“Tell me what you eat,” wrote Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, “and I will tell you what you are.” His magnum opus, The Physiology of Taste , was gastronomy’s answer to Diderot’s Encyclopedia or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: technique by technique, principle by principle, Brillat-Savarin relentlessly marches through the catalog of la gourmanidse and lays out, in his words, nothing less than the “eternal foundation” for “a new science”—the science of gastronomy—that would “nourish, restore, preserve, persuade, and console us; a science which, not content with strewing flowers in the path of the individual, also contributes in no small measure to the strength and prosperity of empires.”
In many ways, The Physiology of Taste applied the essence of Enlightenment thought to food, cooking, and eating. It is a massive and thorough discourse written by an author supremely confident in his ability to know himself and all of his faculties, from consumption to cognition, in perfect detail. Brillat-Savarin sought to train mankind’s collective palate and teach everyone the joys of cooking and dining through the science of gastronomy. But that science is strangely limited in scope as well. According to Brillat-Savarin, gourmandism is a science of pleasure-making, training in aesthetic judgment, the gifts of the muse Gasterea—and nothing else.
Even though Brillat-Savarin used the language and structure of Enlightenment thought, he followed the dictum of the Greek philosopher Epictetus: “do not discourse how people ought to eat; but eat as you ought.”
In fact, food writers have taken that advice to heart since Brillat-Savarin’s time. They have felt free to recall, meditate, and describe, from Marcel Proust’s tea-soaked madeleine to Julia Child’s sole meunière, but they never connected food with morality, only competing tastes. The topic even blunted the sharpest pens of the nineteenth century. H.L. Mencken reminisced about oyster fritters and soft-shell crabs in “The Baltimore of The Eighties,” but made only a passing mention of the pollution that would later render the Patapsco River one of the first identified marine dead zones in the world. Likewise, Mark Twain wrote enough about food to fill a book, though it’s probably too much of a stretch to call him a “locavore,”, since it sounds like Twain’s preference for local food was more of a logistical rather than a moral issue.
It took socialists to first convince people that food issues extended well beyond the dinner plate. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle famously exposed the near-complete lack of concern for food safety in the meatpacking industry, and George Orwell spent a surprising amount of his literary life defending roast beef, bread-and-drippings, and the English way of making tea from the encroachment of margarine and tin cans. “We may find in the long run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine-gun,” he wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier, without any irony whatsoever: he believed that industrialism meant the decline of man’s moral, intellectual, and physical health, and nowhere was this decline more apparent than in the English kitchen.
Still, these books were intended to be more like John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle and less like Fast Food Nation—that is, arguments for the justice and moral rectitude of socialism, not merely calls for better food regulation. As Sinclair later complained, “I aimed for the nation’s heart and hit its stomach.”
After World War II, as the world grew accustomed to frozen vegetables and Jell-O molds, the vast majority of food writing turned anodyne. Food essays tended to resemble extended essays, a sort of verbal channeling of the Platonic form of a particular dish or technique. It was, and still is, the most common kind of food writing, produced by critics and chefs alike, from James Beard to Nigella Lawson. Entertaining (and appetite-whetting) though these may books might be, all of them are fairly low-risk and low-stakes. Most examples are panegyrics to one dish or ingredient or technique, and the rest are simply culinary relativism, an attempt to show that one thing is better than another. It’s the same ground that Brillat-Savarin had covered a century prior.
But a few writers have always aspired to more. In the 60s and 70s, travel writers showed that the “went there, ate that” travelogue could, in fact, have a point beyond mere description: Paul Theroux, for instance, found that the dismal dining cars in the Orient Express mirrored the famous route’s general decline. British food columnist Jane Grigson, meanwhile, wrote miniature biographies of vegetables in an attempt to sketch the outlines of what are now, a bit awkwardly, called “foodways”; her London Times counterpart, Michael Bateman, agitated for better school lunches and exposed food industry malpractices before launching the Campaign for Real Bread, which championed local bakers over the “technological bread” of industrial plants.
Still, most modern American food writers see themselves not as the heirs of these gastronomical torch-bearers, but as the descendants of the ecological movement. It’s no surprise that the name Rachel Carson pops up again and again, from Paul Greenberg’s Four Fish to the pages of Vegetarian Times magazine; after all, many of these writers are trying to expose the environmental damaged caused by agribusiness or commercial fishing in the same way that Carson showed what pesticides were doing to wildlife.
Of course, food matters to most of us far more than water management, wildlife preservation, or even global warming: whether it’s three squares a day or the “efficient, joyless eating” of Dr. Oz, we are forced to see, smell, taste, and think about food every single day.
And that’s why the best food writing has a unique capacity to tell us something about our social norms and attitudes and even, at a stretch, that nebulous idea called the human condition. Sometimes it’s good: the chefs/civic boosters/cultural ambassadors that Anthony Bourdain manages to find around the world, from Caracas to Dubai; Tony Judt’s observation that European multiculturalism extended to his own dining table, too.
But food can also lead us to abandon reason in favor of pure hedonism. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Greenberg’s Four Fish, which manages to find culprits everywhere. There’s the tuna fisherman who says, “I love these fish…but I love to catch them. God, I love to catch them. And I know you need some kind of catch limits because I’d catch all of them if I could.” Or the trochus diver on Cook Island who, when caught harvesting out-of-season, began to cry and asked, “Why? Why did you close the season? There are still some left!” And then there’s us, the fish-eating public, for whom a decade of pressure to pay attention to which fish we eat has amounted to exactly nothing, despite the best efforts of environmentalists, journalists, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The moral of the story is the same whether you’re talking about fast food, factory farming, big agribusiness…
Maybe this is why serious food writing has remained blissfully free of moral overtones for much of its existence. As much as we would like to think that we are all Aristotelians (in other words, that we do the right thing without being commanded), when it comes to food, we’ve shown ourselves to be equal parts insatiable and irrational; we’d really rather not think about anything that would threaten that visceral link between food and pleasure. (If anyone needs any further proof—last week, overwhelming consumer feedback forced Frito-Lay to replace its biodegradable Sun Chips bag with a non-biodegradable one simply because it was “too noisy.” Suddenly, we find ourselves fighting a rearguard action: as Michael Pollan shows, we’re cooking much less, we’re eating much worse, and we’re curiously ambivalent the whole thing.
So even though food writing has come a long way from Brillat-Savarin’s little epigrams (“dessert without cheese is like a pretty woman without one eye”), his most memorable claim—“tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are”—is still true. We might like to think about food only in terms of how much pleasure it gives us, whether it’s the collective experience of a good meal or the personal satisfaction of a well-executed dish. But increasingly, food writing prompts us to look beyond the tips of our tongues, and to realize that food can bring out both the best and the worst in all of us.
(Image: Inspecting Tuna, Tokyo Fish Market, 1960s, from jaybergesen’s photostream)