Monday, 8 July 2013

Food and Philosophy: Eat, Think, and Be Merry (edited by Fritz Allhoff and Dave Monroe)

 --The blurb--
"Food & Philosophy offers a collection of essays which explore a range of philosophical topics related to food; it joins Wine & Philosophy and Beer & Philosophy in in the "Epicurean Trilogy." Essays are organized thematically and written by philosophers, food writers, and professional chefs. Provides a critical reflection on what and how we eat can contribute to a robust enjoyment of gastronomic pleasures A [...] collection which emphasizes the importance of food as a proper object of philosophical reflection in its own right."

--The review--
From vegetarianism to picky eating, and from allergies to fast food, we all eat differently. Sometimes the food we put in our mouths is shaped by things beyond our control, while others are the results of definite choices. In the case of the latter, it seems reasonable to consider the ethics behind those choices. Is it right to say "no thanks" at a dinner party when given a foodstuff you do not like? Should we walk on by the value chicken and pick up a free-range one instead? And what do philosophers have to say about veganism? The collection of essays entitled Food And Philosophy endeavours to find out.

Some of the essays contained within the compendium (edited by Fritz Allhof and Dave Monroe) raise immediate questions. In suggesting that our eating habits are formed by our communities, one of the writers, named Frye, goes on to say that all communities are shaped to be a certain way, which does not seem to account for culinary diversity within communities (although there is perhaps some truth to the argument - in a different essay - that vegetarians in the Western world will more or less come from the same social group). Such loopholes in arguments betray weaknesses in some of the elements of the essayists' style. Some prioritize basic rhetoric over sophisticated argument, for instance, while others lose focus and lack revolutionary ideas (the idea that eating disorders have their basis in control issues, for instance, is an idea as old as the hills). Nevertheless, the entire volume generally remains very accessible, even though the writers' individual styles remain apparent. As such, the topics addressed are equally diverse, with anorexia, obesity and everything in between all being covered, meaning that all readers should find something that resonates with them on a personal as well as an intellectual level.

Naturally, however, we all eat selectively, and this element in our diets - that of choice - is discussed extensively throughout the collection. This inevitably leads to the discussion of whether taste is objective or subjective, and the notation of the fact that perceptions of what we "can" or "can't" taste expand regularly, with the addition of umami to the flavour spectrum being one recent example. The collection's extensive bibliography further corroborates the notion of endless possibility within this topic of research. The highly interdisciplinary nature of this compilation raises a variety of questions - for example, are so-called 'experts' just more eloquent? When we compare food writers' experiences, are we really disputing their experiences, or just their descriptions? This is further underlined by another essayist's assertion that foods themselves cannot be positive or negative in taste or flavour; only our individual experiences can be.

This is, of course, not just about linguistics and philosophy (although it's true that the usual suspects are cited several times: de Saussure, Brillat Savarin, Hume...): for the romantic, the world of literature is frequently cited, with Proust naturally getting a look-in alongside a few more surprise guests such as Jorge Amado and William Faulkner. The ruthless world of marketing is also discussed, with one essayist asking what brands of food really give us (identity, familiarity, and someone to choose for us are all reasons cited). For the analytical, the realm of the psychology of food forces us to question the role of taste and smell in our formative experiences. Other experts point out how historical and cultural context can change the perception of food - think of horse and narwhal as foodstuffs, or the rise and rise of service à la russe. The notions of food as symbols and anchors of our memory, as well as the idea that taste is influenced strongly by culture, are all-pervasive. 

Some essays are more grounded in reality than others (with the essay entitled Eating Well perhaps being best for this), while others are swamped by philosophy to the point that they begin to lose clarity. The aim of the collection is not equally at the forefront of all the writers' mind, with certain contributors losing sight of the philosophical element. Some essayists are calm and logical, while others are schmaltzy; some are academic and methodical, while others take on a more aggressive, Michael Moore-style tone of reportage. However, what most of the essays culminate - perhaps not intentionally - in a link to Plato's famous story of the shadows in the cave. It is strongly suggested that foodies and laymen alike are ever on a quest to find out about the 'real' food that is creating the 'shadow' of what we are able to taste - and this concept proves a helpful gelatine in binding this highly recommended collection of essays together. 

perfect partners
Wine and Philosophy (ed. Fritz Allhoff) 
Beer and Philosophy (ed. Steven D Hales)

cross-posted to Ferret Food and Wines  

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