Soup festival, commensality and rurality

Charroux (Allier) 2012 (photo by Hélène Ducros)

By Hélène B. Ducros

In my article “Fête de la Soupe”: Rural identity, self-representation, and the (re)-making of the village in France, I report on the time I spent during my dissertation fieldwork in a village in Auvergne. While working on understanding local heritage management strategies and the ways in which villagers get attached to the place they inhabit and perceive changes in their everyday rural landscape, I had the chance to follow the planning of various local activities and take part in community events. Considered from the outside, winter in Auvergne might seem like an inhospitable time, when nature is at rest, the atmosphere humid and muffled, and the horizon often shortened by heavy fog. But Charroux proved that assumption to be wrong. The annual Fête de la Soupe -or soup festival- gave me an opportunity to watch a community in action as it promoted itself and displayed its idea of what it means to be a rural locality in today’s France. The present study aims at understanding how the communal preparation and consumption of soup once a year has affected festival participants, they relationship with each other and their relationship with the place they inhabit.

Hélène B. Ducros, (2018) ““Fête de la Soupe”: rural identity, self-representation, and the(re)-making of the village in France”, Journal of Place Management and Development, Vol. 11 Issue: 3, pp.296-314,

As part of the special issue on Grassroot Festivals and Place-making, my research engages in the ways in which place gets (re)made through this grassroot festival that is embedded in vernacular food practices, in particular by highlighting the symbolism of soup as a social system of communication and mechanism by which place-based identities get transmitted and reinvented. It analyzes how the fête participates in regenerating a sense of place and sense of community around the idea of the rural, at a time when the vocation of rural spaces in Europe has been radically altered from areas of agricultural production to more diversified functions, such as leisure, recreation, and tourism.  While these leisurescapes get consumed by outsiders most often in the spring and summer time, winter festivals aim at gathering the local population to valorize place outside of the touristic season. In turn this triggers an overt reflection on the part of residents and festival participants over the rationale behind their participation and what they think the fête accomplishes in terms of individual and shared identity production, persistence, and transmission – an identity that is very much linked to the history of place and the history of livelihoods in that specific place.

Advertisement flyer for the 2012 Fête de la Soupe in Charroux (Auvergne) (photo by Hélène Ducros)

Food plays a crucial role in place representation and place promotion, as well as in identity construction. Nineteenth century gastronome Brillat-Savarin authored the famous aphorism “dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es” (tell me what you eat, I will tell you what you are). In the French social imagination, soup has often been linked to rural or humble lifestyles. In the early 1960s, at a time when the post-war transformation of agriculture in France had started being increasingly felt socially in rural areas, the Académie Française des Gastronomes stated that the French population had remained a “resolutely soupière nation”, while other nations had abandoned soup as a staple food. It is therefore not surprising that soup has been increasingly recruited in local food festivals in France in the last decade as a metaphor of the rural and an embodiment of place as “rural”. Place-based festivals have emerged as agents of both leisurescapes and identity-scapes. Festivalization research has shown that rural festivals constitute major touristic appeal as entertainment. But beneath the spectacle, memory of place and celebration of community are enmeshed to produce quasi ceremonial spaces that elicit different scales of introspection about the nature of place and self-positionality with regard to place.

Charroux, soup stand during the Fête de la Soupe (2012) (photo by Hélène Ducros)

Throughout social history the acts of offering and sharing food have sought to trigger, maintain and consolidate social relations and kinship. As a marker of place heritage, soup is rooted in local seasonality and regional, or even familial, culinary practices, also constituting a ready sign of hospitality. When analyzed through the lens of exchange, this modest foodstuff becomes a mechanism of sociability. It is this function that festival participants, whether soupiers, tasters, or both at once, reclaim and reinvent.

This reclaimed communitas has different effects on individuals and the village as a whole. First, it succeeds in positioning the rural locality as a local or regional destination during a time of the year when visitors are scarce. In this respect, it establishes a positive reputation for the village in the wider region, attracting other “Auvergnats” to share soup. Economically, it is hoped that this will lead to economic consequences as visitors may become consumers in the few hospitality or commercial establishments in the village, although interviews revealed that day-visitors tended not to spend much locally.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, the festival has become a way for residents to express their attachment to place as “rural”, but not necessarily as a place fixed in an immutable past, but rather as a place of (ex-)change and transformation, for example through soup recipes. While ancestral mitonnées might be expected there, they are also joined by novel flavors catering to contemporary palates and reflecting soupiers’ globalism: Vietnamese pho, chowder au maïs, or lemongrass and coconut soup… The festival, as an opportunity for commensality – allowing people to prepare and eat food together-, thus becomes an annual ritual where place gets transmitted and reinvented. It constitutes a way to include (or “enculturate”) newcomers, new cultures and new generations, as well as valorize a certain past, at the same time anchoring itself in place as it proposes a renewed place and new meaning for “rural”.

Soupier serving mitonnée (photo by Hélène Ducros)

Self-reflection about what it means to be a rural dweller, communication across generations about practices and livelihoods and history of place, reappropriation of a lost sociality, and interrogation about the mutability of place and society are all the hidden ingredients contained in these steaming bowls of soup served on a November night in Charroux.