Imaginary Tribes #5

The Vendyak

Justin E. H. Smith

Y75is5caaa86v0ca2wg63jcarm736ocalalIn his 1957 structuralist masterpiece, Le croustillant et le gluant, the French anthropologist Jean-Robert Klein argued that the fundamental binary distinction through which the savage mind filters the world is that between the crispy and the chewy. The first and primary domain of application of these concepts is of course the alimentary one, but in primitive cultures, he argued, the crispy and the chewy are often projected from there into the cosmos as a whole. In his own fieldwork among the Yanomamo of Brazil, he showed in more than a few elaborate diagrams that, for them, men, rubber trees, the color green, the East, vipers, and butterflies are held to be ‘crispy’, while women, black, jaguars, the North, the stars, and ground foliage are in turn ‘chewy’.

Beginning in the late 1970s, Klein’s former student, Françoise Pombo, argued in a series of influential publications that her mentor had failed to notice something of great importance. What he was actually in the process of discovering, she claimed, was a tripartite schema, in which the crunchy [le croquant] was to be sharply distinguished from both the crispy and the chewy. The crunchy stands as the ‘in-between’ class, what cannot be subsumed, what remains forever outside of Aristotelian dualistic logic. It is neither crispy (which is to say, brittle throughout) nor chewy (soft throughout), but manifests something of both of these opposites. (To the criticism that, in everyday speech, what is crunchy is not at all chewy, Pombo responded that these are technical terms we are dealing with, and we should not try too hard to make them match up with our quotidian usages.) The crunchy, she maintained in a Hegelian vein, is nothing less than the Aufhebung or sublation of the crispy and the chewy: a category that simultaneously overcomes and preserves these lower-order concepts.

From Pombo’s extensive field interviews with both male and female members of the Vendyak tribe of the Kamchatka peninsula –the only indigenous people of the former Soviet Union, incidentally, to have been considered by the authorities too distant and too intractable to be worth the effort of forced sedentarization and modernization–, we find the following sort of exchange: “How would you describe this?” (she hands the informant a table-water cracker).
“It’s sort of crispy [li’xak],” answers the Vendyak.
“What about crunchy [at’xak],” Pombo presses. “Do you think it’s at all crunchy?”
“Yeah. I guess. That too.”

Pombo’s 1983 book, Au-delà du croustillant et du gluant, was a solid work of structuralist anthropology, even if somewhat critical –in view of the new wave of feminist theory of which she was a leading exponent– of the theoretical limitations of structuralism’s founding fathers. But in no time Pombo’s findings were taken up by the various poststructuralist schools. Lanier Pippidi, a follower of Alain Badiou and a self-described practitioner of ‘Maoist topology’, thought that the croustillant and the croquant were not sufficiently differentiated categories, and, in his 1994 book, Les surfaces kleiniennes, took to writing instead of the ‘crouquant’. In the recent English translation of his work (Touching Klein, University of Nebraska Press, 2004), this term of art has been rendered as ‘cruspy’: a forced amalgamation of ‘crispy’ and ‘crunchy’.  “Strictly speaking,” Pippidi tells us, “the cruspy is always-already densely imbricated in both the crispy and the crunchy. The double movement of the cruspy inscribes itself in both: it plays on surfaces, it crystallizes meniscuses.” 

Followers in this vein of interpretation grew more radical still; some claimed that the cruspy could not be written about at all, and took to denoting it as the ‘cruspy’. In her monumental 1997 book, Le double mouvement du crouquant, the Romanian feminist philosopher Raluca Mitici argued that “as long as the surface is intact, the ‘thing’ presents itself as impenetrable; once it is bitten into, it is no longer there in its thingliness at all, and the question of its penetrability does not arise. This is why the cruspy cannot be written” (translation ours).  Since then other variants have appeared in print, including ‘cro(u)quant’, ‘cro/uquant’, ‘crouquant’, ‘crXquant’, and, in an uninspired jeu de mots first seen in the memoir of a University of Chicago French professor turned South Side step dancer, ‘Crew Kant’. A forthcoming special edition of Semiotext(e), appearing in 2009 and summarizing the past 15 years of debate on this fraught subject, will be entitled “What Remains of the Cr—-?”*

“I don’t know if it can be written or not,” said Hünn-Tuk, at the time a 25-year-old Vendyak informant for Pombo’s book who, unique in his community, had received a university degree at Ryazan State University, in engineering, before returning to the place of his birth. “Doesn’t really matter. I’m the only one who knows how to write here anyway.”   

