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Talking with Your Mouth Full

Speak about food and feed your life's story

By David Szanto, Ph.D.

When it comes to your food, what kind of stories do you tell? Do you weave tales of dinners and snacks, grocery lists, and gardening tricks? Do you recount recipes from your family history and wax poetic about the perfection of the fries at that little casse-croûte on the 132 (just south of Rivière-du-Loup)? Or are you more of a listener, one who soaks up the stories of grand-parents and cookbook authors and fourth-generation farmers?

If you participate in food stories you contribute to the fine old tradition of oral narrative. It’s the way that culture has been created and transferred for millennia. It’s also our means of gathering and sharing knowledge across and among generations. Today, food narratives have a powerful presence in many different gastronomic settings, including restaurants, wholesale markets, farms, and factories. But what is storytelling, and why is it so important to food?

The French sociologist Michel de Certeau once wrote, “What the map cuts up, the story cuts across.” In other words, stories help us dissolve formal boundaries, like the borders between countries and townships, or the definitions that frame (and often stereotype) national cuisines. Stories even blur the divisions between past and present. Stories create connections.

At the same time, if you ask your grandfather to tell you how his family used to make fish-head stew, or how his mother pickled lemons, he might think you were crazy. That’s because it can be hard to consider our “ordinary” food as being notable, memorable, or worth telling a story about.

Our grandparents generally remember what they did “back then” as a pretty mundane affair — just like you and I might feel about what we bought at the supermarket yesterday. Even so, people often imagine that “the way grandma did it” is more magical than how we cook and eat today. We have a tendency to mythologize the past.

Similarly, food marketers and media have taken to using “storytelling” as a way to attract and keep consumers’ attention. But that blurb about a chicken farmer’s family on a Styrofoam package of skinless, boneless white meat is not really storytelling. Nor is it an oral narrative when a food blogger publishes an online post about the 10 Best Bakeries in Brossard (including why they are “sooooo traditional”). Storytelling happens out loud, face-to-face, with mouths and ears, gestures and smiles. Eyes and hands tell stories just as much as vocal cords do.

So yes, let’s all tell our stories to each other. In person. Great-aunt Janine would probably love to hear how you prepared your pâté chinois over the weekend, just as your nephew would enjoy hanging out in the kitchen while you describe making brownies and tire éponge when you were a kid.

And let’s listen more, too — to the details of harvests and hunting, canning and cake making. This is what makes québécois food culture both distinct and universal: unique in its details, yet familiar in its patterns. We are our stories, and when we tell them, we connect the past with the future, and ourselves with each other.

David SzantoDavid Szanto is a Montreal-based food researcher, consultant, and long-time contributor to this magazine. In 2015, he earned a Ph.D. in gastronomy from Concordia University, the first of its kind.

 

Winter 2019, Vol 11 N°1

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