Eating the world: the philosophy of food

Roger Scruton
14 May 2003

What single factor connects the following features of the contemporary world?

  • the clearance of the rain forests
  • the desertification of the grasslands
  • soil erosion caused by deforestation
  • the loss of boundaries and intensification of agriculture
  • the accumulation of landfill sites
  • the pollution of the landscape by non-biodegradable waste
  • the destruction of the high street and the town centre by the out-of-town supermarket
  • the escalation in food miles, to the point where food may consume its own weight in fossil fuels before arriving on the supermarket shelf
  • the spread of fast food and the culture of fast food
  • the disappearance of the family meal
  • the pauperisation of the small farmer
  • the growth of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) and patented crops
  • the use of World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules on ‘trade-related intellectual property rights’ to obliterate local food economies
  • the increasing obesity of populations in wealthy countries, to the point where obesity is in some places the leading cause of premature death
  • the aesthetic pollution of our historic townscapes by the logos and facades of the fast-food chains
  • the disappearance of the village shop and the local market.

The coils of species-memory

Behind all those widely mourned developments lies one four-letter word: food. The place of food in the moral, political and monetary economy has changed radically in the last fifty years. The result has been a vast and potentially catastrophic loss of equilibrium.

Global food producers – who can move from country to country, acquiring land, importing agricultural machinery and fertiliser, and selling their products in the global market – pose a threat to the environment of an unprecedented kind.

Global food distributors – who can descend like WalMart on the periphery of any town anywhere in the world, with a tempting array of cheap food wrapped in plastic – pose a threat to local economies and lifestyles comparable to that posed by a tribe of belligerent invaders.

Those vast disequilibriating forces did not come about because someone planned them. They arose by ‘an invisible hand’ out of developments in international trade, agricultural technology and food processing that have occurred since the end of the second world war.

Nevertheless, there has been little or no effort from the political elites of the western world to come to terms with, still less to moderate, their adverse effects. Moreover, the perceived indifference of these governments to forces which are not merely changing every aspect of the life of people in the west but also impacting on lives and environments all over the globe, is one reason for the growing movements of protest against the global economy.

The least that can be said is that we need to re-examine food, in all its aspects – economic, social, moral, spiritual – if we are to understand either this global economy or the environmental problems that are now afflicting it. As Ian Christie has indicated, the Ecology & Place strand will be examining “the tensions at work in modern political life concerning the production and consumption of food, the connections between food and the environment, and the cultures of food that illuminate differences in values and outlooks around the world.”

Paradoxically, at the very moment when food ought to be at the top of the political agenda, it is slipping rapidly to the bottom of the ordinary budget in western democracies. Until the later decades of the 20th century, food was the leading item of family expenditure in western countries, occupying over 50% of the budget. Now, a sign that a country is still a ‘developing’ country is that its people have to devote the major part of their budgets to furnishing food for the family table.

Of course, the use of the word ‘developing’ now has an antiquated air, for precisely the reason that we are beginning to see the enormous social and environmental costs of what was once known as ‘development’, and are reluctant to wish the rest of the world to ‘catch up’ with a condition that, in some frames of mind, looks less like plenty than excess.

Still, there is a seeming inevitability in the changes that we have witnessed. We need to examine just what else has changed, now that food is available at so little cost, with minimum exertion, and with scant attention to the time, place or ceremony with which it was once consumed.

That the change is a momentous one should not be doubted. The hunter-gatherers whose genetic make-up we inherit devoted all their energies to getting food. Labour, danger, stress and companionship attended their provisioning. Having secured their meal through their shared hardship, it is hardly surprising if our ancestors consumed it in a common ceremony, with rejoicing, affection, and gifts to the gods.

The change from hard-won to take-away diet (from game to play) has changed the spiritual as well as the social complexion of humanity.

That experience of food lies buried within us, and the species-memory of it will influence our conduct however much we wish to grow out of our genes. Hence the change from hard-won to take-away diet (from game to play) has changed the spiritual as well as the social complexion of humanity.

