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  • Writer's pictureRita Lança

Eating from Death: Contributions Towards a Sociology of End-of-life care - I

In my gut, intuition and curiosity have long been moving to combine two universes – eating and living, and how they intertwine and converge in the end-of-life process.

The touchstones for writing the article from which I weave this post, and which sharpened this appetite that had long been gnawing at me inside 😊, were the approach of the Christmas season and conversations with Ricardo, the daring cemetery architect, who introduced me to the research of Mariana Sanchez Salvador, a Portuguese architect who studies the intersections between food and architecture.

Our cultural nature

Carolyn Steel, in her work Hungry City: How Food Shapes our Lives in 2008, considered that the shared act of eating is humanity’s most complex social phenomenon because it’s the context where we define ourselves as social beings and recognize our deep connection with the natural world we inhabit.

Observing the social and cultural processes that permeate how we experience the end of life, I tend to recognise the central role that the relationship with food, people, places, and the landscapes of our lives occupy during that time. On the other hand, I also note the obvious weakening of our bond, our relationship with nature and its cyclical essence.

The figure of our own body is perhaps the best metaphor for this understanding.

The body that we care for through the food we prepare, the body that exhibits very particular food preferences, the body that holds affective memories of the foods/places of our lives and expresses a distinctive identity within the community that nurtures it. I remember that in my grandfather Joaquim's house, the chicken feet were always reserved for my godfather and me – we are known for and cared for according to how we eat.

If, from one perspective, our dependence on the natural ecosystem to feed ourselves is evident, whether through the direct consumption of raw products or through transformation, on the other hand, we have been losing practical wisdom regarding the constant transformation of our bodies, a transformation that attests to our interdependence with nature. We are also nature, nature shaped by culture. The scientific audacity that has allowed us to extend our life expectancy still does not allow us to bypass the intrinsic dependence our bodies have on natural cycles, particularly the process of decline leading to death.

Thinking about the end-of-life period, associated with aging or chronic or prolonged illness, it’s common to observe how the cultural dimension tends to colonize the natural dimension, exemplified in the common practice of continuing to feed a body with the same quantities and frequency when that body is actively slowing down and gradually reducing its functions.

It’s important, therefore, to look at the processes through which we socialize in care, the configurations and the meaning we imprint on cooking and eating practices, and how these reflect on the end of life.

Refuges that provide us with care

Paraphrasing my friend Hugo Dunkel, we are possibly the only beings that feel the need to seek, and to create a shelter that ensures refuge.

After the mother's womb, food, affection/bonding/relationships/community, and home/landscape become great refuges, placentas that nourish us.

"Because home is our corner of the world. It is our first universe" (Gaston Bachelard, 1998, The Poetics of Space). The place where we live becomes a place of refuge, of shelter, a place for intimate socialising, where our individual identity is finely woven and the social identity is projected, witnessing values and ways of life. In this sense, house(s), the landscapes that form their surroundings and the community are important centres of security and fertile sources for the generation of our imagination, of our inner landscapes, of the being/memory we embody.

As Mariana Salvador points out, it’s significant to have the fire at the centre of the house, materialised in the kitchen. This fire feeds the body and soul, this fire provides heat and allows for cooking. Shelter and food constitute universal biological needs, and both also carry the dimension of affective nourishment.

In the social arena, cooking and eating are central to the sociology of care. Food is made by someone, for someone; it is thus a space of dietary references and a space of primary socialization. In Portuguese reality, the preparation of food is largely associated with the figure of feminine care, the woman, the mother, the grandmother.

Food plays a crucial role in the construction of identity and memory. The sense of smell is the most prominent memory in us and is permeated by the smells of the foods that inhabit us, that feel like home and which continue to mean emotional refuge for us. These memories are associated with specific places we inhabited, practices, traditions, symbolisms. A dish is the manifestation of a territory, a soil, a climate, peculiar products, and flavours, of which we emotionally take ownership. The productive system itself is shaped by culinary practices that indelibly influence the landscape architecture of places. As Santi Santamaría stated in his work La Cocina al desnudo in 2008, "my land is my kitchen."

Kitchen of the Ferreira de Castro House-Museum
Kitchen of the Ferreira de Castro House-Museum. Photo by Carlos Oliveira Castro (Ferreira de Castro Studies Center)

Spending life eating

Among the acts that mark the rhythm of life, in shared daily existence, eating is undoubtedly fundamental and continuous. It takes on various dimensions: as a nutritive act, a source of pleasure, an act of sociability and communication, a grove of memories, affections, and meanings.

Being associated with spaces and rituals that vary according to historical times, to the cultures that shape them, social classes, among others, eating configures a performative process.

Thinking about the Portuguese paradigm, the eating routine (the number of meals, their composition, meal times, among others) varies according to individual and communitary circumstances, but generally fits a model that includes several meals throughout the day (traditionally breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, supper), with lunch and dinner tending to be more substantial meals. Taking Italian culture as a comparative example, afternoon tea, known as "merenda," is less common. The "aperitivo," a drink accompanied by a savoury snack before dinner, is more common.

Inheriting the legacy of Southern Europe, Portugal is one of the countries that continues to resist the Taylorist standardisation of food, preserving deeply identity-oriented culinary traditions.

In Portuguese culture, welcoming and caring around the kitchen hearth is an ordinary practice, as a means of providing sustenance for body and soul. Whether we are hungry, unwell, or sad, it’s food that we are offered. A chicken soup to regain strength after a cold, or a hearty stew to fatten the meat that suffering has slimmed down.

This symbiotic relationship between living and eating, the kitchen at the centre of our family life, from which we clothe ourselves to the world – Umwelt" and "Welt" " as described by Paul Ricoeur, my world and the world/environment – was exemplarily outlined in the novels of Ferreira de Castro. I’ll never forget the vivid scene in A Lã e a Neve, where in a cramped space, all dimensions of domestic life unfolded, and where the fire cooked the dreams that nourished life.

I’m very thankful to the Ferreira de Castro Studies Centre, especially to Carlos Oliveira Castro and Cristiana Oliveira, for providing the photo of the kitchen of the Ferreira de Castro Museum House in Ossela, to illustrate the ethos that permeates our culture.

In the next post, I will continue this article, following this culinary journey – Eating from Death 😊 I hope you relish what's coming next!


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