No Haute Cuisine in Africa

Ernest Gellner

  • Cooking, Cuisine and Class: A Study in Comparative Sociology by Jack Goody
    Cambridge, 253 pp, £19.50, June 1982, ISBN 0 521 24455 2

The brilliant, illuminating and intellectually cohesive tradition known as social anthropology has long been dominated in Britain by the thought and research styles established by Bronislaw Malinowski. Those who were close to him and who attended his seminar at the LSE were the Companions of the Prophet. Many of them are still with us, active and productive: but they are by now, all of them, in academic retirement. Of the cohort which follows them, Jack Goody is one of the leading figures. In Eastern Europe, there is a joke about the current generation of Communist leaders which says that its coming was predicted in the Bible: ‘Then came a generation which knew not Joseph.’ Jack is prominent amongst those who knew not Bronislaw.

This being so, one is bound to look in his latest book for evidence concerning which way anthropology is going. In his previous work, Jack Goody has already done a great deal to give the subject a new direction. In his Technology, Tradition and the State in Africa he showed how an anthropologist’s fine sense of the intimate texture of societies could be combined with systematic comparison and with a sense of historical context and accumulation. At the same time, his sustained invocation of the means of coercion (or, as he himself puts it, destruction) was an invaluable corrective to the Marxist fantasy of a world dominated in the end by the means of production, with coercion as merely secondary. (Marxists talk of the ‘idealist theory of violence’, meaning the allegedly erroneous supposition that political domination – purely self-serving and not the instrument of any preexisting economic class – could ever be the basis of a social system. It is ironic that an ideology which has helped to engender such a system should also deprive itself of any language in which to describe it.)

His work on the reproduction of the domestic unit has related anthropological questions to historical material, and he has been toying with a schema of European history which links it to kinship patterns. Crudely summarised, this runs as follows. First, tribal groups were perpetuated by the regulated allocation of brides. Eventually, the Church breaks up these kin units by extending the range of marriage prohibitions – in the interest of laying its hands on the land which ceases to be guarded by the now eroded kin groups. (Isolated individuals, scared about their own fate in the after-life, and with no ever-perpetuated group to worry about, eagerly bequeath their lands to the Church.) This situation, however, helps to engender an individualist society in which the Church itself eventually loses both power and land. This sequence, it seems to me, constitutes an improvement on the Hegelian formula according to which mankind proceeded from a stage when only one was free, to a second stage when some were free, and a final fulfilment when all were free. In the less starry-eyed Goody version, we go from a first stage when you must screw your cousins, to a second stage when you may not do so, and on to a final free-for-all when you do everybody.

The present volume makes another major contribution to an overall theoretical issue in the discipline. There is a piquancy about this subject-matter of food. An outsider, at any rate if of genteel background, might suppose that there is something a bit gross and vulgar about a keen interest in food. (I remember a colleague telling me how embarrassed he was in front of his grammar-school friends by his working-class father’s passionate and loud interest in food, until he went on to Oxbridge and found that at the top it is once again perfectly in order to be demonstratively concerned with it.) You might well suppose that in the debate between idealists and materialists, the former would concentrate on the role of ideas and the latter on the importance of sustenance. We must eat before we think. Grub first then morals, says Brecht. Man is what he eats, the German pun insists. So you might expect materialists to haunt the kitchen and scullery, and idealists to browse in the library. This would be a great mistake. Ideology is the favourite subject of Marxist writers. In fact, they can’t keep off it. But if you want studies of that most earthy of our conditions of self-perpetuation, you must go to our neo-Idealists. They are at it so much that they lend themselves to, and have provoked, parody. Jack Goody tells us of one such parody which appeared as early as 1968, La Langue verte et la cuite: étude gastrophonique sur la marmythologie musiculinaire by Jorn and Arnaud. I’m glad Jack warned me that this is a parody – otherwise I might have struggled to make some sense of it. It wouldn’t be the first time in modern thought that the parody is indistinguishable from its object.

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