On the discipline of eating: Open questions

What is it like to put food in your mouth? To chew slowly? To look around and see warmed others beside you? To look down and find long-limbed wine in your glass? To have picked the vegetables, now in your mouth, thick from your garden? To have cooked the masticated sinews for hours beside those friends listing leftward beside you?

Is there a hearth? If so, what is it like? And the rituals–what of these? What actions? What words? What chants? What libations?

And what–shall we reference Braudel here? Yes, let’s–what longue duree is here–or not here? What form of life  is this after all? Does it exist, or is it all conjured?

What, ultimately, would a “discipline of eating” (see David E. Cooper) actually be look? How to make food into “cuisine” (Cooper again) just as we make grapes or tea leaves into practical arts?

I’m not sure what a “discipline of eating” would look like in the early 21st C.–after the rise of industrial civilization, after the Green Revolution, after we moved en masse to the cities. I’d like to gather together a few thoughts, though, as a kind of background to the questions.

1. From my short essay, “Wistfulness in These Strange Times”:

In the early 21st century, can we, as Epicurus insisted we must, do more with less? Can we examine our set of desires in order to distinguish the natural and necessary (good work, aesthetic appreciation, leisure) from the non-natural and unnecessary (excessive wealth, high status, extreme vulgarity)? Can we surround ourselves with friends for whom food is not just energy but that which is mouthed and tongued, for whom books not just fetishes but textures and shadings, land not just resource but earth and soil, home more than refuge, hosting a venerable art of welcoming? And can we, for a time at least, turn down the volume on all the buzzing and all the hurrying, all the anger and the strife, and can we, in this stillness, relearn self-sufficiency and self-reflection as well as the social virtues of honesty and sincerity?

2. My dissatisfaction with environmentalism with respect to food conceptualized in utilitarian terms. Industrial farming is bad–yes–but food only as calories? Food understood only in terms of health? Food only as good or bad treatment of animals? See, e.g., Jonathan Safron Foer’s unhelpful book Eating Animals.

3. My recent conversation about food, spirituality, and rituals with one conversation partner. The place of food at the center of a well-lived life. (But how?)

4. My recent edits of a forthcoming set of letters for the journal Philosophical Practice. Entitled “Letter Writing as Spiritual Exercise.” Spiritual exercise: the reference is to askesis and to the work of the ancient scholar Pierre Hadot. (Hadot is dead now. What libations?)

5. My foray into the work of the farmer-poet Wendell Berry.

6. My recent reading of David E. Cooper’s articles about “discipline of eating,” the importance of gardening and home cooking. Necessary conditions these, but are they sufficient?

He opens the tin and mixes the cool fish with the warmed green beans. (Fish slide out of tins.)  His fork clinks against the bowl. He reads the news on the screen.

He knows this is not a meal.

Open questions, then: What would a phenomenology of “cuisine” be like? And what kind of literary account could one give that might capture the experience of living with others in this way?

Any suggestions?

Further Reading

David E. Cooper, “Food and Spiritual Reflection: The Daoist Example.”

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