One of my greatest passions in life is food, trying out new cuisines and spices in unusual restaurants. In a certain way, a love of food was central to my philosophical development; part of the reason I went to work in Bangkok, where I discovered Buddhism, was my love of Thai food.
So I’m interested in philosophical treatments of food. Recent treatises on the subject, though, have proved disappointing. One of the worst is Leon Kass’s The Hungry Soul, a work that tries to think through just about every aspect of eating except for the pleasures of taste. He mentions them very briefly on pp. 90-91, where he dismisses them as ephemeral, disappearing once enjoyed, and therefore “closed to the permanent or the eternal” – just like music or drama, though this parallel goes curiously unmentioned. Kass admits that he “cooks little” and “has unsophisticated tastes” – basically, it would seem, he doesn’t enjoy food very much. Which makes The Hungry Soul comparable to a treatise on music written by the tone-deaf.
But Kass may be a bit too easy a target. He has already been the target of much ridicule on the Internet for his pompous pronouncements on food etiquette, most notoriously his condemnation of the act of licking an ice cream cone, as “a catlike activity that has been made acceptable in informal America but that still offends those who know eating in public is offensive.” I know few who take him seriously.
Far more of a hearing is given to Michael Pollan, whose recent work seems to echo Kass’s puritanism in language more acceptable to educated left-wingers. Especially, his work In Defense of Food seems rather to be an attack on it. Pollan claims that his proposed dietary laws “are conducive not only to better health but also to greater pleasure in eating” (12). But it seems to me that the latter claim is, at best, true only if one shares Pollan’s own bland Western food aesthetic, one I find rather repulsive. Much of Pollan’s attitude to food seems to be targeted against its enjoyment. He is upset that today our “foods are processed in ways specifically designed to sell us more food by pushing our evolutionary buttons — our inborn preferences for sweetness and fat and salt.” (pp. 149-50) Or, to put it a different way, that they’re designed to taste good, to give us pleasure. How catlike.
What should we eat instead? One of Pollan’s cardinal rules for eating is “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” (148) But what an insipid, washed-out world this advice would create! For those of us whose great-grandmothers were North American WASPs, following this advice would lead us to a diet that is neither tasty nor especially nutritious: primarily bland meat and potatoes. My Canadian great-grandmother would not have recognized Thai fish sauce or habanero peppers or lemon grass as food, any more than she would have recognized Spam or Cheez Whiz. (At least her daughter might have cooked with those!) Pollan, meanwhile, acknowledges that his Jewish-American family’s diet involved “cheese blintzes, kreplach, knishes stuffed with potato or chicken liver, and vegetables that often were cooked in rendered chicken or duck fat.” (3) While this is at least somewhat tastier than the WASPy side, are we really to believe that it is healthier for us than a diet of Lean Cuisine frozen dinners?
Pollan’s next rule strikes me as even more poorly conceived. Here he says to “avoid food products containing ingredients that are more than five in number” – or even “unfamiliar”! (150) This would, at least technically, rule out just about anything I’ve ever cooked, any dish with complex spices – and any attempt to try new and unfamiliar cuisines. Granted, he’s thinking primarily about chemically synthesized ingredients rather than complex Asian court dishes, but his brush strokes are so broad that they include just about every food I can actually imagine enjoying, and he doesn’t seem to care.
Pollan is right about many things, especially at the macro level when he is speaking of politics rather than aesthetics: the industrial food-production system, as it now stands, is harmful to the environment in a large number of ways, unnecessarily cruel to animals, and designed to push unhealthy food choices. These are real problems, and worthy of attempts to fix them through policy. Still, the food that comes out of this system has three great advantages. For one, it is cheap, which makes it possible to feed a great number of people who would otherwise starve. Much like the comfortable housing conditions made possible by concrete cinder-block apartment towers, that affordability is not something to be taken lightly. Second, this food saves us time: a virtue easy to disparage but nevertheless vitally important. Third, this food is intentionally tasty. It’s designed to give pleasure – because that is exactly what those “evolutionary buttons” do.
It’s this last point that Pollan really seems unable to handle. He claims that “we Americans have always had a problem taking pleasure in eating.” But to the extent that this is true, it seems that Pollan himself is a better example of that problem than the presidents he cites as examples of it. While criticizing an American predilection for what he calls “nutritionist philosophy”, he claims “George H. W. Bush’s predilection for pork rinds and Bill Clinton’s for Big Macs were politically astute tastes to show off.” (54) That politicians feign preferences to seem more like their voters is hardly news. But whether sincere or not, what were Bush and Clinton trying to indicate about themselves? That they were practitioners of an austere “nutritionist” ideology that takes no pleasure in eating? Or that they, like their voters, happened to actually enjoy taking pleasure in food that is designed to give it? Designed, that is, to push “our evolutionary buttons — our inborn preferences for sweetness and fat and salt”?
I think the answer to that question is pretty obvious. Nobody eats Big Macs and pork rinds because they subscribe to a scientific ideology of nutritionism. They know Big Macs and pork rinds are bad for them – but they eat them anyway just because they value pleasure in eating, that same pleasure that Pollan dismisses as “our evolutionary buttons”. And they are also rightfully skeptical of a brazen snobbery like Pollan’s, one that takes its own bland aesthetic preferences as a standard of virtue.