Thought For Food

Shylashri Shankar is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
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What you eat, who you eat with and how you eat express religious, ethnic, gender and class identities, and reflect one’s personal views on justice and ethics. The questions posed in relation to food are the sort of issues philosophers like to ponder

“Food does not interest me,” said several of my colleagues and friends when I told them that I was writing a monthly essay on food. Highly intelligent folks who think in interesting ways about politics, art, philosophy, economics, and life in general. Yet, their view on food is—one eats to live, and beyond that any conversation about food is utterly tedious. I disagree and point out that what you eat, who you eat with, and how you eat express religious, ethnic, gender and class identities, and reflect one’s personal views on justice and ethics. Rubbish, they say in chorus. This attitude is quite deep-rooted among philosophers and thinkers for whom food and philosophy are as far apart as the body is from the mind, as the physical is from the mental, as base appetites are from the cerebral and the spiritual. Philosophy, for them, deals with the higher values of life while food pertains to the lowly everyday mundane matters. Such a view goes back all the way to Plato: ‘Cooking is a mere knack as opposed to a genuine art like medicine.’ Philosophers who paid scant attention to food include Newton, Kant, Hegel and Sartre. Newton’s biographer Shapiro narrates a story about how Newton showed up late at the dining table and his guest had already consumed the entire chicken dish. Newton remarked “Ah, how absent-minded we philosophers are. I honestly thought that I had not yet dined.”

The disinterest is perplexing because the questions posed in relation to food—what it is exactly, what we should eat, how we know if it is safe, what good food is—are the sort of issues philosophers like to ponder.

In The Philosophy of Food, David Kaplan gives us an answer to the question: Why don’t more philosophers discuss food? It is not because food is too physical and transient, or because it is associated with the lower and primitive senses. It is because analysing food is too difficult. ‘Food is vexing. It is not even clear what it is. It belongs simultaneously to the worlds of economics, ecology and culture. It includes vegetables, chemists, livestock, cooks, fertilisers, production etc.’ Philosophers have to disentangle aesthetic taste from the literal taste. Immanuel Kant, for instance, rejected food and drink as objects of contemplative critical appreciation. Only disinterested pleasures and the judgments based on them can be objectively assessed, he said. Since appetite produces desire and likes and dislikes, it is a highly subjective encounter between the person and the dishes. One person may abhor veal or find lobster delicious, but another person, like Sartre who disliked all crustaceans, may disagree. There is, therefore, no way to bring food out of the personal into the social realm, decreed Kant. In the early 19th century, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin objected to these ideas. What we taste and smell have an equal right to be the object of a reflective hedonic experience as what we see and hear. Ingestion is a much more complex process, he said. We view the plate, we inhale the fragrance, which titillates our taste buds prior to putting a spoonful of soup or a juicy piece of venison in our mouths. We taste, we sip, we savour. Savarin labels the process as ‘direct’ (first perception), ‘complete’ (when the food proceeds to the back of the mouth), and ‘reflective’ (the opinion one’s spirit forms from the impressions transmitted to it by the mouth). Though Savarin ushered in a philosophy of gastronomy, compared to other topics, food is still given short shrift by philosophers.

But some philosophers have given a central place to food in their thinking, starting with Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher. Karl Marx wrote his doctoral dissertation in praise of Epicurus whose theories included convincing versions of atomic physics, a naturalistic account of evolution, and a moral system based on hedonism. A champion of friendship, his name later came to be associated with liberalism.

Much later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Friedrich Nietzsche saw nutrition as a powerful creator of identity. Rousseau, in La Nouvelle Héloïse, shows how France, Italy and Germany came to be through culturally determined eating habits. Consumption of milk (along with bread and water) created the truly moral being. A healthy palate was a simple one that ate vegetables and fruit (raw was better than cooked), while an unhealthy palate was a refined one that consumed meat and food cooked in complex ways. Simplicity of life—rustic, manual work, poverty and ignorance— was prized by Rousseau and his philosophy aimed at recreating that idyllic state of nature in society.

