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Textural Micro- and Macrocosms: Towards a Material Understanding of Food

Zenia Malmer makes the case for the textural study of food.

Published onDec 11, 2018
Textural Micro- and Macrocosms: Towards a Material Understanding of Food

Paul Stoller and Cheryl Olkes, “Thick Sauce: Remarks on the Social Relations of the Songhay,” in The Taste Culture Reader: Experiencing Food and Drink, ed. Carolyn Korsmeyer (Oxford: Berg, 2005): 131–42.

In “Thick Sauce,” anthropologist Paul Stoller and media scholar Cheryl Olkes decode how the textures of sauces prepared by the Songhay people of Niger are used to communicate familial proximity (or social distance) between family members and outsiders. By focusing on texture, the authors open up a textural microcosm of food that is unique to the Songhay people and demonstrate how it operates within a macrocosm of food, family, and culture. Besides its original contribution to sociocultural anthropology, I argue that this text functions as an introduction to texture-based (or textural) analysis that can be applied to the field of food studies, including the burgeoning discipline of food futurism.[1]

Texture forms a crucial part of eating and is often mentioned in the many publications about food that already exist. However, it has never been studied in depth. For Stoller and Olkes, the significance of texture to the Songhay became apparent when they found themselves at the center of a family dispute that took place during one of their research trips to Niger in the 1980s. The quarrel revolved around Djebo, a young woman who served a “thin” sauce, generally made with few ingredients and eaten on a daily basis, during an occasion that demanded a “thick” sauce, made with meat, poultry, and rare spices, to honor the authors in accordance with Songhay custom (133).

Through bad sauce, the authors formulated a methodology that brought taste to the forefront and allowed them to conclude that the texture of the sauces, along with a range of culinary preparations and contexts of production, carried “gustatory messages” (134). Serving the thin sauce was a non-verbal means for Djebo to communicate her discontent about her position within her husband’s family. In addition, it revealed a sensory aspect of everyday life in Niger—as well as its culinary landscape—that no prior scholar examining the life of the Songhay people had accomplished thus far.

Taking the lens of texture further could allow food scholars to more broadly encompass the network of things that contribute to creating specific kinds of texture. Another case study takes us from Djebo’s household in Niger to the kitchens of Victorian England. It highlights how creating desirable textures in food has been designed into historical cooking utensils so that inexperienced cooks could replicate them at home in a labor-saving manner. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, machines were invented to facilitate the making of smooth, creamy, and delicate cream and water ices, a popular dish at the time. Achieving the right texture was considered a culinary challenge, and inventors of mechanical ice cream makers took advantage of inexperienced cooks’ anxiety to peddle their latest devices. In reference to the advantages of mechanical cookery, one such inventor wrote: “Machinery, as applied in all aspects of the arts [including the culinary arts], supplies a more uniform and better product.”[2] Gastronomical snobs argued that mechanical cooking was sacrilegious, yet in a society where a host’s social aspirations could be expressed through food, the desire to achieve coveted textures went above any grumblings uttered about the over-mechanization of the kitchen.[3]

Mouthfeel most certainly bears on the development of food likes and dislikes, even though it appears to be only a minor consideration in relevant debates. Foods with a slimy or mushy consistency often garner mixed reviews from adults and children alike, and therefore, deserve special attention. When I ate at a Finnish pop-up bistro in New York, a fellow diner declared that, after a single bite, the Finnish rice pudding we were served was inedible due to its texture.[4] Disliking rice pudding might not be endemic to the United States, but the sense of disgust generated by it raises an interesting point. In First Bite (2015), historian Bee Wilson writes that “adults as well as children have now become habituated to eating […] ‘kid food’ over a whole lifetime: sweet, salty, heavily processed, and undemanding to chew and swallow.”[5] Rice pudding, in particular, has long divided taste buds due to its peculiar consistency, which schoolchildren at the turn of the twentieth century described as “neither liquid nor solid” in a demonstration of gustatory revolt. However, the negative reactions it provoked also underpin contemporary research that illustrates how the textural preferences observed across the world seem to be reverting back to those of children. Yet, if global food cultures move towards a post-texture era, overcoming one’s initial disgust at unfamiliar textures would presumably no longer be necessary.[6]

The absence of texture presents an equally challenging scenario, however. In the 1890s, the meal pill, hailed as an innovation by sci-fi writers, agriculturalists, and chemists, was considered ideal for office clerks because they could “eat” their lunch (pills) at their desks without having to interrupt their workflow.[7] One of the core ideas behind it was the belief that human biology could be streamlined with the help of Taylorism and scientific management.[8] Today, some scholars suggest that the meal pill never became a reality because it lacked the “oral-somatosensory textural characteristics” that we associate with eating and arguably crave.[9] In fact, such an invention is almost unthinkable, if one considers recent research that underscores how the perception of flavor is informed by texture.[10]

How can texture help food futurists introduce alternative ingredients that are less draining on our planet’s natural resources (such as insect larvae, seaweed, vegetarian protein, and animal guts) to the very discerning human palate? One thing is certain: the agency of texture will influence how these alternative ingredients are incorporated into diets. Food futurists are met with an underlying dilemma: should they cater to the forecasted hunger for “unchallenging textures,” or do they continue advocating outlandish foods that might prove too daunting to global taste buds? When historians in the distant future unravel the gustatory messages that are woven into the dominant textures of today’s food cultures, they will hopefully reveal a shift towards foods that are not just indulgent but are healthier and, above all, alleviate the burden on the world’s fragile ecosystems.


Biography

Zenia Malmer is an independent design historian who is interested in the intersection of food and design history. Also interested in exploring how her research can be disseminated in experimental and sensorially engaging ways, with particular focus on the taste buds, Zenia graduated with an MA in the History of Design at the Royal College of Art.

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