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Introduction: Food, Language, and IdentityCuisine, langue et identité

  • Marc Charron et
  • Renée Desjardins
Couverture de Food, Language, and Identity,                Volume 3, numéro 1, 2011, Cuizine

Corps de l’article

Language and food define and shape collective identities. This is true especially in Canada, a country where collective identities seem disparate and fragmented within the ostensible multicultural “mosaic”: from coast to coast, cultural and ethnic backgrounds vary, as do religious practices and social norms. Canadians of all backgrounds nevertheless find ways to communicate and share their foodways, regardless of language. The language of food might actually be a more apt lingua franca than English or French. Food not only shapes identities, but it can also act as a pivot or bridge language between divergent identities, a form of cultural mediation or translation.

Massimo Montanari, whose research informs many of the articles in this issue, explains that:

On all social levels sharing a table is the first sign of membership in a group. That might be the family but also a broader community – each brotherhood, guild, or association reasserts its own collective identity at the table. [...] Eating together does not necessarily mean all is love and harmony. If the table is the metaphor for life, it represents in a direct and exacting way both membership in a group and the relationships defined within that group. [1]

If shared foodways are integral to the forging of collective identities within groups, food trade can act as a bridge for communication between groups. In “Les Québécois francophones et leur ‘identité’ alimentaire,” Yvon Desloges alludes to such a notion of cultural contact. Desloges asserts that Québécois food identities are the result of cross-cultural contact between four main groups in the 19th century: the First Nations, the French, the British, and the American. From a semiotics perspective, moreover, both food and language function as “codes of communication.” They:

convey symbolic and signifying meanings of widely differing kinds (economic, social, political, religious, ethnic, aesthetic), both inside and outside the societies that express them [and also convey] the culture of [their] practitioner[s]; [these codes are] the repositor[ies] of traditions and of collective identity. [2]

Food may be a language in a Montanarian sense, with its own “grammar,” [3] but as this issue demonstrates, it is also a visual, aesthetic, and sensory language. In “Food, Photographs, and Frames,” Sonya Sharma and Gwen Chapman analyze the visual language of photo elicitation as a means of cracking these food codes. Food photography illustrates an essential dialectic, from how relationships with food can shape identity to how perceived ontological narratives can shape relationships with food. As an aesthetic language, food also has performative potential, whether it lies in preparation, presentation, or description. Such performances may be elaborately embellished, as Renée Desjardins observes of the discourse of menus at Château Frontenac in Quebec City, or they may be relatively mundane yet semantically loaded, as Holly Everett notes of the discourse surrounding mealtimes at two bed and breakfast inns (B&Bs) in Newfoundland and Labrador. As a sensory language, the tastes, smells, and even sounds of food—the sizzling of fat in a pan, the popping of popcorn, the slurping of soup—can speak to and create food identities.

The language of food, as well as the language describing food, also enables the rebuttal and transgression of certain cultural stereotypes. Although Quebec is proud of having developed a distinctive cuisine drawing from regionally sourced ingredients, for instance, the eclectic and cosmopolitan food scenes in Montreal and Quebec City attest to a real Québécois fondness for fusion cuisine. In Quebec, in fact, fusion cuisine goes back decades: Desjardins reveals archived menus from the Château Frontenac indicating that while local and terroir ingredients were key menu staples, British, French and other European cuisines had made their way into the Québécois professional kitchen by the early 20th century, long before fusion was le goût du jour. Similarly, in “Newfoundland and Labrador on a Plate,” Everett illustrates that a shared meal at a Newfoundland B&B offers a space for local residents to show tourists that the “Newfie” stereotype is just that—a stereotype. As Diane Tye demonstrates in “Lobster Tales,” even assumptions about certain food items are up for debate. Many visitors to Atlantic Canada perceive lobster as a “luxury meal” or a “special event” ingredient, while elite chefs have even used this coveted seafood to up the ante of the humble poutine: lobster poutine now appears on the menu of quite a few high-end restaurants. [4] As Tye explains, however, tourists who seek out lobster in Maritime Canada may find themselves faced with an entirely different narrative: lobster as subsistence food. Whereas for tourists the word “lobster” connotes luxury, for Maritime locals it may represent an entirely different identity marker, associated with poverty, humility, and even shame.

