The Formation of Brazilian Cuisine

The formation of Brazilian cuisine (A formação da culinária brasileira), by Carlos Alberto Dória. 2009, Publifolha (série 21). 85pp. (Portuguese)

Ana Carolina B. de Lima
PhD candidate – Indiana University


Carlos Alberto Dória’s work emphasizes the intrinsic nature of social relationship between groups in society and the formation of the Brazilian cuisine. Dória starts by reflecting on the formation of national cuisines in Europe and the unifying political ideology of that region. A history of domination over groups of people, especially before the 18th century, reflected a prevalence of elite habits in culinary books and most texts about cuisine during early periods.

Books on the history of specific cuisines, describing tradition through foodways, have been very much in vogue in the past decades. Many of them focus on the idea that globalization has a homogenizing cultural power, harming or extinguishing local cuisine practices. However, many alternatives to this oversimplifying approach have emerged.  Dória puts forward one of these alternative routes in his account of the formation of the Brazilian cuisine. Dória defends a definition of cuisine very different from the traditional view of a collection of shared recipes among a certain group. He concentrates on the presence of distinctive markers, such as the consumption of beer with tomato juice in Cuba or avocado with sugar in Brazil, as more important in defining a cuisine.

Ultimately Dória argues for the definition of cuisine as a process. He supports the concept of a “cookery of ingredients” – “innovate without paying tribute to traditional recipes”. Here there is also a criticism to a static concept of tradition, arguing that tradition is a process of creation, constantly dialoguing with historical and social contexts. This notion also implies that ingredients are always culturally selected items, which therefore cannot be disconnected from history, and are constantly translating issues of utility, taste, and so on that have been evolving often over millennia through collective experience. This fundamental characteristic of cuisines, comprising no “pure state” natural substances, makes it impossible for a cuisine to lose its cultural component, as many may argue.

Dória does an excellent job setting the stage and putting Brazilian cuisine in a social perspective, showing how society has changed since the colonial period. He acknowledges the merits of pioneer figures on food studies in Brazil, such as Gilberto Freyre and more specifically on the subject of cuisines, Câmara Cascudo. However, Dória criticizes their views on the ground that they gave equal weight to different ethnic groups in forming a national diet.  Dória’s book is essentially the work of a sociologist on the formation of a cuisine throughout history. It is radically differing from Gilberto Freyre, who accredited the African influence on the Brazilian cuisine, and the active role of slaves in the kitchen. Dória argues that it was not until after the abolition of slavery that Brazilians of African descent had an active role in modifying a national cuisine. Until the end of the nineteenth century in Brazil, African descents held the status of an object to be possessed for labor, and their diets were dictated by colonists to satisfy hunger under the ideal of maximizing working strength and longevity.

Any Brazilian interested on the development of a national cuisine and its implications will be fascinated by Dória’s accounts realizing how conventional views of our food traditions are rooted in the notion of ethnic integration. For instance, Dória mentions a popular dish in the menu of many Brazilians, the “bife a parmegiana”, which has nothing to do with the Parma region in Italy, and despite its popularity in Brazil, is not considered a traditional Brazilian dish, simply on the basis of strangeness to the idea of an amalgamation of Portuguese, African and indigenous influence in diets. Other dishes considered national symbols are not as present in the diets of Brazilians as the aforementioned steak with tomato sauce and cheese fallaciously associated with Italian cuisine. In “The formation of Brazilian cuisine”, all the peculiar element of the cuisine are brought forth in light of a historical context. Dória criticizes conventional analysis, and defends new approaches, proposing a different interpretation of the history of foodways in Brazil. He recognizes “patches” of different cuisines in the Brazilian territory with specific marked ingredients as products of the historical developments occurring in the region, especially bringing the marginalized and the poor into the equation. For instance, he mentions the sertão as a vast region where free and poor people struggled for subsistence for many decades, incorporating beans, sweet corn, and manioc as essentials in the diets of that cuisine “patch”.

Dória finishes his book on a very optimistic note, addressing the issue of emerging “culinary fashions and gastronomies” that in one way or another convey a Brazilian feel. He cites five styles, including an experimental fusion of Brazilian ingredients and marker ingredients of other cultures; and a search for confirmation that what is rooted as traditional in the minds of the elite may be imaginary. Moreover, Dória points to the exclusion of certain ingredients in Brazilian diet, which were once popular in the national cuisine. He gives many examples ranging from exotic or native ingredients to others currently still charged with a heavy Brazilian identity status. From a resource use point of view, it is a bizarre that some available ingredients are not even permitted to be used in Brazilian diets anymore. For instance, while in places such as France, wild meat carries an aristocratic connotation and is consumed and preferred, Dória specifically shows how, in defense of conservationism, the consumption of wild animals has been transformed into an illegal act in Brazil.

Concerns with what we eat and its implications are extremely significant in recent times, and Dória fails to strongly stress this issue. On the other hand, I am convinced that Dória’s work on “The formation of Brazilian cuisine” is an outstanding resource, with a critical and fresh approach to Brazilian cuisine, a must read for any scholar interested in culture and food developments in Brazil.

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