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From nutrients to foods: The alimentary imaginary of the Mediterranean diet


Stano, Simona


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Abstract Together with clothing, urban artefacts and other aspects of daily life, nutrition is not only one of the basic human needs, but also a system of communication (Barthes, 1961) and expression of sociocultural identity (Levi-Strauss, 1965; Montanari, 2006; Stano, 2015). Undoubtedly food habits, preferences and taboos are partially regulated by ecological and material factors (Harris, 1975). By contrast, all food systems are structured and given particular functioning mechanisms by specific societies—or, better, cultures (Volli, 2015). Although several scholars have remarked this fact, most present-day texts, discourses, and practices concerning food seem to particularly stress a sort of supposed “naturalness” inherent to food systems. Such “naturalness” is generally conceived as both the praise of everything that opposes artificiality (Marrone, 2011) and a return to an original and idyllic past, namely a “tradition” crystallised in “authentic” recipes, “typical” restaurants, etc. Responding to the urgency of enhancing the academic debate on these issues, this paper analyses a specific case study that, albeit being particularly significant, has not been sufficiently investigated yet: the so-called “Mediterranean diet”. The idea of such a diet originated from the scientific field, in the wake of medical research (Keys & Keys, 1975; Keys, 1980) correlating the low incidence of cardiovascular diseases among the inhabitants of specific areas (i.e. the Cilento region in Italy) and a particular nutritional regime, mainly defined by the use of certain ingredients and specific techniques of preparation of food. The interest in this topic has then increasingly grown, extending beyond the simple definition of healthy rules regulating nutrition, and embracing the social and cultural implications of the particular “lifestyle” that has come to be identified with the Mediterranean diet. In this sense, the genealogy of the inclusion of such a diet in the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity—with the initial rejection in 2007, the approval in 2010 in relation to Italy, Greece, Spain and Morocco, and the extension to Portugal, Croatia and Cyprus in 2013—is emblematic. Moreover, it is essential to point out the important role played by sociocultural elements in the definition of the Mediterranean diet provided by the United Nations: “[it] involves a set of skills, knowledge, rituals, symbols and traditions concerning crops, harvesting, fishing, animal husbandry, conservation, processing, cooking, and particularly the sharing and consumption of food” (UNESCO, 2013). These observations open the way to interesting questions concerning both the processes of meaning making and the definition of food systems. We should notice, first of all, the transition from a purely material conception of the Mediterranean diet, stressing its effects on the human body, to a primarily cultural vision, which rather conceives nutrition as a “form of life” (Fontanille, 1993)—that is, a set of rituals, symbolic operations, and practices of expression of “taste” (i.e. a term significantly referring both to “the sense by which [we distinguish] the qualities and flavour of a substance” (Collins, 2014) and to our “preference or liking for something” (Ibid.)). Furthermore, the active and transformative—and therefore conscious—nature of such operations emerges, suggesting a process of “invention of [the] tradition” (Hobsbawm & Ranger, 1983) of the Mediterranean diet, whose imaginary is characterised by a series of remarkable inconsistencies. Although the lifestyle described by the United Nations and the features remarked by many scholars (see Moro, 2014) have been historically shared by several peoples leaving in the Mediterranean area, it is not possible to deny the significant differences among the numerous Mediterranean diets, which are in fact very varied, and not easy to define nor to classify. We should consider, moreover, the processes of globalisation and hybridisation that have affected food in the last decades, with important implications on the grammars, syntaxes, and pragmatics of systems that, instead, tend to be subjected to a process of “crystallisation” denying such dynamism. This paper addresses these crucial issues, making particular reference to relevant texts and discourses that have marked the genesis and development of the so-called Mediterranean diet and of the collective imaginary concerning it.
Thesaurusschlagwörter way of life; nutrition; behavior; cultural identity; food; discourse; semantics; meaning; language change
Klassifikation Medieninhalte, Aussagenforschung
Freie Schlagwörter Mediterranean diet
Sprache Dokument Englisch
Publikationsjahr 2015
Seitenangabe S. 115-132
Zeitschriftentitel ESSACHESS - Journal for Communication Studies, 8 (2015) 2
Heftthema The alimentary and gustative imaginary
ISSN 1775-352X
Status Veröffentlichungsversion; begutachtet (peer reviewed)
Lizenz Creative Commons - Namensnennung, Nicht-kommerz.