Cooking is a Language

Excerpt from the essay “The Culinary Triangle: What can Claude Lévi-Strauss teach us about food fads today?” by Sara Davis

Lévi-Strauss placed the three phases of food at the points of a triangle to emphasize both the opposition between different stages and the degrees between them. If you look at the diagram from the point of view of raw food, you might see the other two points as the outcomes of two different transformations: Cooked food is the product of cultural processes, such as the application of heat or tools; rotten food is the product of natural processes, time and decomposition. Truly raw food, for Lévi-Strauss, is unmarked by human intervention or decay; even the uncooked foods we eat have been washed, peeled, sliced, and prepared for human consumption. But though a chopped salad and a roast chicken might both appear on the dinner table, they occupy fundamentally different places in our cultural imagination.

Alternatively, if you tip the triangle onto its side to position “cooked” at the top of the pyramid, then the other two points indicate food that falls outside the category of edibility — what we might decide not to eat because it is underprepared or tainted. This visual tool permits a more nuanced framework for cultural comparison than an us/them contrast: We can perceive the French and Italian methods of preparing uncooked vegetables as points along a scale of cultural mediation, different in degree rather than kind; we can explain that the American soldiers had a wider conceptualization of the rotten than the French fromagers.

Of course, mapping foodways with this tool is just the tip of the triangle for Lévi-Strauss. Because the categories of “raw,” “rotten,” and “cooked” are culturally constructed, thinking about food in this way leads us into the realm of metaphors and ideas: The oppositions between points on the culinary triangle frequently point to other clusters of oppositional concepts in a particular society’s beliefs and practices. “Cooking is a language,” writes Lévi-Strauss, “through which society unconsciously reveals its structure.” Cultural values and fears might manifest through actual cooking and eating practices, as when we bake our most elaborate pastries for milestones such as birthdays or weddings, or when we refuse to eat food that has fallen on the floor because it has strayed into the zone of the rotten. At times, the allusions of the culinary triangle are mapped out in language itself, as when the life cycle of food is invoked to describe the life cycle of human beings, who might be said to be “green” or “raw” if they are not yet fully inculcated into the manners of civilization, or “crunchy” if they deliberately refuse certain trappings of society in favor of those closer to nature.