Animals feed, people eat

Those thoughts remind us that eating, for us, is not what it is for the other animals. A person’s encounter with food may be an occasion of festivity and celebration; it may also be deeply unsettling, compromising and humiliating. It can even be (for the Christian) a petition for divine forgiveness and an avenue to redemption. Eating has in every traditional society been regarded as a social, often religious, act, embellished by ritual and enjoyed as a primary celebration of membership. Food has therefore become part of the self-consciousness of humanity, and differences in diet often reflect far-ranging differences in the rhythm, ethos and expectations of competing lifestyles.

Indeed, the difference between humans and other animals is never more vividly to be witnessed, than in their contrasting attitudes to food. Animals feed, while people eat. This distinction (between fressen and essen) is one on which Leon Kass has meditated at length in his eloquent book, The Hungry Soul.

Kass concludes that rational beings defy their own nature if they regard food purely as fuel for the body and not also as a moral and spiritual challenge. Rational beings are nourished on conversation, taste, manners and hospitality, and to divorce food from these practices is to deprive it of its true social significance.

The special relation of people to their food finds emblematic expression in the face. Human beings have neither claws nor fangs. They do not eat by pressing their mouth to their food, but by raising their food to their mouth, which is the organ of speech and therefore of reason. The mouth is the centre of the face, and it is in the face that the human person is most immediately encountered, in the form of looks and glances, smiles, grimaces and words.

People therefore place their food into their mouths with special care, usually by means of instruments that create a distance between the food and the face, so that the glance, the smile and the self remain visible while eating. The instruments of choice in African society are the fingers, and we will be carrying an interesting account of the way in which this practice shapes not just the meal that is eaten, but the social outlook of those who eat it.

People rejoice less in filling themselves than in the sight of food, table and guests dressed for a ceremonial offering. Their meals are also sacrifices, and anthropologists have occasionally argued that the origin of our carnivorous ways lies in the burnt offerings of ancient ritual. Only rational beings make gifts, and it is the giving of food, usually as the central episode in a ceremony, that is the core of hospitality, and therefore of those actions through which we lay claim to our home and at the same time mutely apologise for owning it.

(Cat lovers may dispute that sentence, believing that their favourites bring gifts of mouse, frog and lizard into the house. But those would be gifts only if the cat, in surrendering them, simultaneously affirms and relinquishes a right of ownership. That is not something that can be accomplished, by a creature that lacks the concept of a right.)

Our eating is motivated occasionally by need, but also by a love of superfluity that causes us to rearrange our world and to engage in ceaseless experiment.

We are unique among the animals, or nearly so, in our omnivorousness. Our eating is motivated occasionally by need, but also by a love of superfluity that causes us to rearrange our world and to engage in ceaseless experiment. At the same time we bind ourselves in laws – such as the dietary laws of Leviticus – which reinforce the idea of food as a spiritual commodity.

Vegetarianism can be seen as an attempt to recuperate this idea, by reintroducing a conception of dietary sin. We will debate this idea with the publication of an important article by Steve Sapontzis. Omnivorousness, in the human species, is the result of reason; so too is the refusal to be omnivorous.

The staple and the exotic

All these facts underline the depth and complexity of our relation to the things we eat. The global economy has made available food from other places, other cultures – even other times. In experimenting with these foods we may at first regard them as ‘exotic’ – orientalising them, as Edward Said might put it, in order to keep them at a distance from our sacred ways.

As Ben Rogers points out, in his intriguing book on the British cult of the Beefeater – Beef and Liberty – the repudiation of foppish foreign foods, and in particular the ‘kickshaws’ (French quelquechoses) with which the aristocracy defaced their tables – was a fundamental part of the building of British identity in the 18th century. But it needed a determined effort of patriotic propaganda to hold the superior cuisine of France at bay, and at the very moment when beef was being promoted as the cause and effect of our yeoman virtues, the English were becoming increasingly dependent on coffee, sugar and tea.

Indeed, if there is, now, a national dish that unites the Scots, the Welsh and the English under a common British identity, it is the ‘nice cup of tea’ that saw us through the days of bombs and rationing and which testifies to nothing so much as to the fact that our diet has depended for two centuries or more on imports from India. The Roast Beef of Old England may have been a rallying cry in Fielding’s London. However, as Dan Zinder remarked in his article Hard Tack the Tandoori restaurants will be remembered with greater affection by the troops in Iraq.

