Elevate Difference

The Taste for Civilization: Food, Politics, and Civil Society

At a time when Western society is becoming more and more dependent on cheap and rapid sustenance of often dubious nutritional value, Janet Flammang’s study is an important reminder of both the way it was and the way it perhaps should be. In The Taste for Civilization, Flammang sets out to present what she calls “table activities” as central to respect, citizenship, and a greater good. Inevitably (because of both the topic and her expertise in Women’s Studies), the author’s analysis explicitly and logically makes gender a key factor in this construction. This researcher’s previous book was an analysis of the importance of studying women’s movements at all levels in political science, entitled Women’s Political Voice: How Women are Transforming the Practice and Study of Politics. As politics evolve, the “politics of food” could be said to be what is being examined in this new work.

This attractive volume (the cover photo is especially lovely) is divided into five parts and thirteen chapters, including extensive notes, a bibliography, and a handy index. An historical analysis of meals and food preparation in (principally) the Western world is included, and Flammang shows demonstrates her extensive knowledge of a wide array of topics from ancient Greek philosophy, to the Enlightenment thinkers, anthropology, sociology, and modern psychological studies. Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, and Freud are all called upon in the text, whether it is to define society or to explain women’s role in the feeding process.

Flammang begins with the premise that “table activities” (in other words, “everyday food practices” or “mealtime rituals of food preparation, serving, and dining”) are central to socialization, and therefore tackles the conundrum of women’s shifting position in this activity (from traditional gender roles, for example) and the possible consequences on Western civilization (the end of communication, discussion, and consensus?). Naturally, the author does not pass judgment on women for their lack of investment in the rituals (enough do!), but rather examines this important social change as it presents itself and proposes possible solutions to this important shift in practice. Interestingly and importantly, the author also analyzes shifting “food practices” along racial and class lines in several chapters.

Flammang also draws the topic away from the domestic sphere and discusses food-related issues that are regional, national, and international. Her discussions of the effect on North American society of certain food stuffs, like the use of bleached white flour or processes such as canning, are intriguing. Along with testimonials from the general population, she includes cultural references to changes brought about by immigration, including the semantic importance of food for certain groups (e.g., “breaking bread”). In chapter ten, entitled “Delicious Revolution,” she examines Alice Water, California chef and cookbook author, who has also extended her revolutionary food philosophy to schools where she is a vocal advocate for healthy meals in schools for all children.

Surprisingly, Julia Child, is not mentioned explicitly by Flammang, despite having been again prominent in the media since the 2009 movie retracing certain aspects of her life. At times, the subtitles of the chapters are sometimes puzzling and the author cannot avoid a certain amount of repetition (French philosopher Brillat-Savarin seems to be a favourite). Despite these remarks, this thorough analysis is exceptionally well written, and of interest to anyone who has even a remote curiosity as to the link between food and civilization in Western society.

Written by: Sophie M. Lavoie, April 11th 2010