On the life need of cuisine; or, how we forgot how to eat

I went to a dinner party this past weekend in which a lovely woman told a story that, to me, read like an allegory of irony. It went something like this: she’s kneeling at her father’s casket, weeping. Behind her in the pews, just within earshot, a man says to the man next to him, “How much do you think they paid for the coffin? Probably too much.”

“People are so rude,” my companion concludes. “You wouldn’t believe the kinds of things people say at weddings and funerals.”

I say, “I would think that these are just the kinds of things that wouldn’t be said at weddings and funerals.”

“You’d be surprised,” she says.

My companion and I are seated at the dinner table, waiting for the fondue to arrive. She tells me that she’s vegetarian, soon to be vegan; says her nutritionist advises against eating dairy, especially during the winter as it causes inflammation; passes the plate of proscuitto over to the the third party, another very nice guy who does eat meat but not very much and only grass fed, locally farmed variety but whose wife does not generally eat meat, is vegan actually, and doesn’t drink wine or beer. I don’t say whether I am pescatarian, vegetarian, or vegan; whether I subscribe to grazing or CR dieting;  whether I have dabbled in PaNu or deep sea all fish diets;  or what, more generally, are my considered views on the Pleistocene. Instead, I keep my mouth shut.

Here we are.

I call this an “allegory of irony” not because I don’t like my dinner party companions (actually, I like them all quite a lot) and not because I regard this as a Portlandia-esque or Williamsburgian-like situation especially rife for spoofing but because I believe it demonstrates our collective loss of cuisine, a necessary feature of which would be table manners. How can it be that we don’t think to find it inappropriate to talk about food just before a meal, which undoubtedly took time and thought to prepare, is to be served despite the fact that we find it quite inappropriate to talk about money in the midst of a sacred space? To my ear, the two cases do not sound that much different. What gives?

Move this scene forward through time while pressing the reasoning to its logical extreme and you find something striking. You find that the reductio ad absurdum of the modern dinner party would be food a la carte. To each, his own. But if this is so, then it follows that something is deeply amiss about our current way of life, something that is long forgotten, some fundamental way of being in the world that has been lost. In a word, cuisine.

*

It is, without question, a a sign of our failure of imagination, indeed a deepening of our collective forgetting, that Michael Pollan’s principal thesis in Omnivore’s Dilemma should go unremarked. When you ask someone to tell you what his book is about, she will likely say either that it is an “indictment of industrial farming” or that it is an apologia for the “slow food movement.” Yes, it is both, but in a crucial respect both are beside the point.

This misreading is telling. Until I read the book a few months ago, I was just as guilty of drawing the same conclusions as everyone else. I had read many of Pollan’s New York Times features on food and thought I knew what “Pollan was about.” I didn’t. I believed that I could recite, by line and verse, the story of “farm to table.” I could, but that didn’t matter. I had read Jonathan Safron Foer’s second-rate but highly touted book, Eating Animals, in which his bravado is about as good as his reasoning. Saffron seemed–seems–a second-rate Pollan. What I hadn’t realized is that that is an insult to Pollan.

As it happens, though, what “Pollan is about” is making a deep philosophical case for overcoming the problem of nihilism by returning to something akin to the philosophy of Sextus Empiricus. Naturally. Sweep aside his gotcha journalism, which is really quite silly. Try to look past the hokey prose and the gimmicky tale of foraging. (Hey, gimmicky tales sell well, and a guy’s gotta put food on the table somehow, right?) Once you do all this, you can focus your attention on the main point: the omnivore’s dilemma.

You see the “omnivore’s dilemma” is really just one example of the broader problem of trying to make choices about how we ought to live without being able to appeal to a non-arbitrary, non-ad hoc criterion for making that choice. To the nihilist, we lack a warrant for our lives, a good enough reason for persisting in our existing, with the result that, provided we become aware that this is the case, we are ill at ease in our own skin. We feel “dis-encumbenced,” as if, to borrow more words from David E. Cooper, we have nothing to “lean on.” And it’s as though, all these years, we had all spent all our time reading Kierkegaard’s books and had come to the conclusion that we had to make groundless “leaps of faith” and that was all there was to it.

