Eating pizza in a mediated world: On remembering and making lived experiences present again

Practices of “[e]ating the things of the world …. [understood] as the most direct way of becoming one with the things of the world in their tangible presence … all belong to one obvious and crucial mode of world-appropriation – a crucial mode of world-appropriation, however, about which we don’t like to talk and that we constantly struggle to project toward and, above all, beyond the margins of our own meaning culture.“ (Gumbrecht 2003: 86).

While eating is unavoidably connected to a dimension of presence, there seems to be a cultural-historic development that transformed these practices into a set of practices situated in a dimension of sense and meaning. Eating in the sense of ‘Verzehren’, the physical act of eating, has historically been transformed into cultural practices of ‘Essen’, the structured act of eating a meal, and embedded into discourses of tastes and diets. Put more concretely, one of the most direct ways of becoming one with the things of the world has been surrounded by a set of meanings and understandings, by discourses and thus institutionalized ways of speaking and thinking about it.

But, we can still observe practices that ultimately deal with eating in a dimension of presence. Concerning the experiential form of lived experiences, and thus an intensified and immediate experience of being in the world, we can get hold onto presence in especially those practices of eating that are more extraordinary than ordinary, that are connected to beautiful aesthetic or emotional experiences.

In trying to understand the role of an immediate dimension of our reality in contemporary cultures and societies, we might therefore look at the above mentioned historical development and the practices used to work against or around these regularized and interpretative frameworks of being. I argue, through outlining the case of eating pizza, that practices of remembering or attempts of making lived experiences present again form ways of producing presence – that they are practices of finding immediacy in a mediated world. In short: I believe that we still find eating set in the context of presence when it is remembered as an embodied experience that one might want to experience again.

Looking at works that deal with food and practices of eating in a historical perspective, we are however confronted with a more problematic view. We find works like Elias (1976), looking at changes in practices of eating, among other things, to account for wider societal progressions. But, practices in these perspectives are less understood per se than as field of sociality. For example, we can find more contemporary works like Keppler (1994), understanding the situational frames of eating in the family home as field of communicative community formation.

Taking a broad historical perspective on food, we can describe it as always set in the context of power – negotiated along class relations, used in processes of cultural distinctions and hegemony, driven by trade and global transitions. Starting in the introduction of agricultural systems to early forms of establishing wider tastes and cuisines in festive contexts, the description of eating seems to always be set in a social and cultural context (Tannahill 1973). Going into 19th century developments that are constitutive for our present condition, while eating practices are discussed in a variety of settings, moving away from a focus on festive contexts, we are still less focused on the practices of eating themselves. Resting in broader discourses of biopolitics and scientific and technological advancements, we can observe the emergence of diets as broadly institutionalized health discourse. However, we can also observe the continuation of an ongoing separation of producers and consumers, an increase in variety of foods available, and a differentiation of tastes and cuisines. In short: the 19th century establishes food and eating practices as more complex parts of culture (Pilcher 2006).

It is in this move of food and eating becoming complex parts of culture that they become superimposed by the logics of producing and reproducing cultural relations and dynamics. They become signs, losing substance to gain ascribed meanings (Barthes 1975). As signs they mark difference, becoming resources in a relational space to induce social and cultural distinctions (Bourdieu 1984). As both cultural artefacts and practices they form a horizon of possibilities along which one can make cultural decisions and create narratives of the self that can be observed by others, enabling the creation and maintenance of an identity (Köstlin 2006).

Taking pizza, whose first appearance we can see in the late 19th century Naples, and eating it as case, we are able to situate both artefact and practice as predominantly constituted in the above outlined modern conditions. However, the global appeal of pizza must be observed in the early to mid 20th century. While migration especially played a crucial role in bringing pizza to North America, in Europe and especially Germany wider changes regarding the amount of free time and travel mobility available were important (Heinzelmann 2014). What makes this development of particular interest is corresponding phenomena that are emerging around the mass tourism of the 1950s. It is in this context of travel that we find people from a variety of social, cultural and economic backgrounds confronted with the experiential horizon of vacation – and in the case of Germany also a broad range of people confronted with the Italian cuisine (Thomas 2006).

For many the main context of food and eating in the everyday life was dominated by a functional context, a discourse of diets, and traditional cuisines. While folk events offered a way into a different experiential context of eating for the many, the discourse around fine tastes that ultimately revokes eating its functional purpose was historically constituted in festive and bourgeois conditions. Understanding vacation as institutionalized leisure and recreational space opposed to work, opposed to functional purposes of our actions, mass tourism opened the task of creating foods and practices of eating that are keyed to an autotelic logic like we find it in discourses of fine tastes, however, with mass appeal.

