The Use of Pleasure
José Manuel dos Santos and António Soares

The dossier of this edition of Electra speaks of our age by speaking of food. Food is a global feature of our times, ever present as we strive for goals that always seem out of reach. Food seduces and bewitches, rallies and mobilises, fascinates and even sparks obsession. And, in some parts of the world, it is often in short supply. (...)

Heritage and transmission, experience and discovery, tradition and innovation, individual and social, pleasure and sin, necessity and waste, hunger and abundance, identity and alterity, food is culture and cult. We eat and we savour what we eat. We eat and we talk about what we eat. We eat and we want to know what we are eating. Sabores (flavours) and saberes (knowledge) have become inseparable through the similarity in sounds and the attraction of the senses. We travel to eat. Restaurants are places of veneration and liturgy. Chefs are priests, magicians, heroes, stars, and sometimes martyrs. Food – and all that surrounds it – is an art, a field of knowledge, a discourse, a fashion. It is a cultural process, an anthropological object, an ecological theme, a philosophical topic, a political issue.

At the same time as food is glorified, our obsession with eternal youth and with the body where this youth is exhibited (the theme of the dossier of Electra 5) leads to diets (or attempted diets) and the regimes in which they are followed as an ever-present horizon of our lives and of our deaths. More than ever, and better than ever before, we know that food can be health and sickness.

Nourishment becomes food when nature becomes culture, and one is to the other as sex is to sexuality. Nourishment and food divide, distinguish and differentiate continents, regions, countries, social classes, religious communities, cultural groups, generations and peoples. Food has a history and a geography, an anthropology and a semantics.

Words beginning with the letter ‘R’ are now inextricably related to the food that we eat. We talk of reviving, recreating, reinventing, remaking, replacing, reproducing, reworking, rethinking, and reimagining. Only the word fusion doesn’t start with an R. In food, memory is as fundamental an ingredient as any other.

The history of nourishment and of food – both near and distant, in time and space – is a history that is now made and remade until we see ourselves in it or are estranged from it, something that we inherit and that, sometimes, we squander. A daily stream of books is published telling us what food was and how it evolved, what it represented and what it provoked. Food is an indicator, a sign, symptom, demonstration, proof. Revisions join hands with reiterations, discoveries accompany surprises.

And so, when we now look back upon Greek antiquity, to see how life was lived then, we are often astonished by what we see. This surprise emerges, for example, when we try to discover the nature, in that world that appears to have been the birthplace of everything, of each individual’s relationship with him or herself and with others – and of the theories and practices through which they were expressed and given meaning.

In that search for the precepts, recommendations and warnings that configured the various possibilities of an ethics of life and an aesthetics of existence, observing what was called ‘care for the self’ and which some now call ‘self-techniques’, one of the discoveries that may amaze us most is the revelation that, for the Greeks, food was more important than sexuality.

Greek culture and society, as expressed through their systems of moral values and codes of individual conduct, their ideas about pleasure and sensibility about its use, paid more attention to food – and to the fasts that for some were associated with it – than to issues of sexuality. It should be noted that these value systems and codes of conduct weren’t intended to straitjacket everyone into homogeneity but to create personal choices suggested by philosophical schools. In stark contrast to the norms of permission and prohibition imposed by monotheistic religions, these choices were plural and distinct from one another, even if there were certain common rules, tendencies, and prohibitions.

This Greek hierarchy of theoretical and practical moral preoccupations, in which food ranked above sexuality, lasted into the early Christian era. Accordingly, the rules of monastic life reveal a great and overriding concern with nourishment and the appetites it engendered (gluttony). In the Middle Ages, a slow change took place and, with the increasing attention paid to sexuality, there was a kind of balancing out of the two preoccupations. It was only in the seventeenth century that the issue of sexuality started to become more prominent – a tendency that has been increasing ever since.

However, and even with this later prevalence of rulings and prohibitions regarding sex, the attention paid to food and to dietary behaviour remained part of the cultural landscape of various epochs, its presence and visibility ebbing and flowing over successive periods, as revealed by countless works of religion, philosophy, literature, the arts, the sciences, morality and law.

