Food as Lieux de Memoire

In his poignant article “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire”, Pierre Nora builds the concept of lieux de mémoire and their role in today’s society.  As Nora defines it, lieux de mémoire are “sites of memory” (Nora 7) where memories are held and protected until they are needed again. These sites can be many things, from museums archives, to journals, to old letters. The importance of these sites is how they have the ability to transport people to a different time and place or connect them to the past. Lieux de mémoire also help people find their identity and serve material, symbolic, and functional purposes.  Now do me a favor, and think about your relationship with food and particular culinary dishes. Some of these dishes may have the ability to transport you back to when you were young or connect you to your heritage. This relationship between people and food is the same as the relationship between people and museums, pictures, and any other sites of memory. Based on the defining characteristics of lieux de mémoire, it is fair to say that food serves as a lieux de mémoire more often than we would think it does.

Nora argues that “Lieux de mémoire originate with the sense that there is no spontaneous memory, that we must deliberately create archives, maintain anniversaries, organize celebrations, pronounce eulogies, and notarize bills because such activities no longer occur naturally.” (Nora 12). What Nora is arguing is that we are not just going to sit down on our own accord and think about things that have happened. Rather, our memories need to be prompted by something, whether it is an event or object, in order to have any place in our lives. By having anniversaries and archives, we create a tradition of remembering. In this sense, certain dishes can serve the same purpose as archives or anniversary celebrations and can therefore be described as lieux de mémoire.

In Consumption, Food and Taste by Alan Warde, Warde describes one of the senses of food tradition as  “longevity” that is “obtained by describing a dish as old-fashioned but still valuable, a stratagem that sometimes conjures up nostalgia and on other occasions demands action to rescue it from obscurity or extinction.” (Warde 64). Certain dishes, therefore, have the power to bring up memories and affect people so profoundly that they don’t want to lose the dishes. These are the same reasons that people create lieux de mémoire: to preserve memory because nothing else will. Also, a concept of traditional food begins to develop over the years in families as they eat the same things over and over. It is because of this repetition that “traditional food generally invites us to take a nostalgic trip back to the realms of the food ‘granny used to cook’” (Ashley 88). It is not everyday that we ponder about the food, and consequently the people who made us the food, when we were young children. The tradition of eating food routinely is what brings back the memories, just like how visiting an archive brings back memories. If the physical presence of the foods were to end, it is fair to say that the memories would fade away into obscurity, as there would be nothing to prompt them. Just like museums, photographs, and archives, food dishes are constantly created in order to facilitate memory because the memories would disappear without them.

The reason why we create lieux de mémoire is because we are on a quest to find out who we are now as a result of who we used to be. As Nora phrases it, “The quest for memory is the search for one’s history” (Nora 13). By looking for memories and preserving them, we are hoping to keep a part of who we used to be. Knowing exactly where we come from serves as an anchor for people and helps them decide how they want to be. The only way to learn who we are is to preserve memories from the past and create a way to trace memory. It is for this purpose that things like genealogies exist. To know where you come from is to define yourself. In order to know where you come from, there must be a record of memory. Luckily for us, modern memory “relies entirely on the materiality of the trace, the immediacy of the recording, the visibility of the image.” (Nora 13), meaning that what we remember is based on what memories an object conjures. Therefore, family trees, museums, photographs, and journals are traditional objects that help us establish connections with our past. Food dishes also play a part in helping us to remember the past and define ourselves because they are material objects that are able to conjure memory.

As Elizabeth Pleck states in Celebrating the Family: Ethnicity, Consumer Culture, and Family Rituals, “The act of using a mother’s or grandmother’s recipes was a way for women to make a powerful, loving connection with the dead.” (Pleck 25). Recipes are not just the ingredients that go into a dish. Rather, recipes become definitive of the person who made the dish so that when other people recreate the recipes, they remember the dish’s creator. The person’s essence, the struggles, the triumphs, and anything else imaginable is suddenly remembered when that dish is made.  These memories can then serve as inspiration, motivation, and a reminder of where the family legacy and reinforces the current chef’s place in said legacy. In another example, Stephen Steinberg says “Challah was our connection with our grandmother, and through her, to our ancestors. It may have been our palates that defined the moment, but each time we consumed my grandmother’s challah, it was a ritual affirmation of our sense of peoplehood and our place in history”(Steinberg 295). Here, the grandmother’s challah served to define who she was and also help define who her family was. By constantly eating the challah, memories of the family’s history and their culture’s history were aroused and brought to the forefront of their attention. Challah, therefore, serves as a lieux de mémoire for this family because it helps them recognize where they come from and defines who they are. Additionally, some believe that home cooking itself means “a cuisine grounded in familiar, shared history and in common knowledge of places and people.” (Wilk 202). In this sense, home cooking provides us with a link to where we belong in our culture. If your home cooking is Italian in nature, then you belong to an Italian culture. By having a definitive food culture, such as Italian, you are provided with a connection to your family’s legacy and to your cultural past. You inarguably feel Italian and you can identify with past generations just by eating the same food as them. Just like other lieux de mémoire, food dishes can serve to help a person trace their history and define who they are when they are repeatedly created, consumed, and passed down the family lines.

Lieux de mémoire are identified in three different ways: as material, symbolic, and functional. In addition, lieux de mémoire are always identified as belonging to all of these different interpretations. According to Nora, a lieux de mémoire becomes a material site when “the imagination invests it with a symbolic aura.” (Nora 19). In conventional terms, this would refer to something like a museum or archive. In regard to food, this can refer to something like Steinberg’s grandmother’s challah bread. For Steinberg, the challah is invested with the idea that it connects his family to their grandmother and to their cultural and historical heritage. Naturally, this investment is not displayed outright in the challah bread, but rather in the minds of those who consume it. A lieux de mémoire becomes a functional site when the lieux is “the object of ritual” (Nora 19), like a testament or reunion. Again, the grandmother’s challah bread is also applicable. Steinberg says his grandmother “always arrived on the doorstep with two challahs, one for the Sabbath meal, the other to sustain us until the next Sabbath meal”(Steinberg 295). The challah is an object of ritual because it is eaten every Sunday without fail, and constantly during the week. Its importance and the memories associated with it are brought up at least once a week. Finally, a lieux becomes symbolic when there is “a concentrated appeal to memory by literally breaking a temporal continuity.” (Nora 19). By taking the time to eat the challah every Sunday, the family is stepping away from its normal routine and is setting time aside specifically for the challah. With this break in the weekly routine to consume challah, the Steinberg family is setting aside time to remember its family history and cultural ties. Many different foods are consumed in the same exact way the challah is consumed by the Steinberg family, like your grandmother’s apple pie or your aunt’s meatloaf recipe, thus defining them as lieux de mémoire.

Following Pierre Nora’s definition of lieux de mémoire and their defining characteristics, it becomes easy to see how food can be used as lieux de mémoire. Foods, just like lieux de mémoire, are used as ways to preserve memories and can help people identify with their cultural and familial heritage and, in discovering those histories, define themselves. Foods also fall into the three definitions of lieux de mémoire that must coexist: functional, symbolic, and material. You don’t think about how the foods you eat connect you to your family and to your history, but it’s true. Food serves as an invaluable resource in bridging generation gaps, forming family ties, and teaching people about their culture and is therefore an important part in the lieux de mémoire culture that should not be overlooked.


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