Anthropologists’ interest in food and cooking initially arose within two opposite schools of thought, one focusing on a material approach to societies, and the other paying attention to symbols and representations.
In this volume, Jean-Pierre Poulain traces the anthropology of food's history; he stresses Maxime Rodinson's role in promoting the study of food and cooking practices, rather than representations, in a field (Orientalism) most texts deal with religious and mystical sources. This ‘entry through practices’ leads us to observe solid relations between food and identities.
Each civilisation, society, religion and even each theological school (let us think of the differences, in Islam, between Sunnism and Shiism and between theological schools) defines the world of the edible, stresses prohibitions or aversions and establishes food hierarchies. In his article, Jean-Pierre Digard not only provides a vast panorama of religious prescriptions; he also describes hierarchical preferences for different categories of meat in Eastern and Western societies.
Food and cooking are the strongest markers of individual and collective identities. Gustatory and olfactory memories are the only ones to remain when other memories fade. Food memory is “for me, my deepest and most cherished identity writes Edgar Morin, as Sophie Nizard recalls in her contribution to this volume. Food memories consist here in dishes (such as the aubergine gratin, Edgar Morin's delight) and their subtle smells. Mentioning Lebanese cuisine, Aida Kanafani-Zahar refers to allspice's fragrances, which dispel meat's miasma. Food textures and cooking processes are also major distinctive marks for culinary identities. In the Saharan oasis she studies, Marie-Luce Gélard notes that ‘the desiccation of food is the norm for good food’ in this dry climatic region. As for Christian Bromberger, he stresses the importance of food ingredients and cooking methods that characterise the culinary style of Gilâan Gilân, a province along the Caspian Sea in Iran. In this region, rice is the staple food, while on the Iranian plateau, bread is the main food, as in most Mediterranean countries: ‘Nân injâ, âb injâ, kojâ ravam beh az injâ?’ (Here there is bread, here there is water, where would I go for better than here?), says a Persian proverb. The importance of bread in the Mediterranean and Near Eastern diet is recalled in several articles of this issue, especially in Laurence Tibère and colleagues’ and Gaëlle Gillot's articles about Morocco.
Culinary differences, from one society to another, are obvious in ritual lives. Sepideh Parsapajouh insists on the necessary purity required from food, but also from individuals preparing votive meals in Iran. Sonia Mlayah Hamzaoui describes the foods offered during mourning times in Tunisia. Sophie Nizard shows meat is an essential element of Hebrew festive meals. Nevertheless, meat's importance is fading away today, since many believers protest against animal suffering and incline towards veganism.
Meal preparations and commensality highlight how roles and relations are distributed within societies. In her article, Marie-Hélène Sauner-Leroy describes the changing ways culinary practices are currently conveyed in contemporary Turkey: during the past, wives adopted their mother-in-law's cooking recipes; nowadays, they prefer cooking their mother's recipes instead. Laurence Tibère and Gaëlle Gillot both conducted fieldwork in Morocco. They show how meals, cherished dishes and cooking spaces testify both to the urban or village cook's roots and to his/her social status. Women workers’ picnics in Casablanca are moments of rest and relaxation, as well as a rare opportunity to assert their urbanity.
Recipes are spreading, with the effects of migration and globalisation. Away from their country of origin, migrants value their childhood's, usually maternal, cuisine. Cultivating one's culinary traditions in a diasporic context is a way to assert one's continuous affiliation to one's country of origin, as well as to enhance the image of one's reviled country: this is the case with Iranian cuisine in the United States, as Afsaneh Hojabri shows. Finally, a recipe's destiny may be international when the recipe conforms to a globalised taste, when its preparation is simple and its purchase inexpensive. This is the case of the döner kebab, whose irresistible expansion is narrated by Stéphane De Tapia.
These articles provide a few milestones on the path to an anthropology of food and cooking in the Middle East (a Middle East that includes North Africa). The entire issue stresses a material approach to societies: most of the articles deal with food (i.e. the products consumed) more than cooking (i.e. preparation or methods). Accordingly, the chapter is not closed, and much remains to be said about this genuine way of expressing oneself, of dealing with others and the world, through food and cooking.