In the sixteenth century, an age of great change, Rabelais sang of (or pretended to sing of) the ‘science of the mouth’ and the ‘divine bottle’, inventing the Gastrolaters, who do not work or do anything, for fear of ‘offending or lessening their paunch’. They venerate the god Gaster, to whom they make sacrifices of products and dishes, a vast list that is recounted in meticulous detail. In Gargantua and Pantagruel the writer, who was a monk, a doctor and a professor of anatomy, brought together a craving for knowledge and a craving for flavour, mental and physical imagination, intellectual and sensual greed, imaginative abundance and verbal exuberance, seriousness and satire, stylistic fecundity and literary farce. Thanks to him, Pantagruel became not only a proper noun but also a common noun (in French) and an adjective (pantagruelian), much used over the centuries. Rabelais’ century was also the century of Bruegel and of his paintings of peasants eating and drinking as they celebrated their joyful weddings.

As the sixteenth century drew to a close, Michel de Montaigne dedicated a number of pages of his celebrated ‘Essays’ to food and to nourishment, discussing the experience and what it teaches us, taste and the way it changes, smells and their messages, the selection of foodstuffs, the sensations of appetite, the pursuit of pleasure, precautions and excesses, fasting and satiety, the fundaments of health and the causes of disease, medical prescriptions and their abuse, habits and timetables, the teachings of nature, conviviality at the table, harmony of body and mind, and wisdom and meditation. For Montaigne, ensuring happiness entailed taking as much care over food as over life.

The century that gave us Rabelais and Montaigne also gave us Luís de Camões and his evocations of meals and banquets, menus and delicacies. Evocations that have since inspired menus that faithfully reflect the poet’s words, based on assiduous research of the culinary products and eating habits of the period, filling gaps and compensating for ignorance with imagination in modern recreations of dishes from that distant age when Portuguese ships brought home what had never been tasted before.

The history of gastronomy in Europe is French-speaking. Although the word gastronomie was invented in 1801 by the poet and humourist Joseph Berchoux as the title of a playful poem, the birth and development of the art to which it refers came long before. In 1651, halfway through the ‘Grand Siècle’, Le Cuisinier François by François Pierre de La Varenne, chef to the Marquis d’Uxelles, marked the shift from medieval cookery to the grand tradition of modern French cookery. This was a time of a variety of changes in food: from heavily seasoned dishes to the discovery of the natural flavour of products. The book was a revolution, and set out terminology and codified principles, rules and recipes that are still recognisable and palatable today. Some of his ideas on food have been passed down to our own age, or have been rediscovered. In the paintings of that period, such as Vermeer’s The Milkmaid, or Josefa de Óbidos’s still lifes, food seems to tell us secrets.

The transformations of the Enlightenment led – so long ago! – to a nouvelle cuisine. In 1735 Le cuisinier moderne was published by Vincent La Chapelle, who had been chef to various courts, including that of King John V of Portugal. Some years later, François Marin wrote Les dons de Comus (1739), stating in the preface,

The old cookery is that made fashionable by the French throughout Europe […] Modern cookery, based on the foundations of what came before, with fewer trappings, less rigmarole and with such variety. It is simpler, more fitting, and perhaps even wiser. The old cookery was very complicated and extraordinary in its detail. Modern cookery is a form of chemistry.1


Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Bacchus, c. 1590
© Photo: Scala, Florence / Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence


In the opinion of Marin, chef to Louis XV’s famous and wily lover Madame de Pompadour, it was not quantity but harmony of qualities that would lead to refined perfection. This was the century of Jean-Baptiste Chardin’s masterly paintings of utensils, crockery, food and the appetites they provoked. Once seen, the scheming cat of his painting The Ray is never forgotten.

The nineteenth century, the century of restaurants, was the age in which gastronomic journalism emerged. It was also the time when the worlds of cookery and literature came together as never before. A writer of the time had this to say to restaurateurs about the influence of restaurants on social, political, cultural and economic life:

You do not know how much you are worth. With your luncheons, you are the regulators of opinion, of finances, of family interests, of the votes of the Institute, and perhaps even of parliament. In our Belle France, everything revolves around your tables and about your bottles.2

The same could indeed be said today and, speaking of those luncheons around which everything revolves, someone once exclaimed: ‘There’s no such thing as a free lunch’.