Hence, in the 1950s mass tourism and beyond, we find ways of sharing, negotiating and approaching the Italian cuisine following logics of enjoyment. In mass tourism becoming more organized and established, especially pizza, as more affordable dish, has been moved to the attention of tourists through travel guides (Thomas 2006). Given different economic backgrounds and the confrontation with a culturally and culinarily unknown setting, travel guides shared experiences once made, mediating places and foods that might have an appeal for eating with the intent of enjoyment. They negotiate the economic conditions in recommending affordable places and foods while structuring the way the Italian cuisine is approached at large. In recommending and guiding through the foreign, they induce order, bringing not only forward a notion of what one might understand as traditional Italian food and culture, but also framing the mere contact points experiences can be made at.

Following wider changes in the organization of the everyday life – changing roles in family settings and moves of detraditionalization – in the 1970s and beyond, we are confronted with a situation in which not only foods, practices of eating, tastes and diets change (de Certau 1998), but also the experiential logics of how we approach them in our everyday life (Köstlin 2003). It is in following these conditions that the Italian cuisine gained hold in the German culinary horizon – it being more light and easier to prepare than traditional heavy German meals. In its institutionalization, we are not only confronted with Italian restaurants and shops opening in Germany, different Italian foods of different qualities and prices being available, but also with the integration of eating practices associated to Italian culture and the appropriation of Italian dishes like pizza (Thomas 2006).

Moving from vacation to everyday life, eating pizza became less reliant on the organizing principles of how to find food to enjoy than principles of how can I eat the food I enjoyed again. As the Italian cuisine becomes more known, people are confronted with moments of remembering the lived experiences possibly made – for example while eating pizza on vacation. Grasping onto the notion of presence, it is not only in the lived experiences themselves, but in the mere acts of remembering that we (re)gain closeness to the world. Remembering experiences of eating food are hence not only practices of retelling a story about enjoyment or evaluating it, but they are always also sensual memories of our embodiment, of the space we ate in, its visual and auditive materialities, as well as the gustatory perceptions that come with physically eating a meal (Hartmann 1994, 2006).

Instead of travel guides recommending places and foods to eat, in this new setting we see newspaper articles recommending recipes of how to make pizza the right way or discussing Italian restaurants offering pizza the true and traditional way. In short: we find organizing principles that try to bring us (back) into situations and contexts where we might be able to re-experience the enjoyment of eating pizza we remember. Taken into a more contemporary context, these discourse practices of the true pizza are further enhanced through digital technologies. Ranging from blogs discussing pizza to online platforms aggregating restaurants reviews and recipes to algorithmic powers managing attention of pizza related contents and search queries to online assemblages like the subreddit /r/pizza, we find pizza discussed in a variety of settings with a variety of intents – eating with the intent of enjoyment being one of them.

In our present media cultures and societies, it thus appears that we might not have the means to directly address the highly individual and ephemeral present experience we can have while eating. However, in practices of remembering and attempts of making these experiences present again, we can observe a way an immediate dimension of our reality is latently at work in our cultures. While remembering – be it the experience of eating pizza with the intent of enjoyment – is in a first step always an incorporating practice and thus in some way present when we approach the world, it only becomes impactful for others, and thus culturally impactful, through practices of inscription (Connerton 1989) – be it in travel notes, letters or guides, recipes, blog posts, restaurants reviews or pictures we post online.

The advent of digital media technologies sure confronts us with the challenge to reflect upon the mere ways we can remember today (van Dijck 2007). And the changing nature of structural boundaries of leisure and free time settings dominant logics of how we approach the world sure have to be considered in our observation of immediacy being mediated and having an impact culturally. But still, it seems that besides possible concrete distinctions we might explicate, we are confronted with a more general logic at work. We might therefore understand the latent work of lived experiences – in acts of remembering eating pizza and the attempts of making the experience present again through fostering a discourse of the true and traditional way – as the mere moments of difference that force us into a position where we have to (re)negotiate our sense of place – our identity and understanding of human life.

“Nothing is as concrete and real as Life, yet Life eludes all subjective planning and order. Life thus becomes a value that is almost obsessively attributed to whatever appears overwhelming and sublime, to whatever lies beyond the reach of concepts and conceptual distinctions … Life exceeds the rationalities of all the different everyday worlds, and therefore acquires a transcendental status … The enthusiasm for Life’s overwhelming strength … is almost always accompanied by a certain disdain for – or sheer absence of – thought.” (Gumbrecht 1997: 360ff.)

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