Some years later, Hünn-Tuk took part, along with four other members of the Vendyak community, in the aboriginal-peoples contingent of a conference on the anthropology of food at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Their hosts had taken them to a diner a bit out of town called ‘LeAnn’s’. A professor from the Slavic department was along to translate for Hünn-Tuk into Russian, who in turn translated for the others into their native tongue. I was at the conference, and heard about the incident first-hand from the professor (we had been roommates during my years at Michigan). 

The Vendyak were very curious about everything on the menu, as the diner had been played up to them by their hosts for days as featuring ‘authentic’ local cuisine. Just as the Russian professor was struggling to come up with an adequate rendering of the concepts of ‘cheese grits’ and ‘chicken-fried steak’, one of the Vendyak pointed to the cover of the menu and asked to know the meaning of the phrase underneath the name of the restaurant: “LeAnn’s: Home-cookin’ just like granny use [sic] to make.” The professor translated the phrase into Russian, and at once Hünn-Tuk’s face contracted into a worried cringe. He tried to hide it, but the other Vendyak had already become excited, and Hünn-Tuk found himself unable to invent a lie under pressure. They demanded to know what the phrase meant at once, and he gave in: “This food is prepared as if by an elder woman,” he told them sombrely in Vendyak. 

3j0rp5caaeph1vca660fvpcam1xgwvca0i3Two of the men ran out of the restaurant at once, right out across the state route, and disappeared into the forest on the other side. The youngest of them dropped to the floor and began convulsing, as if in the early throes of an epileptic seizure. The fourth, a man of nearly 60 with grey whiskers and a few teeth, marched over to the anthropologist who had arranged the outing, an innocent young Melanesianist who had simply taken it for granted that love of granny’s cooking was a cultural universal. The Vendyak grabbed the Melanesianist by his throat and bellowed: “Do you want to poison our people!? Do you want to shrivel our testicles and make our arms too weak to hunt!?”

No, the Vendyak are no fans of granny’s home cookin’. Remarkably, however, there is not a single mention of this central prohibition in Pombo’s supposedly exhaustive study of Vendyak food-preparation practices. Why is this?

My assistant Tanya thinks she knows. She had been the on-the-ground facilitator for Pombo’s fieldwork in the late ‘70s, long before glasnost had got underway and before it was at all common for French anthropologists to learn about indigenous Soviet peoples from any other source than the occasional anthology of translated articles from the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. In an era when most visitors were shuffled through minutely planned, 7-day tours of the great achievements of the people’s economy, courtesy of Inturist, Pombo wanted to disappear into the field for several months, alone. Tanya had been assigned to take care of Pombo on her way through Moscow before and after her stay in the field (for in those days one could not travel to the Russian Far East via Tokyo), and, of course, to report everything that she had learned of Pombo’s research to the relevant officials. How could you have made such a compromise? I asked her when she revealed this to me. “We all made compromises,” she said.

Pombo had taken a deep liking to Tanya already on her first passage through Moscow, and on her way back had decided to entrust to Tanya a notebook, in a sealed envelope, that, as she explained, she would not be needing during the final preparation of her study for publication.  She did not say why it would not be included, but only that it “didn’t have its place” in the picture of the Vendyak she thought it imperative to convey. When Pombo died in Paris in 2002, Tanya deliberated for some months, unable to decide what to do with this problematic material. She left it in a drawer for six more years, and only now, as I am in Moscow on my way back from my own field work among the Lomi-Ek (likely my last visit, as I have reached forced-retirement age and the granting agency on which I’ve depended for the past thirty years no longer considers me an active researcher), has she decided to turn it over to me. “Do what you want with it. She’s been dead long enough. There must be some kind of statute of limitations. And anyway no one cares about structuralism anymore.” 

If what Pombo wrote in her unpublished notebook is true, the sociocosmic role of the crunchy may be quite different from the picture she gave of it in her published works. From these works, we know that the crunchy is associated with bones and decay, and foods held to be crunchy should only be consumed on one of the two annual feasts of the dead. Outside of these feasts, crunchy foods put the person who eats them at risk of sickness, impotence, and hunting failure.

