The Mythology of Steak Tartare


Roland Barthes’ collection of essays, Mythologies was written one a month during the years of 1954-1956 in order to infuse contemporary events and objects with a sense of history and time, with an aura of mythology. In order to live thoughtfully in our constructed world, Barthes’ suggested we all become mythologists, someone who can see the fluidity of value and meaning constructing and reconstructing itself continually, like someone riding in a car.

Myth is a value, truth is no guarantee for it; nothing prevents it from being a perpetual alibi: it is enough that its signifier has two sides for it always to have an ‘elsewhere’ at its disposal. The meaning is always there to present the form; the form is always there to outdistance the meaning. And there never is any contradiction, conflict, or split between meaning and the form: they are never at the same place. In the same way, if I am in a car and I look at the scenery through the window, I can at will focus on the scenery or the window-pane. At one moment I grasp the presence of the glass and the distance of the landscape; at another, on the contrary, the transparence of the glass and the depth of the landscape; but the result of this alternation is constant; the glass is at once present and empty to me, and the landscape unreal and full. The same thing occurs in the mythical signifier: its form is empty but present, its meaning absent but full. To wonder at the contradiction I must voluntarily interrupt this turnstile of form and meaning, I must focus on each separately, and apply to myth a static method of deciphering, in short, I must go against its own dynamics: to sum up, I must pass from the state of the reader to that of a mythologist.

For us, hungry philosophers, his chapters on “Wine and Milk” and “Steak and Chips” is particularly fascinating in how he looks at steak as a celebration of ‘full-bloodedness,’ an expression of sanguine mythology, like wine, in France.

To eat steak rare therefore represents both a nature and a morality. It is supposed to benefit all the temperaments, the sanguine because it is identical, the nervous and lymphatic because it is complementary to them. And just as wine becomes for a good number of intellectuals a mediumistic substance which leads them towards the original strength of nature, steak is for them a redeeming food, thanks to which they bring their intellectualism to the level of prose and exorcize, through the blood and soft pulp, the sterile dryness of which they are constantly accused. The craze for steak tartare, for instance, is a magic spell against the romantic association between sensitiveness and sickliness; there are to be found, in this preparation, all the germinating states of matter: the blood mash and the glair of eggs, a whole harmony of soft and life-giving substances, a sort of meaningful compendium of the images of pre-parturition.

Wow…..the myth of steak tartar takes us way back to uterine blood. This insight certainly interrupts the turnstile of form and meaning in order to look at the dish in its components, blood, pulp and egg, carefully prepared and its meaning reinforced (instead of a savage un-thought state of eating raw meat and eggs). The preparation, the design, the enjoyment constructs the mythology. Can we use Barthes’ method in uncovering the mythology of our things and foods, now in 2015? Maybe I can try in a future entry. The KFC double down, the Kuerig Machine, the Vitamix….come to mind.

Disclaimer: I have subjected myself to a New Year’s detox period without “toxins” i.e. wheat, dairy, sugar, red meat and CAFFEINE. Therefore, I may write A LOT about beef, bread and coffee, all things of related deliciousness. Dear readers, I beg your patience.