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Is there such a thing as a perfect food? A perfect meal? A perfect dining experience? And if so, what would it be like? Would it be a dream come true, would it exceed expectations, or would it be a disappointment because the reality could not match the desire?
For something that ultimately satisfies the most basic of biological needs, food has a curious relationship to notions of perfection, most notably beliefs about what constitutes an ideal or even perfect world. For far too many people around the world struggling with food insecurity, it is basic access to food and water that would be the ideal. For those with stable access to foods, however, often ideals of perfection are expressed through differential values associated with particular foods or the ways in which foods are produced, presented, and consumed.
Food’s place within utopian visions was the theme of the 21st Symposium of Australian Gastronomy, which was held in Melbourne in early December 2016. Food scholars, writers, practitioners, and gastronomes of all sorts gathered from around the world to discuss and experiment with different visions of what might constitute a food utopia. Inspired by Thomas More’s Utopia, published five hundred years ago, symposium participants drew connections between More’s idealistic visions with those of other utopian thinkers and activists, such as Charles Fourier’s ideas about gastrosophy, Soviet-era socialist planners who imagined possibilities for liberation through communal dining, NASA scientists who dreamed of what farms and gardens might look like in space colonies of the future, and even contemporary scientists working in the fields of synthetic biology and hospitality management to create new technologically perfect foods and food experiences. Yet despite the prevailing sentiment of progress and improvement embedded in many utopian dreams, the realities are often far from ideal, and may, in fact, introduce new problems—a reminder compellingly presented by Darra Goldstein, the founder and previous editor of Gastronomica, in her brilliant keynote lecture about the myths of abundance promised by early Soviet politicians and socialist activists.
When faced with the image of a sumotori (a sumo wrestler or rikishi),1 most food-minded people are likely to ask, “What do they eat to look like that?” I asked this question as a high-school exchange student in Japan a decade ago and have been exploring it ever since. The simple answer is that sumotori eat chankonabe, a chunky meat or fish and vegetable stew that they cook for their main meal of the day. But this first, seemingly simple, question invites many more. What is the significance of chankonabe, and what are its origins? What does food mean in sumo culture, and how does its use compare to that in other sports? What about food in Japanese culture in general? How can the Japanese people, whom we think of as health-conscious, and with such a minimalist aesthetic, so value obesity? And how can a society fearful of the health implications of McDonaldization accept sumo—a quasi-national sport requiring the consumption of up to eight thousand calories a day—as part of its religious and cultural framework?
The Rituals of Sumo
The origins of sumo are buried in legend dating back two thousand years. Most sources agree that the idea of sumo, like many important facets of Japanese culture (the cultivation of rice, the written language, Buddhism), probably came from the Asian mainland. The first written record of sumo dates to a.d. 712; it appears in the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), the earliest extant piece of Japanese writing.2 The first known sumo bout occurred in the year 642, when the Empress Kogyoku had the imperial guards perform sumo to entertain dignitaries visiting from Korea.3 It is likely that sumo was originally performed as a rice-harvest ritual; the early Shinto influence is still evident in many aspects of the sport. Early sumo incorporated elements from other martial arts, and the rikishi were considered an important source of paramilitary knowledge.4 By the late eighteenth century, sumo had been institutionalized as a sport. It was nationalized in 1927 with the merger of regional factions and the establishment of official tournaments, and at this point sumo began to be considered the unofficial national sport of Japan. Whether sumo should be treated as a sport, a martial art, a religious ritual, a cultural institution, entertainment, or some combination of the above is a matter fiercely debated among contemporary sumo writers. At the heart of this debate, though, is the Western need to categorize complex Eastern do, or “ways.” Just as a martial art is at once religion, meditation, self-defense, exercise, art, history, culture, and philosophy; and the tea ceremony comprises a social gathering, ritual, spirituality, nourishment, hospitality, and aesthetics—so is sumo complex and multifaceted.