We are now in a position to say something about the omnivore’s dilemma.** What is crucial to note is that the latter could not have arisen until the onset of the modern age. All the conditions had to be “just right” for us to be confused about the most basic thing. To see this is to see that the omnivore’s dilemma can only occur when (1) we recognize that humans, unlike many other mammals, can eat an exceptionally wide range of food (i.e., everything “north of” that which is poisonous) and (2) that food in the developed world, thanks in large measure to the Green Revolution, has become superabundant and exceptionally inexpensive relative to our mean incomes. Crudely put, whereas in the past being fat was an affliction of the rich and a mark of luxuriant opulence, now even (or especially) the poor have access to large enough quantities of food to get very fat very quickly and to become diabetic to boot.

In order to solve the omnivore’s dilemma, we have engaged in very muddled thinking. From (1) and (2), we conclude, fallaciously, that we must learn to choose more prudently; that we must rely on the best that science can tell us; thus, that we have a reason to speak in terms of “nutrition” and to consult “nutrition science” and “nutrition experts.” The trouble with this account of choosing prudently and depending on experts is, first of all, that we would need a criterion by which to determine what makes an expert an expert (and we don’t, so we’re back to where we began) and, second of all, the experts have not reached any consensus. Beholden to this account of learning to choose more prudently, we have dug ourselves in more deeply: more fad diets, more consultations with special nutritionists, more aimless searches for the newest expert and the most popular food guru, more purchases of self-help books and all without reason, justification, or hope of success.

How can we be so confused about one of the most elemental of things in the life of a human? Will air be next? (Water already comes in plastic bottles, thank God.) Something must be missing, and we must have forgotten, even, how to look. It’s as though we had forgotten how to inquire.

*

It could be that our starting point is what is getting us into a heap of trouble. We take it for granted that we are “voluntarist selves” (on this concept, see the work of Michael Sandel) in which (1) the faculty of choosing is most definitive of “who we are,” (2) the objects chosen are distinct from the faculty of choosing, and (3) what is most valuable about us is simply that we are able to choose. The marketplace is the native soil of the Voluntarist Self.

There are at least three errors discernible in this metaphysical conception of selfhood. One is that a “thicker conception” of selfhood would not begin from the “thinned-out” faculty of choosing but from a sense of human beings as intrinsically social animals: beings that are mutually dependent on each other for meeting most of their basic needs. Another is that choosing oughtn’t to be hived off from that which is chosen. Indeed, more important than the capacity for choice is the idea that the object be of independent worth. In our considerations, we consistently get this backward, yet the worth of the object must, in our deliberations, come before the question of choosing. And the third, which is most damning of all, is that the very idea of choosing is a terrible, terrible place to begin any inquiry into what we ought to put in our mouths. The best way of saying this is that we are already in the wrong once we pose the food question in terms of deliberating, doubting, weighing up, calculating, and deciding. This talk is bad talk through and through and so long as we persist in talking in terms of choosing there will be no way out.

But why? The vision seems to be that the Voluntarist Self is standing in an Infinitely Large supermarket with an Infinitely Large pocketbook and then asking, “So, what should I get for dinner?,” only to discover that he lacks the criteria with which to determine what ought to be purchased in the first place. This thought experiment, the reductio of the modern consumer, is actually a nightmare in which everything is possible but no choice can escape being ad hoc. That is maddening actually. (If you missed my point, here it is again: imagine being able to choose everything but not knowing what anything is worth. Paralysis or “leaps of faith” would ultimately set in.)

By now, my hope is that we are beginning to see how we arrived at the dinner party I attended, at the food in your cupboard, at the angst you feel on the subway, with the portable coffee in your thermos, with the blogs and websites and comment sections all devoted to talking about talking about food. (For more about my approach to telling this philosophical story, see my short paragraph on Hegel.)

The simple truth is that our food lives are lived a la carte. In the long run this cannot be satisfying, and all the frustrations we feel, the health concerns we express, the vacillations we go through, the arms we throw up seem only the most visible signs that we have no clue what we are doing most of the time. My thought is that we need to begin, again, with philosophy, and my suggestion is that if we want to figure out what should go into our mouths and stroll down to our stomachs, then we had better start somewhere else: perhaps with a notion of cuisine.

