Saturday, January 23, 2010

Alimentation vs. Gastronomy - the Conceptual Debate

Alimentation vs. Gastronomy - the Conceptual Debate

Following the debate on Alimentation vs. Gastronomy that took place in a class of Kitchen Techniques, we were asked to write a small paper that dealt with this conceptual dichotomy. After reading some of the key texts on the subject, the distinction between the two terms became crystal clear.

According to the Enaudi Encyclopaedia (1989, vol XVI), “alimentation is not merely the satisfaction of a physiological need, but also a form of communication, an occasion to share and to show, a set of symbols which constitute, for a certain group, an identity criteria”. Therefore, Alimentation is but one of a social group's many daily activities, through which a key centerpiece in a human being's biologic, psychologic and cultural development. Having said that, foods are not just substances which satisfy our biological defficiencies.

One can define Alimentation in many ways, namely: economic-technologically (perhaps the most basic and transversal understanding); sociologically (given its significant importance in the establishment and reinforcement of solidarities within the community sphere); ideological-normatively (due to its fundamental importance in today's societies, looking to preserve and promote their our distinctive costums and traditions). It is also relevant to add that when we tackle the subject from the sociologic-ideologic-normative approach, we could claim that specific nutrition domains resist social and ideological change, when a native alimentation in existence underpins it. Such phenomenon is self-evident when we refer to emmigration.

Alimentation is beyond a shadow of a doubt a strong socio-cultural identity factor. Eating is, essentially, a social activity (involving the choosing of ingredients, the combinations, techniques, among other things), and as such, it expresses a way by which individuals from different societies project their identity.

Likewise, Alimentation can have a whole range of different meanings. Just to name a few: to negate hunger; to prevent and eradicate deseases; to initiate and/or maintain social relations; and to show belonging to a certain social group. Without over-stretching the argument, it can even be considered the first social lesson of the human being.

Given that an explanation of the concept of Alimentation has been provided, it is now time to reflect on the concept of Gastronomy. In order to do that, we only have to realize that the human being is the only creature in the world capable of thinking and discussing about its feeding habits, the only that follows strict rules about its alimentation, the techniques and places where he/she should have it, the people with whom he/she eats, etc.

Thus without any surprise, Gastronomy takes hold of the whole dimension of eating, one in which Alimentation is but one but nevertheless the most important subdimension. Following suit, the former is the entire discourse of having pleasure at the table, the art of discussing what is it that we eat from the perspective of he/she who is a true connoisseur of degustation. Subsequently, a gastronomer, or gourmet (the French equivalent) is the one who deals with the refinement of a meal, its proportions, service and atmosphere, that is, Gastronomy is itself a result of the pleasure that one takes of eating, hence its conceptually more broadening definition when compared to Alimentation.

As a footnote, it is also important to stress that whereas Alimentation is a concept that took root in the living of human beings very early in our common history, Gastronomy is a modern invention, dating back to the XVIII century and the social and cultural circumstances that allowing the eating habits to be considered and reflected as much more than simply filling your stomach.

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