In 1833, Antonin Carême published L’art de la cuisine française au XIX siècle. This man, born into a family so poor that at times they went hungry, carved out a career with remarkable tenacity. He started out as a kitchen boy, then worked as an apprentice pastry cook and subsequently became a master pâtissier. He continued to rise, cooking for Europe’s kings, princes, aristocrats and bankers, including Napoleon, Joachim Murat, the King of Naples, Talleyrand, Tsar Alexander I of Russia, King George IV of England and James de Rothschild, and becoming the best paid chef in the world. Carême was not a proficient writer and so his masterwork was ghost-written, its instructions informed by his knowledge and experience. Unfinished at the time of his death, after which it was completed by a disciple, L’art de la cuisine française au XIX siècle, like his other books on pâtisserie, was a chef’s bible for many years and is regarded as a founding text that moulded and influenced a series of generations.

Prior to this, in 1825, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a magistrate, man of letters and famous epicure, and regarded as one of the founders of French gastronomy, had anonymously published the two volumes of his Physiology of Taste. Prefaced in its 1838 and 1839 reeditions by Honoré de Balzac, who praised its form and content, this work of philosophical ambition is regarded as one of the first examples of a gradual intellectualising of the skills, uses and pleasures of gastronomy. In it, Savarin declares – as many do to this day, unaware of whom they are echoing – ‘Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are’.

When we contemplate this period, it seems that writers were always eating. If Gabriel García Márquez named his memoirs Living to Tell the Tale, it might be said that these writers ate to tell the tale. From Balzac to Flaubert, from Guy de Maupassant to Émile Zola, food plays an enormous role in their books, and is simultaneously literal description and metaphorical image. There were also writers who were not only gourmets, but true scholars of gastronomy. The last work of the popular novelist Alexandre Dumas père, author of The Three Musketeers and a noted gourmet, and who was bestowed the honour of interment in France’s Pantheon in 2002, was the Grand Dictionnaire de cuisine, recently republished in three volumes.

The art of the novel is, in many cases, accompanied by an art of cookery. There are books across all literatures that highlight the relationship between the two arts, listing authors, works, characters, situations, recipes, meals, foodstuffs, sweets and drinks that, in romances, novels and stories, feature in narratives and descriptions that awaken our senses.

These stories are portraits of a time and a society, revealing the differences in the possessions, attitudes and customs of the different social classes. If, in Portugal, in the works of Camilo Castelo Branco, gastronomy often makes an appearance to help to flesh out characters, it is in Eça de Queiroz that the pleasures of the table invite us to join his characters in their pleasure, making our mouths water (or taste wine). This was also the time in which writers (and other artists) gave their name to dishes they invented or ate frequently.

The most famous example in Portugal is Bulhão Pato clams, named after the famous nineteenth century poet. In the second half of the nineteenth century, many pre-Impressionist and Impressionist paintings – such as Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, Renoir’s Le déjeuner des conotiers, and another Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, by Monet, to name a few – became symbols of a new relationship between bodies and nature, and of bodies with each other. Later, Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters, Cézanne’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, and Toulouse-Lautrec’s At the Café la Mie reveal, for existential motives or formal reasons, a transformation of the gaze. And in the ceramics of Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro the food and the arts of the table acquired a magnificent metonymy.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, the figure of the chef Auguste Escoffier looms large. Seen as a successor to Carême, he was, like the latter, a great reinventor (and reformer) of the culinary arts. Solidly trained in every branch of gastronomy, he was a pioneer of many things, notably the marriage of cookery and marketing. The numerous great events at which his food played a part, and the countless notable figures he served, lent him a prestige and notoriety that he made the most of and made headlines with. Before the nineteenth century was over, he had become manager of Maison Chevet, which organised great banquets in France and throughout Europe. A meeting with César Ritz, then director of the Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo, led to an invitation to become the hotel’s chef. The encounter would change the course of his life and of the history of hotels and catering.

The two men went on to create and establish a concept of opulent new hotels (known as palaces), in which the gastronomic arts and dining rooms played a central role. These dining rooms became potent protagonists of the world of the powerful and were frequented by women, who had previously taken their meals in private suites. Thanks to this change, the restaurants of the great hotels became worldly salons, where the latest fashions, lovers, jewels and social relations were put on show. In 1890, Escoffier went to London as the chef of the Savoy Hotel, whose restaurant became a shrine to the most refined and exclusive French cuisine. After murky allegations were made by a sommelier that both were involved in corruption and the theft of wines, Ritz and Escoffier left for France, and founded the Hotel Ritz de Paris in 1898.