 *

Let’s imagine what features would be necessary and sufficient for there to be a truly livable conception of cuisine. To begin with, cuisine would draw on food grown locally and in season but not in order to cut down on our “carbon footprint” or to minimize our “food miles” or to be more “eco-conscious” or to “make us healthier” but in order to draw from the wisdom of our elders and the kindly use of the land. (On “kindly use,” see Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America, a book that, since it was written in the early 70s, has worn well over time.) What this land can bear and what our elders have been able to eat are good signs of the kinds of foods we can put in our mouths without hesitation, doubt, or bewilderment. In key part, kindly use and tradition do not solve the problem of choosing on the back end; they quiet the problem on the front end, making it disappear. The problem–what should I choose to eat if I can eat nearly everything in the known world?–is not solved; it is put to rest. In drawing from what is around us, my neighbors and I draw ourselves together.***

Second, ritualistic acts, freighted with meaning, would spring up around the partaking of food. We would learn how to give thanks (and to really mean it) for food with the understanding that we would cease to exist without it. Rituals would encode a “tragic sense to life.” Truly, if this food had not been, we would not be. How close, as we put this in our mouth, we are to death, how fortunate for this bounty. To give thanks, therefore, is to acknowledge human finitude as an inextirpable fact of our all too human existence. In giving thanks, we comport ourselves delicately toward food. The ritual would be close to chanting.

Third, we would have to see ourselves as fully inhabiting intelligible social roles. Much has been lost in the metaphysical principle that we “possess” extrinsic properties X or Y instead of being embedded deeply in our social roles. It is not the case that I have children; rather, it is the case that I am a father. Similarly, it is not the case that I have dinner parties; it is rather to be understood that I am the hostess.

Fourth, to those inhabiting certain social roles much is owed. We owe the hostess certain words. For one thing, we can’t come empty-handed; we must offer her something (and not something cheap and crappy either). For another, we should say nice things about the food. It is a very small token paid “in exchange for” the effort, time, and care that went into making it. As guests, we also owe each other certain things and should see to it that we avoid others. Many subjects should be seen as gauche, inappropriate, or off limits: e.g., food preferences at a dinner party (barring whatever is poisonous and inherently inedible), the cost of caskets at funerals, the price of a dress at weddings, and so on.

Fifth, we should develop a keen appreciation for taste. The flavor profile of each course should, in appropriate terms, be a topic of conversation. Cultivating a refined palate needn’t be snooty or elitist. (And, no, questions of taste are, point blankedly, not subjective.) Within reason, creating a shared vocabulary in which we discern what is particular about this wine not only attunes us to the present, to the world we share together (in this respect, agreement on good taste is like laughing at a good joke: we embrace each other), but also trains us to attune ourselves to the sensory properties of others. If I can describe this wine with greater nuance, I may be more apt, in some other context, to perceive in Jane a strained voice or to come to a deeper appreciation of a natural beauty.

Sixth, our experience of cuisine would be attentive to the collective partaking of the food before us. Apart from the other considerations, it should be stated that there would have to be a wholeness, an atmosphere of conviviality that, though it may go unremarked or be ineffable, would nevertheless be experienced. (Virginia Woolf is successful at showing this stillness, this still togetherness, in the final scenes of her novel Mrs. Dalloway.)

Seventh, manners would have to matter. It would not be just about saying thanks but about the style or way of saying thanks. Run back through points 1-5 and insert the way that we do such-and-such where appropriate. E.g., I owe the hostess a graceful kiss, not an awkward embrace. I owe you good words said in the right way. Good manners are as much the result of good habits as they are the product of self-reflection and self-attunement. We get better at this over time provided that we exercise good manners, self-reflectively, in the right way. Far from being a “something extra” to cuisine, grace is the way of the hand approaching the mouth.

End Notes

** A brief clarification of the concept of dilemma. The “omnivore’s dilemma” is actually not a dilemma. Strictly speaking, it is a puzzle or a problem. A dilemma can be cast in this logical form: 1) Either A or B is the case. 2) If A, then C. 3) If B, then C. 4) So, C has to be the case. But C is bad or harmful (etc.). Expressed in natural language, the idea is that whatever we do we arrive at the same unpalatable conclusion. (Or: “All roads lead to…”) Our hands, therefore, cannot but be dirty. This is simply not the case for the omnivore, as evinced by all the well-to-do who speak ad nauseum about buying chard from the farmer who’s living at the end of their street. The chard’s name is Cheery. Please say hello.

*** The important corollary, which I won’t explore further here, is that, on this construal, only rural communities or high density cities sustained by local farms would be possible. Cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas would have to disappear. Exurbs and suburbs likewise. In fact, any regions that could not support human life without also relying on some too-strong application of the Ricardian principle of comparative advantage in order to supply its basic stores would have to be depopulated. Sorry, Ricardo, the maize stops here.

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