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The Cooking of History (cover)Stephan Palmié
The Cooking of History: How Not to Study Afro-Cuban Religion
reviewed by Claude Betancourt

Stephan Palmié: (D.Phil, U Munich 1989; Habilitation, U Munich 1999) Professor of Anthropology and of Social Sciences in the College, conducts ethnographic and historical research on Afro-Caribbean cultures, with an emphasis on Afro-Cuban religious formations and their relations to the history and cultures of a wider Atlantic world. His other interests include practices of historical representation and knowledge production, systems of slavery and unfree labor, constructions of race and ethnicity, conceptions of embodiment and moral personhood, medical anthropology, and the anthropology of food and cuisine. --

Stephan Palmié is the author of the controversial book, The Cooking of History: How Not to Study Afro-Cuban Religion, praised by some scholars of the postmodern persuasion but viewed skeptically by other scholars and activists, who note his disrespectful attitude towards the African roots of Cuban culture and those who study them, such as Fernando Ortiz.

One scholar who has written a good critique of The Cooking of History is anthropologist Peter Pels, Universiteit Leiden, the Netherlands, with his The Raw and the Overcooked: Some Comments on Stephan Palmié’s Cooking of History, PDF.

The Cooking of History consists mostly of reprints, a fact one has to ferret out. Yet is is not a cheap book, listing for $130 hardcover and $25 paperback.

Introduction. BL2532.S3 or, How Not to Study "Afro"-"Cuban" "Religion"
Chapter 1. On Yoruba Origins, for Example ... [possibly 2008]
Chapter 2. Fernando Ortiz and the Cooking of History [reprint of 1998]
Chapter 3. Or "Syncretism," for that Matter ... [possibly 1995]
Chapter 4. The Color of the Gods: Notes on a Question Better Left Unasked [reprint of 2002]
Chapter 5. Afronauts of the Virtual Atlantic: The Giant African Snail Incident, the War of the Oriatés, and the Plague of Orichas
Coda. Ackee and Saltfish versus Amalá con Quimbombó, or More Foods for Thought [reprint of 2005a]

Palmié jumps from a reasonable dislike of dogmatism to wholesale rejection of ANY claim about the transmission of African culture to the western hemisphere. For Palmié, all such claims by practicioners or authorities are self-interested twaddle. Because Palmié is a pampered humanist, as soon as he detects any naive equivocation he condemns the whole project a waste of time. A more scientific and constructive attitude would be to fix the error and continue.

Critiques of Palmié are increasing as he has become popular in US academia. Another critique is interspersed throughout the pages of The 1812 Aponte Rebellion in Cuba and the Struggle against Atlantic Slavery by Matt D. Childs, 2006. 

We are left wondering what lies behind this continuing disrespect for African culture in the Americas that now takes yet another form, particularly as Palmié is known for his anti-racism. -- Claude Betancourt

The 1812 Aponte Rebellion in Cuba and the Struggle against Atlantic Slaverytop
by Matt D. Childs, 2006
Envisioning Cuba
Louis A. Pérez Jr., editor

Extracts concerning Stephan Palmié:

Having consulted only a small portion of the published trial transcript of the Aponte Rebellion, and none of the archival sources, Stephan Palmié somewhat naively suggests by deduction that ‘‘a quest for truths’’ by his interrogators may have resulted in them concluding that the facts ‘‘could only be gained from the man [Aponte] if they preserved his bodily and psychological integrity.’’ p37

Stephan Palmié’s detailed examination of Aponte’s book of drawings relies exclusively on Franco’s printed testimony and raises new and important questions, but he consciously avoids making any conclusion and even states that ‘‘such an answer to the question, What in the world is Palmié trying to argue? is not just unproductive, but ultimately arrogant.’’ Consequently, Palmié purposely offers a series of deductive speculations
that focus on Aponte the artist, and not the rebellion that bears his name. p77

Stephan Palmié’s revisionist interpretation minimizes Aponte’s role and incorrectly claims ‘‘all Aponte himself ever admitted was having had some knowledge of potentially seditious plans that some men with whom he was closely associated were hatching." p184  Aponte’s house served as one of the key conspiratorial centers for planning and organizing the rebellion.

Chapter 1 Note 3 Stephan Palmié’s consultation of only select printed primary sources causes him to fail to mention Barbier’s time in Saint Domingue. Moreover, his revisionist interpretation results in him downplaying the revolutionary intentions of the movement and direct association or possible inspiration from Saint Domingue. For reasons that remain unclear, Palmié incorrectly spells Juan Barbier’s name throughout the book as ‘‘Juán Barbier,’’ which does not reflects orthography particular to the primary sources, the secondary sources, or early nineteenth century Spanish. Wizards and Scientists, p132.

Chapter 3 Note 25 Stephan Palmié’s analysis of Aponte’s militia service explores the issues of pride and self-esteem, but since his reading of Aponte’s book ahistorically divorces the document from the movement that bears Aponte’s name, Palmié only naturally cautions against regarding these images as signs of insurrection. Palmié, Wizards and Scientists, pp100–103.

Chapter 3 Note 155  Scholar Stephan Palmié hastily concluded, with only consulting a handful of published sources, that for Ternero ‘‘we will, of course, never know what precisely these ostensibly ethnic identity referents mean in the historical context in which these men deployed them.’’ Historians interested in Ternero’s own words, however, can certainly gain critical insights into his own ideas behind such terms, how he created degrees of Mina Guagni ethnicity depending on African or Cuban birth, and the historical setting in which he used these terms by consulting the sources. Palmié, Wizards and Scientists, p143.

Chapter 5 Note 12  The original proclamation nailed to the captain general’s residence can be found in ANC-AP, leg. 12, no. 14, fol. 35. For reasons the remain unclear, Stephan Palmié did not consult Franco’s more widely known book on the Aponte Rebellion that would have qualified some of his conclusions about the historiography. Instead, Palmié consulted Franco’s Las conspiraciones de 1810 y 1812, a very brief twenty-four-page introduction to the document collection that only has two footnotes, as it was intended for a general and not a scholarly audience. Palmié writes: ‘‘Franco makes rather vague references to what he thinks may have been prior seditious activities on the part of Aponte. He thus claims that Aponte dictated an inflammatory proclamation that was posted in Havana in early March 1812 but fails to cite any evidence.’’ Wizards and Scientists, 80–81. Had Palmié consulted the more detailed 1963 study, he would have found that not only did Franco cite evidence of the proclamation for the rebellion, he also provided a facsimile of the document that Aponte dictated. See Franco, La conspiración de Aponte, between pp. 20–21.

Links/Enlaces top

The Cooking of History: How Not to Study Afro-Cuban Religion, Google Books

Wednesday Lunch at the Divinity School with Stephan Palmie, 12/12/13

Post Modernism

Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74, NYT, 10/10/2004
"Mr. Derrida was known as the father of deconstruction, the method of inquiry that asserted that all writing was full of confusion and contradiction, and that the author's intent could not overcome the inherent contradictions of language itself, robbing texts -- whether literature, history or philosophy -- of truthfulness, absolute meaning and permanence....

Racism and Post-modernist Theory - a critique, Stop Racism and Hate Collective

Modern and Postmodern Racism in Europe, Harvard Educational Review, Summer 1999

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