New Book: Viator in Tabula – Sémiotique de l’interculturel culinaire dans le récit de voyage



The project of this book goes back to approximately 10 years. I came then to collaborate with Beatrice Fink to a special issue of Eighteenth Century Life on the food topography. I proposed then a study that figures in the present volume under a more developed form, on the reactions of an English physician towards local food, mainly couscous and tea. I did not think that it was a real research avenue, but rather a sort of intellectual entertainment with no horizon. At the same time, Beatrice Fink encouraged me to conduct research in this area, but I remained skeptical. After having read her works on the culinary domain in the XVIII century, I have realized how much a history of food and the culinary could serve the history of mentalities and private lives. Works of John Louis Flandrin, that had contributed to the same volume directed by Fink, were also a great inspiration. Paradoxically, the more I read the more my interest grew. My quest was not simple, it did not concern fixing on a mediocre culinary phenomenon to study it as revealing a political economy or a symbolic field with its rules, its constraints and its codes. I am concerned with the study of the relation with the other, the shock of cultures or their encounter through reactions of travelers to the food or the culinary, the prepared dish, the consumed product in ceremony or in private. Some of the questions I asked are: In which way does the reaction to food reveal the attitude of the traveler, his prejudices on the culture or the society or the food or the dish in question? In which way would it reveal its own culture? I asked these questions and many others keeping aware of another difficulty. Texts on which I work belong to travel literature that is a hybrid genre, at least until the XVIII century, because it constantly oscillated between two poetical forms: the testimony and the fiction. Testimony, because precise descriptions, inventories of dishes, customs were merely depicting reality; fiction, because the traveler doubled by the narrator invents a narrative framework or a narrative structure in order to account for the trip without transforming it into a fateful description or an inventory. This made me more careful in my analyses and especially in my conclusions. I invite the reader to do the same. Indeed, the reaction towards the culinary can reflect an attitude, but we should keep in mind that it concerns an attitude inside a narrative framework and a game implying several characters.

With these growing difficulties, I knew that the culinary has been an important concern in semiotics. But long before, it was especially the concern of anthropology, ethnology and sociology. Claude Levi-Strauss, Mary Douglas and others have done important contributions. Semioticians in their turn  got interested in , though only sporadically , what one can call culinary semiotics, I allude here to articles of Roland Barthes in Mythologies, to escapades of Greimas for example concerning the pistou soup  and to others contributions thereafter and others more recent. These contributions have not however set a method of analysis or a susceptible interface to be used for the corpus. It was necessary then to reflect on a strictly semiotic approach to the culinary making the most possible profit from the ideas of semioticians and anthropologists.  All these contributions deserve to be questioned in view of a synthesis. I deem it useful to reserve them a whole chapter.

But before this, here is a word on the studies that constitute the present volume. The study on tea or couscous has been published under a less developed form in a special issue of Eighteenth Century Life directed by Béatrice Fink in 1999 and it revolved around the question of food topography. I was surprised from the first reading of the relationship of this English physician by the recurrence of the same verbs and the same adjectives where Moroccan meals were assimilated to an intense physical activity, not to say to an act of a rare violence. The analysis thereafter of descriptions of the meal, ceremonies of tea or preparations of couscous in the Harem has shown a sort of phantasmagoria of bodies that reminds, in many respects, motives and codes of erotic literature. With this first study, the attitude towards the culinary was found to be closely linked to the question of the body of the other: nervous body, agitated versus fattened bodies and prepared to multiples phantasms of the master.

The study on coffee as cultural mediator has been published in a special issue of The French periodical in 2001 directed by Dominique Lanni on the culture of travelers during the classic age. The relationship of the trip of the first expedition to Arabia of the Company of Indies in the beginning of the XVIII

century is the opportunity to put one in front of the other,  two radically opposite worlds and practically ignoring all of each other. Coffee is here a real actor by itself. From the description of this product, ways of preparing it and its history, one discovers a civilization and a culture with these relaxation and conviviality places. Here a product as coffee becomes the symbol of a culture and a society previously judged as a place of fanaticism and intolerance. The other studies are original, they all try, in one way or another, to analyze food as a sign inside a framework where two cultures, two encyclopedias engage in a game of mirrors, evasions and caprices. I have tried to begin with crusades and pilgrim accounts, through accounts of the first merchants, captives and missionaries that mark, as we will see later, a light change in the culinary semiosis of the other and a reorganization of the library at work in the processing of this culinary. Texts of the classic age are going to sketch a singular approach that is going to be ratified by those of the age of enlightenment, but not without surprise. Stories of the nineteenth century, belonging all to French travelers, present an approach to the culinary singular by its re-elaboration of the culinary sign and by its ideological work, which inevitably shows the importance of risks of the hospitality offered by the other, of the food that it presents and reveals, through the attitude of host travelers, their intention and what they think of the Moroccan in general and Morocco in particular.

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