Stephan Palmié, Claire Fanger, The Cooking of History, Afro-Cuban religion, Africa, Cuba, Yoruba, Santéria
One interesting feature of Stephan Palmié’s new book, noted in nearly all the reactions that follow, is the way it makes history visible as an enterprise of collaboration. Moreover, at least in this Afro-Cuban instance, it is revealed to be a collaboration among various parties all of whom have quite specific interests, not always working in tandem. The parties include anthropologists, and various informants, friends of the anthropologists, seers and babalaos, at least some of whom were not primarily intending to work on any kind of history at all.
In this way the “cooking of history” reminded me of the folktale called “Nail Soup.” The story, known in many versions, involves a clever traveler—a tramp or soldier—who devises a way to trick one or more miserly villagers out of their food by claiming to have acquired a chef ’s secret in his travels: an unusual way of making soup from a nail (or some other inert object, a stone or axe or button). In the version I read as a child, it was three hungry soldiers and a crowd of villagers who claimed to have no food to spare, so the soldiers invite the villagers to dinner instead. They beg a kettle filled with water, into which they place their nail. As the water is brought to a boil, the soldiers request various small garnishes from the villagers: first some salt, then a few groats to thicken it, then scraps of bacon, carrots, milk, a little salt beef, some turnip greens, butter, pepper and so on, in the end making a soup fit for the king himself (who—according to their confabulation—has soup made in this same way every day in his castle). [End Page 199]
The story is told from the viewpoint of the soldiers, and from this vantage it was their trick, and the villagers, who were duped into sharing their food, were innocently delighted by it, and turned the evening into a party in honor of the soldiers. However, from each villager’s perspective there might have been something different going on. Perhaps some were willing to trade a bit of bacon in return for having someone else cook it for them; perhaps others paid a cup of groats for the privilege of watching their stingy neighbors donate a few carrots or some bitter greens. There may have been Jewish villagers who went back inside when they saw the bacon, or Hindu villagers likewise with the beef. There may have been others still who saw the con right away and decided to watch from behind the curtains, paying nothing and coming out at the last minute to enjoy the soup at everyone else’s expense. One would need to have lived in the village for quite a long time to understand not only the style of ingredients that became available, but also the way each person is trying to serve himself from the soup pot. The soup is a true collaboration, but everyone’s motivation is partly visible and partly hidden. The longer one lives in the village, the more complex the story of the nail soup becomes.
Of course, this is precisely what ethnography tries to do: by living for a long time in the village, to tell a story that is more complicated than the story of someone just passing through. The anthropologist’s participant observation is no more inert than the soldiers’ nail, of course. Palmie’s book is a retraversing and retelling of a long term of fieldwork that takes another look at the intertwining stories that can be told about this particular social stew pot. He raises new questions: What to do with the many ironies uncovered as one sees through to the underlayers in this stew of motivations? Is there a way to tell a better story, even while representing the full diversity of perspectives? How do you keep your finger on the pulse of...