Eighteenth Century / Food and Culture / Robinson Crusoe

Foreign versus Familiar: Does Food Signify the World?

I am interested in considering  what Roland Barthes claimed food to do: “food sums up and transmits a situation: it constitute[s] an information: it signifies….One could say that an entire world…is present in and signified by food” (21).  Yet, in signifying the world, food, it seems, must first be familiar.  Upon first arriving, shipwrecked, in the island that would become for nearly three decades his home, Robinson Crusoe struggles to understand the edible properties of this foreign land. He meditates on the world around him writing:

“I found a great deal of tobacco, green, and growing to a great and very strong stalk.  There were divers other plants which I had no notion of, or understanding about, and might perhaps have virtues of their own, which I could not find out. I searched for the cassava root, which the Indians in all that climate make their bread of; but I could find none.  I saw large plants of aloes, but did not then understand them.  I saw several sugar canes, but wild, and, for want of cultivation, imperfect.  I contented myself with these discoveries for this time, and came back musing with myself what course I might take to know the virtue and goodness of any of the fruits or plants which I should discover, but could bring it to no conclusion; for, in short, I had made so little observation while I was in the Brazils, that I knew little of the plants in the field, at least very little that might serve me to any purpose now in my distress” (84-85).

In these moments, Crusoe demonstrates that this food does not always signify the world – at least not in any familiar sense. Here, a methodical “reading” of his environment demonstrates a vast and foreign landscape composed of “divers” plants. Yet in their diversity, Crusoe is confronted with the many ways he is floundering in this new land. He has “no notion or understanding” of the potential nutritional virtues surrounding him, and he regrets not having studied the natural environment of the Brazils more closely while he had been there. These native crops simultaneously challenge his understanding of a horticultural model — of the natural process of eating and the artificial process of refinement. While pursuing the crops with which he is familiar with the processing, the Cassava root, he is thwarted. When confronted with a crop he recognizes and has even played an, albeit, distant hand in cultivating, sugar cane, they are “wild” and for “want of cultivation” which he himself cannot supply, imperfect.

Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. (New York: Oxford UP).

Barthes, Roland “Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption.” Food and Culture: A Reader. Ed. Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. (New York: Routledge, 1997).

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