If there is one subject that divides at the table, it is politics. And the dishes themselves can be the subject of contention. Take, just in case, the beef bourguignon: for the publisher Antonin Iommi-Amunategui (Nouriturfu), there is no way to procrastinate, “It’s a decidedly right-wing dish. Everything is said, in two words: first the beef, the good bidoche well in saucewhose breeding is known to be one of the four or five main environmental wounds. Then, Burgundy, the most traditional region in the world”. But then, what would a dish on the left look like? “With sauerkraut, of course” answers the wine merchant Mathieu Lévy (Sémélé, Paris XIe): “It’s a cheap, vitamin C-rich, easy-to-store dish that can save entire populations from winter starvation. And then, despite the variations, we can speak of a union of sauerkraut.
Because that is what is at stake in this dishonest and, therefore, fascinating debate: according to his very personal definition of the left or the right, the dishes are torn from one end of the the political spectrum. To continue the hostilities of this week between two turns (of the mill), let’s ask the questions that annoy. This day: is the ham and butter sandwich right or left?
“Ham and butter is right-wing… with nuances”: Nicolas Kayser-Bril (author of Voracism and of Amazing food, ed. Nouriturfu)
“When we think of ham and butter, we think of the urban proletariat of the late 19th century. Now, what characterized the urban proletariat in the 19th century was bread buttered with another food: coffee. And this choice is not innocent, because the proletariat of the time could have eaten lentil soup or mashed seeds, like dahl. Now this triptych is chosen on purpose as opposed to what the peasants ate, who ate porridge, or baked bread once every six months (this is also why they dipped the bread in the soup or wine). Bread and butter is a way of distinguishing oneself; it is to be in opposition to peasant misery. And inevitably, the buttered bread puts in perspective this miserable side of the left, “damned of the earth”. Workers’ food is eaten in opposition to that of those who are even more miserable. The proletarians of the time knew it very well, France was very rural. Not to mention ham, which is a luxury: in the countryside, no one ate charcuterie every day. I remain convinced that ham and butter is a cultural construct that symbolizes superiority.
Today, what is interesting is precisely the ham. By eating ham in an ostentatious way, one knowingly opposes those who do not eat it, such as vegetarians or those who do not consume it for religious reasons. Vegetarianism was born at the end of the 19th century with an awareness of animal welfare and for the “purity of the body”. Living in harmony with nature without exploiting animals can be considered part of leftist values, where consuming ham can be seen as speciesist: a way of showing one’s dominance over animals. Finally, Algeria was French until 1962. From the appropriation of ham and butter by the proletariat, in Algeria, and in Metropolitan France, those who made it consumed it in opposition to the Muslim proletariat.
Nicolas Kayser-Bril is a doctoral student at the University of Regensburg. He works on the coloniality of vegetable fats imported into France and Germany between 1870 and 1930.
“Ham and butter is leftist”: Aïtor Alfonso (food critic, author)
“There is a puritanism on the left that would have taken hold, where taking pleasure would be wrong; the right and the extreme right, they would be on the side of the grub and the overeaters. But the right does not have a monopoly on feasting! If it is necessary to question a dish politically, it must be done with an advanced semiology, to question the methods of its consumption. In the case of ham and butter, what raises questions is the meat. What would it be like to eat meat left-handedly? Personally, I believe in a human tradition of killing, which would allow us to rethink the relationship to death in all food. A carrot that we eat, after all, we killed it. How to make this acceptable? By making things poetic, by making cooking a joyful funeral rite. When we become aware of the slaughtered animal, we necessarily eat less meat, or better, or differently. What does it mean to raise a beast and kill it? What is the reality of the profession of slaughterers, the modern executioners of society? You have to enjoy differently, you have to enjoy with your time, you have to enjoy while having a political thought of enjoyment, being aware of the implications of enjoyment. A desire that ignores the conditions of its enjoyment is an anti-thought, a blind desire. This is why I believe in culinary rites, as one might believe in funeral rites.
Leftist desire cannot be a relationship of predation or deprivation. All ascetic speeches are speeches of hatred of the body; desire is not to be thought of in political terms but in social, industrial, ecological, poetic terms. Not moral. Otherwise we sink into “I don’t give a fuck” or guilty desire. Eating less, making a form of frugality desirable, that’s where the left plays out: the challenge is always that of desire. You have to create discourse, imagination around vegetables, so that vegetables are desirable. However, the political project of the left is to ensure that everyone can also afford, from time to time, a luxury dish, such as meat. By giving access to good things to the greatest number, we access the project of the social left: not to confine pleasure to an elite.
Aïtor Alfonso has just published by Nouriturfu editions the book Table talk.