The variety of theoretical perspectives, methodologies, and food-related corpora appearing in this thematic issue testifies to the wealth and complexity of relationships between food, identity, and language. Canada offers an extremely rich cultural space in which to study these relationships, precisely because its demographical makeup is so varied and because identity, particularly cultural identity, is at the heart of much discussion about what it means to be Canadian in an increasingly heterogeneous social space. We hope that this selection of research and creative work will inspire readers to consider how they forge their own “culinary identities” or relationships with food practices.

As editors of this special thematic issue, however, and as Translation Studies scholars whose research is necessarily shaped by the Canadian context and by our own Canadian culinary identities, we are also fascinated by the points at which Food and Translation Studies intersect. In introducing this issue on Food, Language, and Identity, we would therefore like to suggest a few places where the circulation of concepts between these emerging disciplines might prove useful for further investigation and collaboration.

One such intersection is the topic of food and cultural transmission. Felipe Fernández-Armesto argues that “[t]here is no more intriguing problem in the history of food than that of how cultural barriers to the transmission of foods and foodways have been traversed or broken.” [5] To this, we would be tempted to add that there is no more intriguing problem in the history of food than that of how its displacement—or better yet, its translation—has taken place. Terms chosen by Fernández-Armesto to qualify his history of food, “traversed” and “broken,” acknowledge the intrinsic violence of this movement, this displacement, this translation.

Familiarity and resistance are defining concepts in both Food Studies and Translation Studies. In Translation Studies, this dialectic manifests itself in the domestication or naturalization of a source text; translators may attempt to reassure the target audience by presenting the reader with a foreign text in a linguistic form they recognize. In Food Studies, this is reflected in the development of regional and national foodways. As Fernández-Armesto writes: “[e]ven with the world’s markets at their command, most people restrict their usual menus and demand the same dishes over and over again… Eaters’ bias in favour of the familiar affects entire cultures.” [6] The same is true for linguistic and cultural arenas. For one to resort to that which is “familiar” [7] in lieu of feeling dispossessed before something unrecognizable recalls the very function of translation, and is guided by many of the same rules that have guided the episteme of translation throughout its history. Despite its powerful attractions, the “foreign” must be subjected to the test of familiarity in both kitchen and library; it must be translated.

As Charlene Elliott argues, “control over food representations has powerful implications for perceptions of one’s own and other cultures.” [8] In “Consuming the Other: Packaged Representations of Foreignness in President's Choice,” Elliott writes that:

Food packaging provides a rich text for analysis, for its surface and its contents are consumed: food “messages” are digested both figuratively and literally. Anthropologists have long established food’s role in creating identity and status, establishing taste and defining cultural otherness. [9]

Food packaging, especially when it portrays its contents as “exotic” or “foreign,” is ultimately about the concept of consuming the Other. When an unfamiliar food is “tasted” or “consumed to reveal one’s mastery over it” rather than “embraced” or “consumed to reveal one’s self-identification with it,” the source culture is Othered, “reduced down to a series of stock props.” [10] “These props or cultural signifiers present stereotypical perceptions of the Other to the Western gaze,” [11] or rather, in the case of Loblaws’ “exotic” President’s Choice brand products, the Canadian gaze. Elliott describes the symbolic power of such a perspective:

Representations of the Other through food and its packaging have great symbolic potency, and this ‘labeling’ of foreignness proves significant precisely because it seems so innocuous. But the seemingly harmless marketing of foodstuffs is really a form of power—power operating over both representation and taste. [12]

In much the same way, translated Food Studies texts offer a privileged locus for observing the re-presentation of food-related issues by way of a foreign language. Because translation claims to talk about source culture but on behalf of target culture, it can operate in very subtle ways. If one is going to study relationships between food and language in the western hemisphere, moreover, then French and English are an obvious starting point—especially for Canadian Food and Translation Studies scholars, since French and English are our two main working languages. We are grateful for this opportunity to foreground language and translation and the critical role they continue to play in the development of Canadian culinary identities.

Parties annexes

Parties annexes