Barthes, "Ornamental Cookery": Some Passages; Some Images

        Barthes was in some ways a fan of "popular culture," but he deeply suspected the politics of bourgeois culture because it duped working class minds into settling for imitations, dumb shows and simulacra of the goods and services that really were only available to the bourgoisie and aristocrats.  Hence, he takes aim at Elle's food photography precisely because of the magazine's own target audience, working class families.  Though he's doing socio-political analysis, his method works much like Levi-Strauss' myth-analysis because he treats the symbolic function of these social phenomena as mythic, and he's looking for the "gross constituent units" that are grouped together in "bundles" of signifiers which are mainly visual events rather than sounds or narrative units (e.g., the natural must be covered with a concealing film and the food's actual substance recreated by art vs. the monster must be killed and its killer walks badly).

"Compare L'Express, whose exclusively middle-class public enjoys a comfortable purchasing power: its cookery is real, not magical.  Elle gives the recipe of fancy partridges, L'Express gives that of salade nicoise.  The readers of Elle are entitled only to fiction; one can suggest real dishes to those of L'Express, in the certainty that they will be able to prepare them" (Barthes 80).

Method in practice:

"The 'substantial ' category which prevails in this type of cooking is that of the smooth coating: there is an obvious endeavor to glaze surfaces, to round them off, to bury the food under the even sediment of sauces, creams, icing and jellies.   [ . . . ]  ...its role is to present to its vast public . . . the very dream of smartness.  Hence, a cooking which is based on coatings and alibis, and is for ever trying to extenuate and even to disguise the primary nature of foodstuffs, the brutality of meat or the abruptness of seafood" (Barthes 78).

"Glazing, in Elle, serves as background for unbridled beautification: chiseled mushrooms, punctuation of cherries, motifs of carved lemon, shavings of truffle, silver pastilles, arabesques of glace fruit . . . the food itself . . . is intended to be the page on which can be read a whole rococo cookery" (Barthes 78).

"Ornamentation proceeds in two contradictory ways, which [are] dialectically reconciled: on the one hand, fleeing from nature thanks to a kind of frenzied baroque (sticking shrimps in a lemon [etc.]), and on the other, trying to reconstitute it through an incongruous artifice (strewing meringue mushrooms and holly leaves on a traditional log-shaped Christmas cake, [etc.]" (Barthes 79).

"This ornamental cookery is indeed supported by a wholly mythical economics.  ...photographs in Elle . . . never show the dishes except from a high angle, as objects at once near and inaccessible, whose consumption can perfectly well be accomplished simply by looking" (Barthes 79).

Click here for Barthes on Wrestling.

Click here for help adapting Barthes' method and choosing a cultural system to analyze.