Edomae: Food and the City in Tokugawa Japan

Date
2014-09-26
Authors
Martin, Adrian
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University of Hawaii at Manoa
Abstract
The eighteenth century French gourmand, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), wrote nearly two centuries ago in his groundbreaking gastronomical treatise, The Physiology of Taste: "Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are" (Brillat-Savarin, p. 1). This aphorism can be said to be the foundation of not merely the science of gastronomy (of which Brillat-Savarin is said to be its founder) but also of food studies in general. Today it is often said "You are what you eat," which is a reductionist reinterpretation of the famous aphorism. This modern proverb reduces food to a matter of calories, vitamins, and other nutrients. However, what Brillat-Savarin really meant was, "Tell me what kind of food you eat, and I will tell you what kind of person you are." Food does not merely have a nutritional or even hedonic dimension, but has its personal and social aspects as well. Anyone receiving communion at a Christian church, or gathering with family to celebrate birthdays, Thanksgivings, the Passover, and other special days, or even enjoying the popcorn at a movie theater can see the importance of the food they ate and the social context of their eating to them and others. Thus, in order to have a thorough understanding of a given society, a historian could also be familiar with that society's daily life, including its eating habits. Moreover, as the semiotician Roland Barthes wrote, "No doubt, food is, anthropologically speaking (though very much in the abstract), the first need; but ever since man has ceased living off wild berries, this need has been highly structured" (Barthes, pp. 21-22). If the desire for food has a definite and changeable structure, this structure can be studied by social and cultural historians; indeed, the fact that the "first need" has structure makes an understanding of food studies de rigueur for social and cultural historians.
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