Deciphering a Meal – Honouring Mary Douglas

Mary Douglas (1921-2007) first published her seminal piece “Deciphering A Meal” in 1971. In this highly original (if not downright rebellious) paper, she uses her own family as a nucleus for research on the meal as (social) object, extending outward its possible resonance to greater society. As a “symbolic anthropologist” , she ambitiously endeavoured to stretch the study of the meal beyond the particular “ethnographic studies” which had characterized it heretofor: the type gleaned from specific ethnographies and their study of a particular culture’s mealtime “customs”.

From my limited knowledge, I believe Ms. Douglas’ was one of the first semiotic engagements with the meal. It is challenging and vivid work all at once. In “Deciphering A Meal” she begins by addressing the meal as code. Alternately, it could be seen as object, symbol, currency, language, etc.

A few highlights:

  • …if food is a code, where is the precoded message? Here, on the anthropologist’s home ground, we are able to improve the posing of the question. A code affords a general set of possibilities for sending particular messages.

  • If food is treated as a code, the messages it encodes will be found in the pattern of social relations being expressed. The message is about different degrees of hierarchy, inclusion and exclusion, boundaries and transactions across the boundaries. Like sex, the taking of food has a social component, as well as a biological one.
  • Food categories therefore encode social events.
  • Sometimes at home, hoping to simplify the cooking, I ask, “Would you like to have just soup for supper tonight? I mean a good thick soup? instead of supper. It’s late and you must be hungry. It won’t take a minute to serve.” Then an argument starts: “Let’s have soup now, and supper when you are ready.” “No no, to serve two meals would be more work. But if you like, why not start with the soup and fill up with pudding?” “Good heavens! What sort of a meal is that? A beginning and an end and no middle.” “Oh, all right then, have the soup as it’s there, and I’ll do a Welsh rarebit as well.” When they have eaten soup, Welsh rarebit, pudding, and cheese: “What a lot of plates. Why do you make such elaborate suppers?” They proceed to argue that by taking thought I could satisfy the full requirements of a meal with a single, copious dish. Several rounds of this conversation have given me a practical interest in the categories and meanings of food. I needed to know what defines the category of a meal in our home.

LINKS to her work

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