Indeed, no food is more replete with the moral dilemmas of our time than rice. Once – and in some parts of the world, still – a staple diet, it illustrates the rôle of staples in shaping the rhythms, postures and culture of the people who consume them. Rice became a symbol of fertility, a religious icon and also an abundant source of imagery and metaphor in the art and literature of China. It also shaped the landscape in a way that can be compared with the effect of cattle-farming on the landscape of England.

Rice changes its perceived character, in accordance with global pressures and demands, ceasing to be a gift of God and becoming instead a patented human artefact.

But, like every staple, rice both feeds those who depend on it and also endangers them. The Irish know this to their cost, the potato famine being perhaps the single most important and identity-forming event in modern Irish history. In the case of rice, however, it is not merely the possibility of crop failure that threatens: there is the new threat of patents and GMOs which, between them, could make local communities depend less on the crop that they grow than on the monopoly owner of its genes. The preliminary skirmish over basmati rice, as French anthropologist Denis Vidal will explain for us, heralds greater conflicts to come, as rice changes its perceived character, in accordance with global pressures and demands, ceasing to be a gift of God and becoming instead a patented human artefact.

Although food is a necessity, it is seldom if ever treated as such by the culture that grows around it. In all societies, food is represented and re-presented as a luxury, an ornament, an invitation to excess. This is particularly so in those societies, like ours, which enjoy a superabundance of dietary alternatives. But it is true also of societies that exist on the verge of want and which for that very reason may need to compensate for the monotony of some staple energy-giving food with the sauces and savours that relieve its uniform taste. African, Arabian, Persian and Indian foods have all seized the imagination on account of this need.

And the art of embellishing and presenting food reveals again the distinction between human and animal appetite. Our food is an assemblage not of nourishment only but of meanings. The gourmet is simply the extreme example of the normal human, who desires not just to consume food but to understand it, to rescue its significance before it is carried away. We savour taste; but we also savour the locality, the community and the sense of human possibilities with which a taste may resonate.

Mrs Beeton versus Elizabeth David

This explains one of the most remarkable phenomena that we hope to consider in our series: the cookery book. There are ancient examples, such as the Roman manual of Apicius. And there are records of feasts in the Alexandrian Athenaeus and the Roman Petronius which indicate the levels of finesse, of grossness and of sheer effrontery to which ancient cooks aspired.

However, the old manuals were designed for professional use and written by those who were to devote their lives to the kitchens. The modern cookbook is written with the ordinary person in mind and is the product of enormous social changes which made the low-budget household central to the scheme of things. These social changes caused and were also partly caused by Mrs Beeton (whose book was published when she was but 24 years old – she died in child-bed a few years later).

Things have moved on since Mrs Beeton’s day, as the ordinary low-budget household has become more wayward, more individual and more nomadic – has ceased, in other words, to be a household in the traditional sense of the term. Elizabeth David set a new fashion. She was the wandering romantic cook, in rebellion against the classical stay-at-home, introducing the food of other places along with the associated history and culture.

Mrs Beeton’s book is called Household Management and accompanies every recipe with a price tag. David’s books are called French Country Cooking and the like, and form part of the intellectual tourist trade. Mrs Beeton still treats food as the primary instrument of survival; Elizabeth David sees it as a sphere of choice and experiment – a leisure concern. She is in conscious rebellion against the Roast Beef of Old England, wandering in search of a sophistication that she does not find at home and which she seeks to wave at us like a flag of defiance. And in doing so she treats food as a door into the locality that produces it, the key to the spiritual and emotional impact of a place, a community and a form of social life.

The same attitude, set against the clash between Parisian luxury and dour puritan manners, animates Izak Dinesen’s famous story of Babette’s Feast, now one of many films (La Grande Bouffe being the extreme example) in which eating is the central action, and in which the face is studied under the magnetic impact of food.

Food is the place where the needs of the body and the needs of the soul converge, to offer nourishment and meaning in equal measure.

All such developments serve once again to emphasise the fact that food is the place where the needs of the body and the needs of the soul converge, to offer nourishment and meaning in equal measure. If there is to be criticism of the fast-food culture it surely lies here: that it denies our need for meaning, not merely by addressing appetite alone, not merely by its bland uniformity of presentation, content and aesthetic, but by its conscious detachment from place, community and ceremony.

