This article is from the Spring 2014 issue of New Humanist magazine. You can subscribe here.
It seemed like a good idea at the time: I would write a book on food and philosophy. The combination was perhaps surprising but, I would show, entirely natural. The question of how to eat illuminates the question of how to live, since food involves culture, politics, pleasure, creativity, sharing and self-discipline, as well as the ability to sift through competing claims about health and the environment. The philosophical eater brings mind, body, heart and (in one sense) soul into harmony, in contrast with the ascetic monk or thinker, who fails to come to full terms with our fleshy nature, or the glutton, who lives only for his body.
A good idea needs to be well executed and I was as satisfied as I was ever likely to be with the end result, The Virtues of the Table. Publication, however, exposes the cruel truth that, actually, the world doesn’t much care. Given there are thousands of other books to read, many of them classics, I don’t suppose the world is to blame.
It has nevertheless been interesting to observe how exactly that fraction of the world that has noticed the book has reacted. Britons are so keen to unmask pretension that they often mistake it for any earnest intellectual ambition. Hence a serious book about food and philosophy looks like the daftest proposal ever to get past a publisher’s marketing department. Philosophy is bad enough by itself, but the idea that we ought to think more about body fuel sounds suspiciously French.
As it happens, reaction to the book has been good to lukewarm, with little outright hostility. Nonetheless, I have sensed in almost every review and interview that the writer feels the need to signal that they find the whole idea a little embarrassing. Given the nature of British society, it is not surprising that several have found themselves casting the problem in class terms: isn’t all this philosophising about food some kind of bourgeois indulgence?
This kind of complaint is often made when people talk seriously about anything that many can’t even afford. The impulse behind this is not all bad. It is indeed distasteful to find people complaining about the price of seats in the dress circle of the Royal Opera House as though it were a terrible burden, when many struggle to pay fuel bills.
However, it is absurd to claim that anything that is not essential to our survival is a “luxury” we should not be concerned about. This is not a humane viewpoint, but a deeply anti-humanist one. Why, after all, are we so concerned that many people do not have the necessities of life? Not because we think that mere survival is the purpose of existence. We want people to have food, shelter, health and education so that they can thrive and flourish. To put it another way, we want our “middle-class indulgences” to be available to everyone.
If human life offered nothing better than mere survival, it would hardly be worth the effort to sustain it. It is profoundly mistaken to dismiss culture, art, philosophy or sport as luxuries. They are optional only in the sense that we can survive without them. But they are essential in that we cannot truly live without any of them.
Nor does being concerned with them imply indifference to the needs of the least fortunate. Shopping is a clear example. To dismiss Fairtrade, for instance, as a middle-class indulgence is incredibly myopic, since the whole purpose of it is to make sure that producers in the developing world have a living wage. It is an odd kind of solidarity with the poor that defends the right of the relatively affluent westerner to buy foods that are produced in conditions of virtual slave labour by their proletariat brethren overseas.
The idea that the pleasures of the table are only for the bourgeois is most persuasively refuted not by an argument but by a film. In Babette’s Feast (1987), the titular heroine works as a domestic for two pious sisters who care for the poor of the village. Early in the film, we see these unfortunate souls receiving drab meals from the sisters with glum but sincere gratitude. Then Babette takes over the cooking and her talent transforms these simple dishes. So the next time we see the poor receive them, their faces beam with delight. And when Babette travels for a while and the sisters take over the cooking, the people they care for are more downcast than ever at their tasteless gruel.
Good, quotidian food has the capacity to bring joy to all, not just the wealthy. Food is part of the fabric of life and to dismiss it as trivial is to dismiss the value of everyday living. That is a genuinely middle-class indulgence.
The Virtues of the Table: How to Eat and Think is published Granta