Caviar, Ricotta and Crisps. An Exploration of the Symbolic Value of Food

By Viviana Bianchini

Alma is the most expensive of all caviar according to the Guinness World Record. It comes from rare albino sturgeons aged between 60 and 100 years. Sturgeons are usually older than the fishermen. One kilo of Alma is sold in a 24kt gold tin for around £20,000. Beluga caviar is generally sold between £5,000 and £10,000/kg and we can consider it to be at the top of the food ladder. Its intense flavour, its high price and renowned scarcity contribute to the mystic aura of the world’s most coveted delicacy[1]. The first mention of caviar dates back to 1240, when it was served to the Mongol leader Batu Khan[2]. This processed food is probably much older; it is simply eggs of sturgeons, treated with salt. It is estimated that the number of sturgeon in major basins has declined by 70% over the last century and 85% of sturgeons are listed as endangered[3].

vatel-2000-26-g

At the top of the food ladder we find also oysters, truffles, lobsters, Japanese Kobe steaks[4] and gourmet dishes decorated with gold leaves. The symbolic value of expensive food has not changed much since the time of Louis IV, when the “maître d’hôtel” François Vatel prepared dinner for the royal court. He committed suicide in April 1671, allegedly, for not receiving enough fish for the banquet. In Vatel (2000), a film directed by Roland Joffé, the lack of fish is only one of the reasons for the suicide – the others are the cruelty of court life and lack of value and dignity for human life of the non-aristocratic crowd. Vatel is considered as an expensive object, a status symbol that can be used as a currency for betting at cards. Examples of this attitude emerge in the only historical account of Vatel’s story: the letters sent by Madame de Sevigné, where she writes from Chantilly on the 24th April 1671: ‘I make no doubt the consternation was general; it must be very disagreeable to have so fatal an event break in upon an entertainment that cost fifty thousand crowns[5].

The indulgence in the pleasure of eating expensive food is often associated to gluttony and arrogance. In Ripley’s Game, Ray Winstone repeatedly asks the waiter to have more truffle on his pasta. ‘No, no… more! No, no… more!’:

Expensive food is a status symbol, not too different from haute couture fashion – the ideal object of luxury and desire. Once it is eaten, it is all gone. Sophia Coppola portrays the ephemeral value of food associated with the equally ephemeral fashion in Marie Antoinette (2006). Macaroons and cakes have the same color of the fabric, they quickly disappear from the trays, following the same rhythm of Marie Antoinette changing her shoes and fans.

The sexual value of luxury eating is portrayed by Luca Guadagnino in I Am Love (2009). Tilda Swinton is falling in love with a young chef while eating his carefully prepared dish:

In aristocratic Europe there are some categories of food reserved only for the nobles. Anyone contravening this rule will be severely punished, as it happens in the Geordie’s ballad:

Ah my Geordie never stole nor cow nor calf

he never hurted any

Stole sixteen of the king’s royal deer,

and he sold them in Bohenny’

See Joan Baez’s version:

Pasolini’s La Ricotta explores the relationship between hunger and abundance, ethics and esthetics, including scenes visually inspired by the Italian Mannerism and a remarkable performance by Orson Wells starring as the film director. The scarcity of food and the ‘miracle’ in finding delicious ricotta cheese have unexpected consequences for Stracci, a poor and starving man working as an extra for a production of the Passion of Jesus.

Why poor people seem to ignore the nutritional value of food? Why do they prefer a bag of crisps to more healthy options? To understand the food choices of people on low income, Ellyn Sutter elaborates an alternative food pyramid based on food needs[6]:

  • Enough Food: individuals experiencing food insecurity tend to select filling and sustaining food. Nutritional value is not a priority.
  • Acceptable food: once they have enough food, individuals tend to choose ‘normal’, ‘regular’ food according to nutritional quality and social norms
  • Reliable, ongoing access to food: they start plannig for subsequent meals
  • Good tasting food: food choices are influenced by esthetics and gustatory consideration
  • Novel food: food chosen to try something new
  • Instrumental food: choosing food for instrumental reasons, to achieve a desired physical, cognitive, or spiritual outcome.

This food pyramid helps to understand why poor people tend to choose unhealthy food as crisps or chocolate bars rather than healthy food as fruit and vegetables. This is not because they are ‘ignorant’ or ‘bad’, it is just because other basic needs come first. In poor neighbourhoods corner stores sell Ensure and Boost shakes next to the till. They are cheap and packed with protein, even if they do not give the same pleasure of a complete meal. ‘You want people to eat better? Give them enough money, a place for cooking and storage, and access to a decent variety of food. Then you can worry about the finer points of nutrition’[7].

Luis Buñuel in The Phantom of Liberty goes further in the analysis of people’s basic needs and imagines a society in which public and private needs are swapped: ‘We had to come home early. Madrid was filled with the stench of—pardon my language—food. Really indecent.

____________________________________

[1] Inga Saffron, Caviar: The Strange History and Uncertain Future of the World’s Most Coveted Delicacy, Crown Publishing Group, 2002. For a preview, see http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=5sN69IqV0i0C&lpg=PT47&ots=voRgrK6abS&dq=batu%20khan%20caviar&pg=PT47#v=onepage&q&f=false

[2] Nichola Fletcher, Caviar: A Global History, Reaktion Books, 2010

[3] IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature, http://www.iucn.org/?4928/Sturgeon-more-critically-endangered-than-any-other-group-of-species

See also: WWF – http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/endangered_species/sturgeon/

There are some attempts in producing caviar without killing sturgeons, but the results are not encouraging so far. See Alastair Bland, No-Kill Caviar Aims To Keep The Treat And Save The Sturgeon, The Salt – NPR, March 30, 2014 http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2014/03/07/287309630/no-kill-caviar-aims-to-keep-the-treat-and-save-the-sturgeon and Twilight Greenaway, No-Kill Caviar: Can it Save an Endangered Species?, Civil Eats, March 10, 2014 http://civileats.com/2014/03/10/no-kill-caviar/

[4] The market price for an original Kobe steak is between £300 and £2,000, but it is said frauds are common. You can allegedly find it on restaurant menus in US and Europe even if its import is banned by law. http://www.forbes.com/sites/larryolmsted/2014/01/07/the-new-truth-about-kobe-beef-2/

[5] ‘I am not yet recovered, and hardly know what I write. Vatel, the great Vatel, late maitre-d’hotel to M. Fouquet, and in that capacity with the prince, a man so eminently distinguished for taste, and whose abilities were equal to the government of a state — this man, whom I knew so well, finding, at eight o’clock this morning, that the fish he had sent for did not come at the time he expected it, and unable to bear the disgrace that he thought would inevitably attach to him, ran himself through with his own sword. Guess what confusion so shocking an accident must have occasioned. Think, too, that perhaps the fish might come in just as he was expiring. I know no more of the affair at present, and I suppose you think this enough. I make no doubt the consternation was general; it must be very disagreeable to have so fatal an event break in upon an entertainment that cost fifty thousand crowns.’

See: https://archive.org/stream/selectionsfromra00raberich/selectionsfromra00raberich_djvu.txt

[6] http://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/cms-assets/documents/99553-190597.hierarchy.pdf

See also: http://jezebel.com/5612211/the-hierarchy-of-food-needs

[7] The Fat Nutritionist, If only poor people understood nutrition! http://www.fatnutritionist.com/index.php/if-only-poor-people-understood-nutrition/

On the pricing effects on food choices see also: Simone A. French, Pricing Effects on Food Choices, The Journal of Nutrition, March 1, 2003 vol. 133 no. 3

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