The great chef knew what he wanted to do, and one of his innovations was the reorganisation of the kitchen and the use of new gadgets and utensils such as ovens designed specifically for particular purposes. His doctrine was founded on innovation, particularly in the care he took in hygiene, the discipline he exacted from his teams, and specialisation (with cooks only making sauces, or roasting, for example). In this way, service became quicker and dishes were served at just the right temperature. Escoffier also became a pioneer of the use of terroir products.

The Paris Ritz was (and remains) a glorious success. An historic haunt of the rich and famous, it was the starting point for the journey that ended in Princess Diana’s death. Escoffier also worked at the London Carlton, having become a consultant for various companies and projects, and was paid his weight in gold. An enormously influential culinary writer, he also contributed to the great gastronomic magazines of the time and was a tireless custodian, cataloguer and codifier of thousands of recipes, compiling them in his famous Guide culinaire, which remains a major cookery and gastronomy reference work to this day. He retired in 1920, having been awarded the Legion of Honour one year earlier.

One of Escoffier’s regular customers at the Ritz was Marcel Proust. For the great writer, cooking, with its products and dishes, its operations and rituals, helped give substance to that great world of sensations that his immense multipart novel bears witness to. It was also fuel for his obsessive listing, cataloguing, differentiating, associating and deciphering.

In Proust, what one eats emits signals. And how one eats, where one eats and with whom one eats also emits powerful signs, forming systems and creating sets of clues that demand perceptive attention and a subtle hermeneutics. It was Proust who transformed a cake – a madeleine – into one of the devices upon which he built his literary world. Through its evocative power, and its promotion to the status of the instrument of involuntary memory, Proust’s madeleine became one of the most important symbolic objects in the history of literature, achieving a status that even rivals that of the great characters of fiction.

Food continued its glittering literary career through the Modernist period. In the poem ‘Dobrada à Moda do Porto’ [Oporto-Style Tripe], by Fernando Pessoa / Álvaro de Campos3, this dish – served shamefully cold to him, in place of the love he had wanted, and that he was not given to eat – becomes a metaphysical symbol of the discomfort we experience when we are at odds with life and the world. And it was at this time that painters who had emerged at the end of the previous century – Nabis such as Bonnard and Vuillard, Cubists such as Picasso and Braque, and Fauvists such as Matisse and Derain – wondrously transformed their natures mort into compositions that were very much alive.

Over the course of the last two centuries, food has been studied in the light of the various disciplines that already existed or that became established, in spheres ranging from the natural sciences to the social sciences. And the arts, from painting to sculpture, and from theatre to the cinema, have adopted food as subject matter and motif, as exemplified by the unforgettable scenes of La Grande Bouffe.

One of those whose approach to the subject could be described as new was the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. His book The Raw and the Cooked was hailed as a revelation. One of the fundamental ideas it introduced was that the shift from the raw to the cooked represents the shift from nature to culture. Decay, meanwhile, represents a return to nature and the final act of natural transformation. These notions that are so immediately applicable to cooking were also appropriated by other realms of discourse such as film criticism.

More recently, food has become not only a subject and material for the visual arts, drawn on by Pop artists Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg, as well as Dieter Roth and Francis Bacon. It has also become one of art’s most significant and sophisticated manifestations. In the 1970s, Gordon Matta-Clark and the future members of the group Anarchitecture created FOOD in New York, a restaurant that was open to the public, where artists cooked food, ideas and projects.

One of the venues of documenta in Kassel in 2007, which was dedicated to the migration of form, was El Bulli in Catalonia, one of the most famous restaurants in the world at the time. Its superstar chef patron, Ferran Adrià, revolutionised the art of cooking with ‘molecular gastronomy’. By this time, Adrià had already published a six-volume catalogue raisonné of his culinary creations, in the manner of an exhibition catalogue. The chef stated, ‘Cooking cannot be “museified” – it is an artistic discipline that needs its own scenario, and its scenario is the place where we do it.’ And he added,

One of the many characteristics of cooking, which makes it unique, is that it is a discipline where space and the audience are very important. It’s a multisensory, communicative activity, which you cannot do for more than 30, 40 or 50 people. It’s a very participatory activity, where the person who receives is very important.


