for organic ice creamFig. viii14: Advertisement for organic ice cream, Eating Well Magazine, June, 1994.

Rhona Richman Kenneally: BRMO@musicb.mcgill.ca