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The Map of Food Opposites

The Map of Food Opposites

Food is culture, to a much greater extent than we imagine: anthropologist Antonio Guerci explains why food is a system of dichotomies to simplify complexity.

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Think of food: how often have you described it using adjectives or terms with opposite meanings? The number of possible examples is endless: rare or well done, sweet or savoury, firm to the bite or overcooked, innovative or traditional.

And what if food were a complex system of dichotomies, opposite concepts endowed with different values according to the context in which they evolve? Professor Antonio Guerci, biologist and director of the UNESCO Chair Anthropology of Health – Biosphere and care systems at the University of Genoa, Italy, is going to enlighten us on this fascinating prospect. On the very subject of dichotomy, he starts by explaining why food is one of the greatest examples of contamination between nature and culture: “When it comes to food, we make no distinction by attempting to establish, for instance, where biology ends and where culture takes over. This is the most erroneous possible approach.”

Edible vs Inedible, Nice vs Unpleasant

“First of all, foodstuffs may be subdivided into edible and inedible, the latter being those for which we are not biologically prepared. This is an authentic dichotomy. Then, edible foods may be further subdivided into ‘nice to eat’ and ‘unpleasant to eat’, and this is a purely cultural division”. An almost banal example of the latter is that of insects: and it is right here, on a cultural level, that there is a sort of “dichotomous map” of our planet.

In Latin America it's hot vs cold

Let’s consider Latin America, where food is classified as hot and cold: “This has nothing to do with food temperature but is actually a division between substances thought to provoke heat and others supposedly responsible for cooling the organism.

The distinction stems from a subdivision of diseases based on the same criteria which, according to allopathic medicine, must be cured with foods belonging to the opposite group. However, this theory varies from country to country: eggs, for instance are considered to be a warming element in some places and a cooling one elsewhere.” This is a principle which, as Guerci explains, is devoid of any scientific grounds.

Yin and Yang in China

In China the division is that of yin/yang; here too, food is used to cure disease and illness allopathically (that is to say, based on the principle of contrast). “The same principle is applied consistently throughout China. And contrary to what we westerners believe, it is not based on two different types of energy, but the same energy which increases on one hand and decreases on the other, according to the person’s condition, the weather or even the time of day. In actual fact, this is only considered to be a dichotomy in the west.” Are there any other examples of this type in the world? “In Tibet, foods are classified as being either “centrifugal” – whatever sprouts from the ground (with particular reference to vegetables) – and “centripetal” – whatever enters the ground (like tubers). Islam with its food classifications of permissible, lawful, doubtful, prohibited, abominable…”

Cooking and cuisine, tradition vs innovation

And what about Europe? “Here, we can find what I believe to be a very interesting polarisation: “cooking” and “gastronomic cuisine”. Cooking is an everyday activity associated with tradition, the local environment and the seasons. Its aromas and flavours are natural and simple. It is a decidedly feminine occupation. Cuisine has always been innovative, international and out of time – think of the use it makes of early fruit and vegetables. Elaborate and technological with a penchant for chemical wizardry, it definitely has a more masculine flavour.”

The same thing can be said for the medical world, the professor explains: medicine, by which we mean medical knowledge, is a traditionally feminine ambit. Surgery, on the other hand, has always been a man’s world. However, in recent times, this dichotomy has become less distinct thanks to the ever growing ranks of chefs who are rediscovering “humble” dishes of local traditions and are more aware of the seasonal nature of ingredients, without however failing to pursue a course of innovation.  Also because, as Guerci makes a point of underlining, dichotomy is actually a way of simplifying complex phenomena. “Dualisms are always worth highlighting, but should never be considered as opposites: it is a constant process of osmosis between two components, an ongoing dialogue ... to consider them as opposites is pure fantasy”.

No other element expresses change more effectively than food, in which a contrast such as that between nature and culture seems to dissolve – just as, in the culinary arts, the above mentioned concepts of “cooking” and “gastronomic cuisine” now seem to have found a point of equilibrium and a virtuous fusion: “If anyone insists on saying that biology and culture are antagonistic – I can only respond, to my students as well: you have completely failed to grasp the concept!” concludes Guerci.

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