But what we learn in the notebooks is that nothing has the power to make food crunchy more quickly and intensely than the implication of an old (post-menopausal) woman in its preparation. At the feasts of the dead, the elder women do all of the cooking, and it is for this reason, the Vendyak say, that the dishes that are served all come with such a thick crust: there is a desert resembling crème brulée, for example, made from churned deer milk, that must be hammered with a ritual mallet in order to break through the burnt, glass-like surface. The Vendyak sit and gnaw and suck this delicacy late into the evening. It is held to be very delicious, but also, outside of the context of the feasts, extremely dangerous. They are “eating their own death,” the Vendyak report, “which is something you cannot do every day.”

I suspect that Pombo’s suppression of this notebook had to do with her own personal experience of the Vendyak contempt for older women (she was 61 when she arrived there in 1979), and with a stubborn desire, one that she could never quite get over, to project onto the people she studied only laudable features, features that would present a promising alternative to the ‘dualism’, the ‘linearity’, etc., that she was striving to theorize her way out of. The truth is, the Vendyak treated her execrably, and she could not but have been angered by this.

Almost immediately upon arrival, the elders had placed her tent furthest from the cooking fire at the center of the encampment, and from the second or third day Pombo reported hearing whispers about the deteriorating quality of the food. By the third week of her fieldwork, the elder Vendyak sent Hünn-Tuk to her with a request: during the preparation of meals, might the anthropologist be willing to stand waist-deep in the lake, 50 meters or so from their encampment?
“Why do I have to wait in the lake?” Pombo asked. “There are many other post-menopausal women in the encampment who only have to stay in their tents.”
“The elders say they aren’t as za’laq as you are,” Hünn-Tuk explained to her in Russian, leaving the key concept untranslated from the original Vendyak. “They say that in all the history of the Vendyak, no woman has ever possessed za’laqtak to such a dangerous degree as you.”

Za’laqtak may be roughly translated as “the drying or desiccating principle.”  Many other things in nature possess it, including the sun. But the sun also includes its opposite, linaagtak, the principle of life and growth. Older women possess primarily za’laqtak, but in view of their enduring nurturing and care-giving skills they are thought to keep a portion of linaagtak throughout their lives, even if the overwhelming presence of za’laqtak in them makes it impossible for them to participate in food preparation. But Pombo was held by many to contain nothing but za’laqtak. Some said she was the very embodiment of za’laqtak, and a few elders with shamanic gifts began to mutter after a few weeks that Pombo was Za’laïq herself: the hideous underworld creature from whom all za’laqtak in the universe was thought to flow.

One early morning in the middle of the sixth week Pombo was woken up by Hünn-Tuk with an important message: “They want you to stand in the lake up to your neck today.”
“They say you need to go deeper. The food’s still coming out too crunchy.”
She struggled to recompose herself. “When you say ‘crunchy’,” she asked, ever the thorough researcher, “do you mean ‘crunchy’, or do you mean something closer to ‘crispy’?”
“I don’t know,” said Hünn-Tuk. “It’s just, you know. Hard. Dry… Can’t hunt.” 

Later that morning, as the women began to grind the roots and to tenderize the deer meat for cooking, Pombo dutifully waded out into the lake up to her neck. The water was cold, but in the mid-August heat she found it refreshing. She listened to the girls singing songs of fertility and promise as they pounded the meat on wooden boards strewn across their laps. The problem seemed to have been resolved in a manner acceptable to everyone, but the whispering continued, and Pombo was sure that, sooner or later, her freedom would be further restricted.

“You’re going to have to go in all the way,” Hünn-Tuk announced, shaking Pombo’s shoulder early one morning towards the beginning of the eighth week.
“All the way?”
“Just for the most dangerous period, when the girls are tenderizing.”
“You mean with my head underwater?”
“I brought you a breathing reed.” 

Hünn-Tuk explained that lake water is the most potent source of linaagtak in nature, and that the only way to keep her za’laqtak from reaching the encampment was by submerging her entirely in water. He apologized, evidently sincerely, and Pombo was touched enough by this to abandon the offence she had taken at first and to return her thoughts to the long-term scientific benefits of putting up with all this.  She grabbed the reed and stoically walked toward the lake.

