Book Review S Ruhlmann “Inviting Happiness: Food Sharing in Post-Communist Mongolia”

By Jade Marie Richards

Sandrine Ruhlmann. 2019. Inviting Happiness: Food Sharing in Post-Communist Mongolia. Leiden: Brill, 2019. 288pp. ISBN 978-90-04-41063-3

So much recent work in the anthropology of Mongolia focuses on broad scale politico-economic transformation, urbanisation or the divisive mining industry. It was therefore refreshing to read Sandrine Ruhlmann’s detailed account of contemporary rural life through the intimate interior – material, spiritual and familial – of a ger. Barely leaving the confines of a select few herder encampments in Khentii province, Inviting Happiness takes on the most quotidian aspects of food preparation, etiquette and symbolism, and in doing so brings to light many interesting insights into the metaphysical world of rural Mongolia. Rather than outlining a main argument per se, Ruhlmann relies heavily on the description of food items and ingredient lists interspersed with anecdotes and short vignettes to reveal the many ways in which, as the title suggests, happiness is invited through hospitality. Her approach is methodical, navigating a series of distinctions (ordinary/extraordinary, inside/outside, cooked/raw, alive/dead) that are analogised in food practices as key oppositions through which the boundaries of everyday relations between humans, deities and spirits are set.

The main theme of the book is the important link between hospitality and happiness in the cultivation of relationships and the preservation of social order. Whether establishing first contact with an unknown person, maintaining large networks of kin for Lunar New Year celebrations, or warding off hostility from ‘famished souls’ that wander unseen beyond the encampment, food sharing remains the primary form of mediation. More than this also, Ruhlmann illuminates the many ways in which food is intimately connected to the human soul, with certain rituals and taboos ensuring the correct establishment, departure and rebirth of a soul. A child’s soul is not considered established, for example, until they have eaten meat off the bone. The most interesting chapters explore food practices around a birth or death, when family members must carry out efficacious actions and gestures while circulating ceremonial dishes to avoid misfortune befalling their loved one’s soul. This, in turn, attracts happiness and an auspicious fate for their own soul.

There is an impressive diversity of material throughout. Part one focuses on aspects of everyday life in and around the encampment. Chapters one to five describe at length and in meticulous detail the materiality of food processing, storing and consumption; the different sections and layout of the ger, the stove and kitchen utensils, butchery, culinary techniques, food waste handling and locations, meal patterns, cooking modes and ingredient categorisations (among many others). The author offers the reader a few short respites from description in the form of anecdotes and brief analytical sections. These give special attention to the aspects of food preparation that reveal the gendered or hierarchical structures of relations in the domestic space. For instance, Ruhlmann draws analogies between the Mongolian conception of kinship and the processing of domestic animal bones or blood; men process the ‘paternal’ bones and women the ‘maternal’ blood.

In chapters six and seven, Ruhlmann moves away from material culture to the associations between humans, entities and spirits and their mediation via different food related etiquette. These include offerings of milky tea to the recently deceased or morning libations of sprinkled milk to the nature spirits. By conducting these actions the prosperity of the herd is ensured, bringing happiness and abundance. This is followed by more description of the rules and positions within the ger, the use of cutlery, and the value of scraping bones clean. Here Ruhlmann links the technical action of gently scraping the bones to shamanic beliefs of a beautiful soul. Any scratch on the bone is believed to remain on the soul and be carried to a new body. Therefore, for the soul to be beautiful in rebirth the bone must be free of scratches. It is in examples such as this that Ruhlmann really brings the unique combination of reinterpreted shamanic beliefs and Buddhist elements to the fore. The next section explores alcohol consumption and unwanted visitors (dead or alive) followed by the role of certain dishes to both keep drunkenness and bad intentions at bay. Interestingly here, Ruhlmann’s vignettes demonstrate the ambiguity of etiquette in situations where equal consideration is given to the fear of an unknown visitor as the potential bearer of a bad spirit, and the obligation to provide hospitality.

Having shown what Ruhlmann labels the ‘ordinary’ preparation and consumption of food, part two focuses on the ‘extraordinary’ ritualised use of feasts. Rules and etiquette are still at play in the remaining chapters, but now from the perspective of taboo and specific dietary regimes that protect the soul. Ruhlmann demonstrates the belief that a healthy soul needs feeding regularly. Around the time of a birth or death a soul is also most vulnerable, therefore various taboos are observed to repel or trick bad spirits for protection. During pregnancy and a short while after birth, a mother must exclude herself socially via dietary restrictions and various other symbolic procedures for keeping the soul of the new born baby from leaving. This includes avoiding fatty foods and consuming only lean soup or black tea to purify her body. At the appropriate time the new mother will eat white porridge and dairy to re-establish herself socially. Similarly, at the time of death, a soul splits itself across three locations – the grave, ger threshold and altar photograph – therefore the family must continue to feed the soul in these locations until forty-nine days have passed. The funeral involves a direct inversion of ordinary forms of etiquette; including the use of raw food, circling the grave in the reverse direction to that practised in monasteries, and funerary soup containing little to no meat. This is thought to neutralise pollution and keep away wandering spirits. The final chapter explores the Lunar New Year celebrations as a form of renewal through the accumulation and sharing of meritorious actions that support happiness.

Inviting Happiness contains many other well-documented insights into the ways eating and food sharing are linked to the broader context of social relations, shared meanings and the circulation of happiness. This breadth and density of fine detail is undoubtedly the strongest contribution of this work, creating a useful reference piece for understanding Mongolian sociality. The ethnographic richness of description notwithstanding, it would have been nice to see a wider engagement with contemporary theory. Although Ruhlmann states early on that the book is intended to be “at once descriptive and analytic” the reader is often left to their own speculative devices to fill in the analytic gaps. This may prove problematic for readers unfamiliar with the context or related literature. For example, contextual statements suggesting connections to burgeoning capitalism or socialist secularisation are made in passing with no further explanation. Similarly, and perhaps most crucially, many times throughout the book Ruhlmann remarks that happiness or good fortune has been invited with little theorisation into the efficacy of happiness beyond it having been invited. I would have liked to see this complexity teased out further. This counts too for the use of structuralist oppositions that inform the work. Ruhlmann states that the distinctions are more complex in practice yet fails to complicate them in new or theoretically grounded ways, leaving me uneasy with this choice of framework. Lastly, by illuminating aspects of fortune, accumulation and containment, Ruhlmann alludes to the work of Rebecca Empson, however there is hardly any dialogue between the two ethnographies despite ample opportunity. I would argue that this book is more reminiscent than derivative of Empson’s work, yet without knowing the author’s position it is hard to say for sure.

Nonetheless, this book provides a valuable and unique contribution to both the regional study of Mongolia and the anthropology of food more generally. It will be of interest to anyone seeking to understand how food shapes – and is shaped by – everyday life in a Mongolian ger.

About Jade Richards

Jade Marie Richards is a PhD Candidate of the School of Anthropology and Conservation at the University of Kent, UK. Her research interests include Lifelong Education, ethical self-cultivation, democratisation and forms of historical consciousness in Mongolia.

Jade is currently in the final year of her thesis project titled ‘Creative Citizenship: Ethics, Expectation and Lifelong Education in Ulaanbaatar’. Based on long term fieldwork at Mongolia’s largest Non-formal and Lifelong Education Centre, her research explores the diverse array of classes designed to equip unemployed adults with the ‘traditional’ knowledge, practical skills and ethical dispositions considered necessary to meet the rapidly changing demands of everyday urban life.

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