Still from La Ricotta, Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1963
Film, 35 min. France and Italy


josefa de obidos

Baltazar Gomes Figueira and Josefa de Ayala, March, 1668
© Photo: José Pessoa / Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon


Nourishment, food, cooking, cuisine, catering, gastronomy, dieting and oenology – the arts of the table are everywhere. They feature in conversations, on the television, in newspapers and magazines, on social networks, and in conferences and lectures. They are present in universities, museums, commerce, medicine, literature, the visual arts and advertising, and are addressed by ecology, religion, history, sociology, chemistry, biology, politics, economy, law, mediology and linguistics. Food has regained its sacred function. Restaurants are places of worship. Chefs and their trademark cuisines are the most famous idols of our time. Michelin stars are as prestigious as noble titles, religious canonisations, literary prizes, the Oscars and sporting trophies.

From sweet to savoury, from food to beverages, from solids to liquids, from the raw to the cooked, everything is discussed. Every day there are new discoveries, new creations, new information, new experiences. There are people who travel hours by plane to go and dine at a newly opened restaurant at the end of the world. Like the chef’s portfolio, the customer’s portfolio has become a determinant of social status, an image attribute, a matter of pride.

Wines and all that surrounds them now spark investment, research, trade wars. There are those who know (or think they know) everything about wine. Debates lasting hours ensue on the matter, leading to lifelong alliances or ending old friendships.

Food and cooking have become a global fashion. The shelves of bookshops groan with books on food and cooking. The internet is full of food and drink. Every university department and speciality teems with every kind of study of food. Ecological concerns and animal rights have changed the way we see food. Food and eating speak of our present and indeed of our future, anticipating some of the debates that will be thrashed out in that future.

It is as if, in these early decades of the twenty-first century, food has regained the prominence it held in Ancient Greece. Yet, as with everything that happens in our fast-moving, attention-seeking times, food has become something more than itself. Its current predominance is a sign that also says who we are and how we are what we are.

That is why making food and nourishment the ‘Subject’ of this edition of Electra is true to our ongoing project of tracing the shifting face of our times, through its major tendencies and its minor symptoms, both manifest and latent. Food tells us all of this. It tells us about a time that turns everything into a spectacle, a piece of merchandise, a fame and a narcissism. And that does this in the belief that it is witnessing something entirely new.

To reaffirm our approach, Electra invited six photographers from the famous Magnum Agency, created in 1947, to create images that offer a visual reading of these themes. Food is thus observed by great photographers in original works produced for this issue, with images made by Alex Webb, Jacob Aue Sobol, Cristina de Middel, Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Martin Parr and Lindokuhle Sobekwa in Boston (United States), Horslunde (Denmark), Mexico City (Mexico), Saint Petersburg and Moscow (Russia), Bristol (United Kingdom), and Johannesburg and Thokoza (South Africa). The significance of this project in cultural and artistic terms, and as a means of communication is quite evident and needs no further comment.

In the ‘Scoop’ section, which showcases new creative work, we also present images produced by an established photographer, the Spaniard Alberto García-Alix, during his artistic residency at the Prado Museum.

These are the magnificent opening lines of the book The Apple in the Dark, by Clarice Lispector:

This tale begins in March on a night as dark as night can get when a person is asleep. The peaceful way in which time was passing could be seen in the high passage of the moon across the sky. Then later on, much deeper into night, the moon too disappeared.

There was nothing now to distinguish Martim’s sleep from the slow and moonless garden. When a man slept so deeply, he came to be the same as that tree standing over there or the hop of a toad in the darkness.4

On the centenary of the birth of this great Brazilian writer of Ukrainian origin, we publish an essay that reveals a less well-known side to her: that of her very special – and little evident – relationship with politics. Few female writers are so mysterious. In Lispector, mystery is not formed of something that is intentionally hidden. It is the substance of everything and the sustenance whose pursuit compelled her to continue writing. Perhaps this could serve as inspiration for every edition of Electra to be a similar pursuit, as we discover more of the age in which our world has been shaped, and of the age that is now that is our own.

1. Our translation.
2. Our translation.
3. Álvaro de Campos was a heteronym of Fernando Pessoa.
4. Lispector, Clarice, 1986: The Apple in the Dark, (trans. Gregory Rabassa), Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press p.21.