Breathing through a thin straw underwater was not as difficult as she had first imagined, and it even brought back pleasant memories of childhood, snorkelling on the Lusitanian coast, silvery fish darting about her. Mostly she was proud of what she was willing to do for her work. She knew that Klein himself had repaired back to Sao Paolo after just a few weeks among the Yanomamo and a few mosquito bites too many, and after his favorite pipe tobacco had fallen overboard during a crossing of the Amazon in an overcrowded boat. He checked into the Excelsior, the story goes, and harassed the room-service staff until one of them agreed to journey across town by streetcar to Sao Paolo’s only purveyor of imported tobacco.

Pombo was reminiscing about this story when, happening to look up, she saw four or five human figures hovering above her, standing on a sharp rock jutting out over the lake. From his rough dimensions, she recognized one of them to be Hünn-Tuk. He was signalling for her to come up. 

“Your breath is drying out the meat,” he yelled to her in Russian. The other Vendyak did not understand, but they nodded their heads in affirmation.
“My breath?”
“It’s coming up through the reed and blowing towards the encampment.”
“Well I can’t very well stop breathing, can I?”
“That’s what the shamans are calling for. The other elders just want to banish you. They came with me to chase you into the forest.”

Hünn-Tuk was a good-hearted go-between, fully belonging to neither world, believing in none of it. After the banishment (during which the four Vendyak elders walked a few paces behind her, ritualistically shrieking “Get out!” and gathering up pine needles and nuts to throw at her, while studiously avoiding the rocks that were all around them and that could have caused real pain), Pombo waited in the forest. At an agreed-upon hour, Hünn-Tuk came to meet her, bringing her belongings from the encampment, apologizing profusely. He walked with her to a road, and waved down a car headed to Magadan. From there she could fly to Vladivostok, and from there back to Moscow. Pombo proposed jokingly that she just might be so dry as to ruin the Vendyak’s food all the way from the comfort of her Paris apartment. “It’s a good thing you didn’t say that during the banishment,” Hünn-Tuk replied.   

“Well, do you feel it?” Tanya asked me after I had finished the notebook and placed it back in its envelope.
“Feel what?”
“The desiccating principle. Do you feel it emanating throughout the apartment?” Tanya was my age, and was evidently trying to milk the notebook for some self-deprecating, old-lady humor.

She brought a bowl of those puffed shrimp chips from Southeast Asia that, for some inexplicable reason, had become so popular during the Putin years in Russia. We sat on her couch and snacked on the chips for a while in silence. Our teeth sank right through them, as though we were eating nothing at all. 

*Certainly, any complete account of the history of the crispy/crunchy debate would not fail to mention that it had its share of skeptics, as evidenced by the so called ‘FAZ hoax’ perpetrated against the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung at the height of the debate’s intensity. In a book review in the feuilleton of Germany’s paper of record published on August 18, 1997, the critic Benno Bleibtreu heaped unqualified praise on what was supposedly an advance manuscript of a book entitled Jenseits von Knackig und Knüsprig by a certain Rolf Magendarm. It turns out that Magendarm did not exist (indeed, to the less gullible speaker of German, even his last name should have been a clear give-away, suggesting as it does the crude physiology of the lower intestinal tract), and that his book, praised by Bleibtreu as “the most important contribution yet to the debate unleashed by J.-R. Klein some decades ago and sharpened for the new generation by Françoise Pombo,” was in fact only a pastiche of texts from the grand tradition of German moral philosophy with the term ‘crispy’ replacing every occurrence of ‘good’, and ‘crunchy’ standing in for every instance of ‘evil’. Having learned of the mistake from an anonymous telephone call, on the front page of the feuilleton of August 25 the FAZ’s editor-in-chief denounced in the harshest of terms what he saw as a “reckless disruption of the free exchange of ideas that forms the bedrock of a civil society.” He wrote that we may agree to disagree about the importance of this or that scholarly debate, but that nothing could be solved by an “intellectual fire-bomb” of the sort thrown at his newspaper. To date, the true identity of Rolf Magendarm has not been uncovered.

To see Imaginary Tribes #’s 1-4, please go here, here, here, and here.

For an extensive archive of Justin Smith’s writing, please visit