Food Like Medicine
Have you ever been ill to the point that you eat just to gain sustenance for your body, when you really have no hunger? That’s exactly how a gastronomic purist – in opposition to gastronomic hedonists – would wish to approach every encounter with food: take it in like a medicine, as you would swallow a pill. Despite its apparent radicalness, gastronomic purism is a widespread attitude towards food, with some deep philosophical underpinnings. Let’s see them.
The Legacies of Plato and Augustine
“So long as we keep it to the body and our soul is contaminated with this imperfection, there is no chance of our ever attaining satisfactorily to our object, which we assert to be truth.” In this passage taken from one of his most famous dialogues, the Phaedo, Plato defends the idea that the body cannot be a vehicle to the obtainment of the highest form of knowledge. Actually, bodily pleasure is the worst impediment to enlightenment: “Worst of all, if we do obtain any leisure from the body’s claims and turn to some line of inquiry, the body intrudes once more into our investigations, interrupting, disturbing, distracting, and preventing us from getting a glimpse of the truth.”
Some centuries later, Augustine reinvigorated this ideal in a passage that stands as witness to this day and age of a gastronomic purist attitude towards food: “This much thou hast taught me: that I should learn to take food as medicine. But during that time when I pass from the pinch of emptiness to the contentment of fullness, it is in that very moment that the snare of appetite lies baited for me. For the passage itself is pleasant; there is no other way of passing thither, and necessity compels us to pass. And while health is the reason for our eating and drinking, yet a perilous delight joins itself to them as a handmaid; and indeed, she tries to take precedence in order that I may want to do for her sake what I say I want to do for health's sake. (Augustine, Confessions, Book X, chapter 44)
Augustine’s problem is the following: he approaches food with the sole motivation of staying healthy, of gaining sustenance for his body. Yet, as soon as he takes the first bite, pleasure kicks in. Now, pleasure – and this is the problematic aspect – risks to substitute itself as a motivation for eating: you get to the table just to stay healthy, and you end up rejoicing in your action and carrying it forward because it is pleasant rather than because it is healthy. To a purist, bodily pleasure cannot be part of your motivational set; the risk of losing control is too high; the odds of achieving the highest form of knowledge – as Plato had suggested – become close to none.
Gastronomic Purism at Work
Having been raised in Italy, the first time I had breakfast in an American family was a great immersion into gastronomic purism. Alongside with milk and cereals, bread and butter, juice and water, stood a few containers filled with all sorts of vitamins and other nutrients. Just think about it: they are key breakfast ingredients in most families; yet, they evidently are not consumed for their taste; as a matter of fact, they have little to no taste at all. It’s exactly like taking a pill when you are sick; it’s treating food as medicine.
The Augustinian ideal of food as medicine is indeed so widespread that a great deal of people’s diet consists in … pills. Apparently, many would rather skip the pleasures of the table when they can; regard food as a mere fuel.
Content vs Pleasure
If you got the gist of gastronomic purism, you can now understand why it is so important to have some words that specially capture those pleasures that do not come from sensory experiences, but rather from intellectual considerations or inner feelings. A purist is not going to be pleased from her diet; she is going to be content of it. A purist diet can make you enlightened or blessed, it won’t please you. From saints to supermodels, refusing food can produce a special sort of contentment that is not derived from the senses, but rather from the lack of certain sensory experiences. But, can hunger be accounted for simply as a longing for some sensory experience?