In the fast-food culture food is not given but taken, which is one reason why, in such a culture, nobody is either properly ‘at home’ in the manner of Mrs Beeton, or properly abroad in the manner of Elizabeth David. The solitary stuffing of burgers, pizzas and ‘TV dinners’; the disappearance of family meals and domestic cooking; the loss of table manners – all these tend to obscure the distinction between eating and feeding.

It is food devoted to the production of a new human type, for whom place, time and community are losing their significance.

Fast food has broken free from spiritual life, to become a negation of those identity-forming traditions which make national foods and local foods so important to those who have lived with them. It is food devoted to the production of a new human type, for whom place, time and community are losing their significance. There can be no more vivid symbol than this of the global food economy and what it does, not just to people’s budgets but to their sense of themselves.

The taste of ideas

Man ist was man isst – you are what you eat. Feuerbach’s famous saying, which for obvious reasons sounds better in German than in any other language, is in fact the root idea in the philosophy of food. In his amusing and highly selective survey – Le ventre des philosophes, facetiously subtitled critique de la raison diététique – Michel Onfray has shown that food has occupied a central place in philosophical thinking since classical times. Diogenes’ gesture of defiance towards the artifice of human wisdom culminated in a diet of raw flesh and creepy-crawlies; Rousseau’s search for a human soul (and therefore a human body) uncorrupted by artifice and the snares of society resulted in a namby-pamby advocacy of dairy produce; Fourier’s ideal human community from which conflict and envy will finally be banished required an élite of ‘gastrosophes’, devoted to rearranging the digestive tracts of the new human type.

Each philosopher who has thought about food at all, has tried to establish a diet that will transmit the essentials of his thinking by means of the stomach, so re-shaping our thoughts from below, so to speak, without the trouble of rational debate. You may not understand the arguments, but just try the diet.

Of wine and waistlines

We should therefore praise Plato for the beautiful Symposium, in which the old proverb ‘wine and truth’ (oinos kai aletheia; in vino veritas) is vividly dramatised, and the two uses of the mouth – to ingest the physical and to express the mental – are brought into momentary harmony, as in an erotic kiss (which is the true subject-matter of the dialogue).

And full marks to Kant for a lifelong love-affair with wine, which affected his thought as much as his social life, and which was the only respect in which he departed from the iron rails of pietistic virtue. His weakness for Médoc, which is not a weakness at all but a strength, endears Kant to your editorial team, all descended from long lines of dipsomaniacs.

It also gives us the cue to another of our themes: the ingestion of intoxicants; the concepts of permissible and impermissible drugs, of addiction and dependency; and – arising out of these things – the new attempt by governments and regulators to police our diet, not in order to punish us, but in order to prevent us from punishing ourselves. ‘There is no respectable reason for wishing not to be fat,’ wrote Evelyn Waugh, in an advertorial written for the now defunct wine-merchant Saccone and Speed.

Almost nobody now would agree with Waugh: and yet there is an important truth lurking in his words. There are people who dedicate their lives to dieting. But we do not admire them for it: on the contrary, we regard them as medical cases, candidates for help. Of course you should avoid excess. But temperance (as it was traditionally known) is not the same as dieting. Temperance is a way of keeping the body at a distance; dieting is a way of living with the body on intimate and obsessional terms. It is a kind of negative greed.

To those who reply that fat people die younger, Waugh would have replied, ‘well done them’.

Likewise there are people who dedicate their lives to exercise – the fitness buffs who spend their evenings jogging and their mornings in the gym. But is there not something narcissistic about their obsession, just as there is about anorexia – a sense that all this trouble is aimed at one thing only, namely me? Waugh’s protest on behalf of normal middle-aged spread was really an injunction to live on easy terms with the body, so as to be able to forget about it. To those who reply that fat people die younger, Waugh would have replied, ‘well done them’.

All this reminds us that the cult of dieting occupies religious territory and is competing for attention with older traditions based on the acceptance of decay and death. At the heart of the contest between creature comforts and the health police, therefore, is a deeper dispute about the nature and the destiny of our species.

We hope that some of our contributors will engage with this deeper dispute, and give comfort to your editors as they drink themselves into a tolerant stupor.

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