Sigmund Freud, the Austrian psychiatrist widely viewed as the father of psychoanalysis, is often attributed with the statement “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” an odd declaration from a man who devoted his life to assigning meaning to everything. Roland Barthes, the French philosopher and literary theorist who wrote extensively about the tendency of contemporary social value systems to create modern myths, asks in a more typically Freudian fashion “who would claim that in France wine is only wine?”
This February, the Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, grande dame of France’s most revered vineyard, unveiled the label for the 2006 Chateau Mouton Rothschild, a childlike painting of a zebra head and a plant – an illustration the Chateau described as “a joyously exotic transposition of the pleasure of drinking, in which the vine stock is transformed into a springing palm tree and the wine lover into a happily anticipatory zebra.”
One could view the Chateau’s statement as commentary on the power of art to communicate intangibles, but I perceive it as evidence of the abundant mythology surrounding the fermented grape in France. (Coincidentally, the artist behind the Chateau’s new label is Lucian Freud; his grandfather Sigmund would likely be proud of the vineyard’s interesting interpretation of his grandson’s rendering.)
Food, in the view of Barthes and many other scholars, is a language, a system of communication. Barthes describes wine, in particular, as an institution, a consumable that implies “a set of images, dreams, tastes, choices, and values.” Wine is never only wine any more than a rare steak is simply a piece of meat. The food we consume tells others much about us. A cart holding a top shelf cabernet and two porterhouse steaks, for example, communicates a message to fellow shoppers that is vastly different than the one transmitted by a basket filled with soy milk and a block of tofu. But both wine and steak in France represent something much more than affluence, power, social status, and other the abstractions commonly associated with these items. They are not simply symbols; they are the source of abundant (and sometimes contradictory) myth.
Myth is used to define and add meaning to our gestures, our rituals, and our social interactions. We develop myths to explain, to justify, and to create meaning beyond that which we are capable of seeing. Take wine, for example, a substance that transmutes as it is imbibed. Instead of simply accepting the physiological effects of intoxication, such as loss of social inhibitions and exhibition of uncharacteristic behaviors, the French have ascribed alchemical properties to wine, believing it is “capable of reversing situations and states.” More than simply being the “totem-drink” of France, as representative of the country’s gestalt as the milk of the Dutch cow is to Holland, the French believe that wine has “plastic powers” – making the weak strong and the silent talkative, empowering the worker and transforming the intellectual into a man of the people. Steak in France is similarly steeped in myth. Not simply a slice of beef, steak is a defining morsel of the country’s soul, its full-bloodedness the very essence of French national pride.
The copious mythology surrounding wine and steak in France attests to the centrality of these items not simply to the French culinaria but also to French culture itself. Barthes’ observations, particularly those promoting wine and steak as consumable effectors of patriotism, remain relevant despite Barthes having penned his observations more than 50 years. More than any other country, the French have successfully defended their food heritage in the face of globalization. Could the deep-rooted mythology of French food and French foodways have been instrumental in that defense?
In an extreme show of anti-globalization sentiment, vineyard owners in France's Languedoc-Roussillon region have resorted to wine “terrorism,” a shocking attempt to spur the French government into protecting them against the assault of inexpensive imports from New World wine-producing countries. I cannot imagine any sector of the United States food industry that would defend its heritage and territory as vociferously as French winemakers have protected the wine industry – not even the producers of the very symbol of American patriotism, the hot dog.
Each year, Americans spend more than four billion dollars on hot dogs, eating 150 million on Independence Day alone. But in response to a recent anti-hot dog advertising campaign sponsored by the Cancer Project, all the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council (by all rights the propagators of the myth of American patriotism by hot dog) could muster was a polite rebuttal in the press.
From its first appearance on American shores in the late 1800s, the humble frankfurter (by most accounts a German invention) has come to represent American national pride. But a 140-year history, only two or three generations, is clearly not long enough to create the depth of myth – revolution-inspiring myth – associated with French wine. The French have been drinking fermented grapes, and creating their wine myth, for centuries, many more years before the first New Yorker ordered the first frank from the first hot dog stand on Coney Island.