A good philosophical question can arise from anywhere. Did you ever think, for example, that sitting down to dinner or strolling through the supermarket might serve as a good introduction to philosophical thinking? That is the foremost philosopher of food’s credo.
What’s Philosophical About Food?
Philosophy of food finds its basis on the idea that food is a mirror. You may have heard about the saying ‘we are what we eat.’ Well, there is more to say regarding this relation. Eating mirrors the making of a self, that is, the array of decisions and circumstances that bring us to eat the way we do. In them, we can see reflected a detailed and comprehensive image of ourselves. Philosophy of food reflects on the ethical, political, social, artistic, identity-defining aspects of food. It spurs from the challenge to more actively ponder our diets and eating habits so as to understand who we are in a deeper, more authentic way.
Food as a Relation
Food is a relation. Something is food only with respect to some organism, in a set of circumstances. These, first of all, are bound to vary from moment to moment. For instance, coffee and pastry are a fine breakfast or afternoon snack; yet, to most of us they are unpalatable for dinner. Secondly, circumstances are bound to involve principles that are, at least in appearance, contradictory. Say, you refrain from eating soda at home, but at the bowling alley you enjoy one. At the supermarket you buy only non-organic meat, but on vacation you crave for a McBurger with fries. As such, any given ‘food relation' is first and foremost the mirror of an eater: depending on the circumstances, it represents the eater’s needs, habits, convictions, deliberations, and compromises.
Probably the most obvious philosophical aspects of our diet are the ethical convictions that shape it. Would you eat a cat? A rabbit? Why or why not? It’s likely that the reasons you give for your stance are rooted in ethical principles, such as: “I love too much cats to eat them!” or even “How could you do such a thing!” Or, consider vegetarianism: a large number of those who conform to this diet do so to prevent unjustified violence being done to animals other than human. In Animal Liberation, Peter Singer labeled “speciesism” the attitude of those who draw unjustified distinctions between Homo sapiens and other animal species (like racism sets an unjustified distinction between one race and all others). Clearly, some of those rules are mingled with religious principles: justice and heaven can come together on the table at, as they do on other occasions.
Food as Art?
Can food be art? Can a cook ever aspire to be an artist on a par with Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Van Gogh? This question has spurred heated debates over the past years. Some argued that food is (at best) a minor art. For three main reasons. First, because foods are short-lived in comparison to, e.g., chunks of marble. Second, food is intrinsically linked to a practical purpose – nourishment. Third, food depends on its material constitution in a way in which music, painting, or even sculpture are not. A song such as “Yesterday” has been released in vinyl, cassette, CD, and as an mp3; food cannot be alike transferred. The best cooks would hence be very good artisans; they can be paired with fancy hairdressers or skilled gardeners. On the other hand, some think that this perspective is unfair. Cooks have recently started featuring in art shows and this seems to concretely disprove the previous remarks. Probably the most famous case in point is Ferran Adrià, the Catalan chef who revolutionized the world of cooking over the past three decades.
Americans keep in high esteem the role of food experts; French and Italians notoriously do not. Probably, it’s because of different ways to regard the practice of evaluation of a food. Is that French onion soup authentic? The review says the wine is elegant: is that the case? Food or wine tasting is arguably an entertaining activity; and it’s a conversation starter. Yet, is there a truth when it comes to judgments about food? This is one of the hardest philosophical questions. In his famous essay “Of the Standard of Taste”, David Hume shows how one can be inclined to answer both “Yes” and “No” to that question. On the one hand, my tasting experience is not yours, so it is totally subjective; on the other, provided an adequate level of expertise, there is nothing odd with imagining to challenge a reviewer’s opinion about a wine or a restaurant.
Most foods we buy at the supermarket carry on their labels “nutritional facts”. We use them in order to guide ourselves in our diet, to stay healthy. But, what do those numbers have to do really with the stuff we have in front of us and with our stomachs? What “facts” do they help us establishing really? Can nutritionism be regarded as a natural science on a par with – say – cell biology? For historians and philosophers of science food is a fertile terrain of research because it raises basic questions regarding the validity of laws of nature (do we really know any law regarding metabolism?) and the structure of scientific research (who finances the studies on the nutritional facts you find on the labels?)
Food is also at the center of a number of founding questions for political philosophy. Here are some. One. The challenges that food consumption poses to the environment. For example, did you know that factory farming is responsible for a higher rate of pollution than airfare travel? Two. Food trades raise issues of fairness and equity in the global market. Exotic goods such as coffee, tea, and chocolate are chief examples: through the history of their commerce we can reconstruct the complex relationships between continents, States, and people over the past three-four centuries. Three. Food production, distribution, and retail is an opportunity to talk about the condition of workers across the earth.
Food and Self-Understanding
In the end, as the average person enters at least a few ‘food relations’ per day, a refusal to ponder eating habits in a meaningful manner can be likened to a lack of self-understanding or lacking authenticity. Since self-understanding and authenticity are among the chief aims of philosophical inquiry, then food becomes a true key to philosophical insight. The gist of the philosophy of food is hence the quest for an authentic diet, a quest that can be readily furthered by analyzing other aspects of ‘food relations’.