Steak has a profoundly powerful meaning behind it. Cutting into a perfect medium-rare steak, the sensational flow of juices, the rich smell, that wonderful charred outside and sanguine redness within, the anticipation of that first umami-rich bite, then the feeling of pure bliss as you bite into it. Steak has a flavour and taste like nothing else, to eat it is to remind you how alive you really are. It is filled with magic.
Roland Barthes asserts that steak shares its mythology with wine. They are both the heart of being, filling the consumer with a “bull-like strength”. They are both products which are wholly indulgent, they are rich, they have character. In consuming these products of indulgence and character, we become indulgent, we become rich, we embody character.
The real prestige of steak is found in its rawness. The flow of blood is a conspicuous symbol of life, of ripe, raw, immediate, potent life. Therefore, when we cook steak, we assert its values not by calorie or fat, but by degree of blood. By ‘au bleu’, the French mean ‘arterial’, by ‘a point’ the French say ‘medium’, not to mean perfect, but to set a limit. The flow of blood is the flow of life, the restriction of blood is the restriction of life. To cook all the blood out of a steak would be, in mythological terms, to cook the life from it, and therefore to emasculate the magic of the meat. The power of the chef is, on one hand, in cooking the food, but more importantly the chef is a master of semiology and mythology. Their true power is in potentiating the mythology to be enacted on a plate, or even in deciding what mythology is on the plate. The ‘language’ of the symbol is contingent on how it is manipulated.
To indulge in the myth of steak is to indulge in nature and in morality. Wine returns us to our original nature. Wine has power, it makes “a weak man strong or a silent one talkative”, but its ultimate power is in pleasure. One thinks of Dionysus, the God of wine, and feels that wine is a mythology which has only deepened throughout history; we see how essentially human it is. Steak is a redeeming substance to the intellect. We muse over steak, over how it is cooked, over how it is accompanied, over how it is served. Whereas other foods are means to the end of sustenance, steak is a participation, an experience, an art; it is a statement from the self, to the self, which we use to affirm our identity and disposition, but is also a statement to the world. When we tell the world we have rare steak, we declare from the highest podium that we are full of life, we are rapturous, the blood flows, it gives life, and we receive and revitalise. The steak tartare, in its pure rawness, “rebels against the association between sensitivity and slickness”. The diner becomes primal and intellectual at the same time. It is the Nietzschean perfection.
France has adopted steak as its national cuisine. It is national before it is social. To share in steak is to share in the national identity. It becomes the symbol of home, of greatness. In establishing such a culinary totem with a nationality, the ideology of the food is fed to the form of the national identity. Steak is raw life, power, intellect; therefore, the nation is raw life, power, intellect. The quality and quantity (thickness) of your steak draws a ratio between economy and mythology. The thicker and redder and richer your steak, the more it confirms the mythology of steak. Therefore economy= efficacy of mythology.
Yet steak is also elegant. It is so in that it is simple. It need not be dressed up as high cuisine through complex methods of cooking, it simply is what it is. The art of the chef is therefore also in retaining the identity of the steak.
Steak is accompanied perfectly with chips, we all know. The power of the chip is simple- it is pure nostalgia! When we think of foods which comport us, remind us of home, we all arrive at the humble chip pretty quickly. There is an art which is manifest in the creation of a great chip, which, like the steak, arouses debate. The goal- a wonderful flavour from the cooking fat (beef tallow, for example), a sensational crisp crunch on the outside surface (maybe even rough), leading to a soft and fluffy inside, rich with the flavour of a good quality potato. When a chip is great, it affirms being, it comforts, evokes memories, it is pure indulgence, yet it is never pretentious. The art of creating a good chip is hidden to the diner, the experience of the chip is immediately in the pleasure of it. The chip, le frite, the French fry; from a humble potato in a field to the culinary dream of every man, woman and child. To pair steak and chips is to create an insurmountable myth.
Barthes teaches us here that symbolism is sometimes most potent in simplicity. We see this ourselves in life; when something is complex, our feelings and ideas become obfuscated and confused. In business, many millions are placed into creating a logo for a corporation or product. They have a single opportunity to create a lasting visual memory. A logo is created to evoke through primal meaning. The lesson of steak and chips and the lesson of iconography is the same- powerful, simple, yet rich in memory and meaning.
We also learn how much semiotic and mythological meaning is attained through the senses. They are one of the most powerful ways to evoke and provoke, and the precursor to many of the memories which share in the most profound of mythologies. It could be said that whilst we live through our intellect, we always live through our senses first. Philosophers like Maurice Merleau-Ponty put a lot of work into emphasising how important our body is in understanding phenomenology and ontology.
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