For those of you who know Nietzsche as Hitler’s favourite philosopher, and who wrote ‘the Devil is just God being idle on that seventh day’, and whose Beyond Good and Evil is seen as advocating amorality, it may surprise you to learn that he placed a great deal of emphasis on nutrition. In the absence of a supernatural realm (God is dead), the physiological and the natural is elevated and enshrined in Nietzche’s view, which divided the world into those who are powerful and those who are not. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche places nutrition (along with place and climate—dry air and clear skies—and the choice of one’s kind of relaxation) as one of the key elements of nourishing oneself in order to attain one’s maximum of strength and of virtue. ‘The best cooking is Piedmontese,’ he says, after a rant about German cooking—‘ what it does not have on its conscience!… overcooked meat… pastries degenerating into paperweights.’ The German spirit, for Nietzsche, is a case of indigestion, while the English diet gives the spirit heavy feet. Alcohol ‘makes my life’ a ‘vale of tears’, and coffee makes one gloomy. Water, on the other hand, is the best—the spirit moves over water. Nietzsche eschewed vegetarianism because it creates ‘weakness’ and ‘ways of thinking and feelings that have narcotic effects’. Those who promote vegetarianism, ‘like some Indian gurus’, want to create and increase a need that they are in a ‘position to satisfy’. Fruits and vegetables produce a weak individual, rice leads to opium addiction, while potatoes promote addiction to alcohol. By this yardstick, Jains and Brahmins would be doomed to be weaklings, opium eaters and alcoholics.

Nietzsche’s and Rousseau’s views on food, while diametrically opposed, had a strong influence on their respective philosophies. For Nietzsche, the propagator of free will, to choose one’s diet is to plan one’s essence. As Michel Onfray elaborates in Appetites for Thought, our choice, free will, is to accept necessity, which we must first discover. Our diet then depends on our discovery of what is most in harmony with the needs of our own organism. ‘Dietetics is the science of accepting the reign of necessity through the mediation of intelligence; it is a matter of understanding what best suits the body rather than choosing at random or following criteria uninformed by bodily necessity.’ Nietzsche’s dietetic is a science of measure, of harmony between hygienic practice and necessity, which will produce controlled vitality and power.

Rousseau, on the other hand, saw meat as producing cruelty in man, which was to be abhorred. He prized pacifism and the consumption of milk, fruit and vegetables as producing a moral being. These views are reflected in his social contract theory and in his benign view of human nature.

However, in their own food habits, they practiced the maxim, ‘Do as I say, don’t do as I do.’ Rousseau’s daily meal included a glass of milk, but also several glasses of rough wine. He ate to live and practiced gastronomic self-denial.

The champion of reason, Immanuel Kant, decided to stop frequenting bars for his main mid-day meal because he often imbibed so much that he forgot where he lived! He began inviting three to five guests home. Three dishes, including roast meat and fish (his favourite), cheese and butter, were served. Never game. His biographer Jachmann says: ‘He thought the pleasure of drinking was heightened when he swallowed air at the same time, so he drank with his mouth wide open.’

Nietzsche dined alone (Epicurus would have disapproved), and his meals were not particularly a model of harmony. His mid-day meal was soup, followed by two ham sandwiches and an egg, six to eight nuts with bread, two apples, two pieces of ginger and two biscuits. In the evening, he had an egg with bread, five nuts, sweetened milk with crispbread or three biscuits. By 1887, his diet had drawn closer to his philosophy—rare steak (meat=strength and vitality) with spinach and a large omelette with apple marmalade for lunch.

The gulf between philosophy and food is decreasing these days. In India and in the West, conversations about organic food, animal ethics, good nutrition, pesticides, healthy diet, and good food are becoming more central to our every day lives. If philosophy is supposed to illuminate the path to a good life, we need more thinkers to weigh in on food and articulate an artful way of life.