Anthropology of Arrogance

At the risk of being hoist by my own petard

One of my closest friends when I was at school was a boy called Fabio Leopardi. His father was an Italian ice cream maker of some small renown eventually supplying ice cream to Harrods. His mother the daughter of a Senegalese “Princess” and a French Colon.  He was a handsome boy who had been brought up knowing how to do things. He knew how to play the drums. He knew how to speak French and speak Italian. He knew how to cook food, how to eat. How to prepare ice cream. What to wear. How to dance. How to fight. Somehow he had a view of the way that everything should be done. And he’d express his views about the way things should be done regardless, within limits, of whether it was appropriate at the time not. He had a certain arrogance. A sense of certitude that he knew how things should be done.

Later in my life when I travelled extensively around Italy I encountered this arrogance again. In its more charming contexts I found it related to food. Very specific ways that particular recipes should be prepared in order for them to taste right, this sense that in order to reproduce precisely the way that a particular pasta sauce was prepared it had to be done in a strict fashion. Travelling in Italy from the late 1970s onwards, coming from England, it was surprising to me to discover that there were very few foreign food outlets. The Italians always wanted to eat their own food. I saw this later across France as well.  I traced it back to a sort of culinary chauvinism, a belief that the way food had been prepared by a persons mother or grandmother or father and grandfather was the way to make this food. Thus a nation anchored in its own culinary traditions to the exclusion of foods that didn’t taste quite right. A tendency to judge other foods precisely by an inherited set of tastes and traditions within which small details would make a dish acceptable or unacceptable. Culinary arrogance.

Spending time over the past five years with Roma families in the United Kingdom I’ve encountered a very similar set of attitudes. The sorts of food prepared by Roma families are comparatively limited, the same recipes are encountered across a variety of different households yet each time they are prepared in a very deliberate and specific way so that the dishes taste slightly different and each household recognises the validity of their own way of preparing what is in the end a single recipe in a sense. Roma people, like Italians, find food which is not prepared in the way they like it to be unpalatable. At the very least a certain sort of critical view is implicit in their judgement.

This extends to other fields as well. For example I’m 56 and accompanying a group of Roma people to Doncaster airport a couple of weeks ago the young man who sat in the passenger seat with me was continually giving me directions on a route which I knew well as well as giving me a running commentary on which gear I should be in and so on. This particular event struck me as an arrogance towards driving reminding them of culinary arrogance.

Remember think that arrogance works as an anthropological category. I mean this in the sense that by a study of arrogance you can reveal a mechanism through which specific cultural traditions are reinforced and reiterated across generations. Arrogance allows for particular practices to survive within very universalising environments. The belief that “there is a way that things should be done” becomes a way of reinforcing “the way things are done”.


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