I use the phrase “culinary philosophy” quite a bit, both in my book, Cuisine and Empire, and when I am giving talks.
A month or so ago, a fellow food historian, Xaq Frolich, called me on it in the nicest possible way. “Was I trying to “elevate” food history?” he asked.
Well, I’ve no objection to elevating food history. If juxtaposing supposedly elevated philosophy with supposedly humdrum cookery jolts a bit, that’s no bad thing.
But that wasn’t the reason I chose the term culinary philosophy. I chose it because philosophy at the very highest level has profoundly shaped the way we eat.
I suppose I first began to have an inkling of this when scanning the Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery for 1995. The topic was “Cooks and Other People.” Plenty of cooks were discussed from Ancient Greece to Chez Panisse.
Some of the other people, however, came as a shock, at least to me. Calvin. Mohammad. Alexander the Great. Scientists such as Count Rumford, Justus von Liebig, and the Nobel physicist laureate Niels Gustav Dalén.
True, because philosophy has shrunk from careful thought about all aspects of the world to a narrow academic discipline, these “other people” might now be called theologians, religious leaders, political leaders and scientists because philosophy has shrunk to an academic discipline. The point, though, is that they were all leading thinkers. (Yes, even Alexander, trained by Aristotle, and a genius at provisioning–food–, strategy, and tactics).
Throughout food history, thinkers have addressed the question of what people should eat. When Christianity began to take shape, converts wrote to their leaders asking whether they should continue to eat meat that had been sacrificed to pagan gods.
The Church Fathers wrestled with this and other questions for two or three centuries, eventually settling on answers that still define the way many Christians eat to this day: bread and wine as hallowed foods, fasting on certain days, and communion as a sacred act. Similar stories can be told about other religions and their associated cuisines.
In politics, as republics were established in place of monarchies (yes, including the United States), political thinkers argued that all citizens should be able to eat the same foodstuffs and that the family meal was the place where future citizens were nourished physically, mentally and morally. This they contrasted with monarchies, where each social rank was assigned different foods and where the hierarchical state banquet, not the family gathered around the table, was the archetypal meal.
And no one, I am sure, needs to be told that nutrition has always followed the latest scientific (or counter-scientific) ideas.
In short, culinary philosophy defines what food is and how cuisine is related to society, to the natural world (including human bodies), and to the supernatural. It’s impossible to tell the history of cuisine without referring to the values and ideas of Confucius, Plato and Aristotle, the Roman republicans, and Karl Marx; of Gautama Buddha, Jesus, the Church Fathers, Muhammad, Calvin and Luther; and of the Taoists, Hippocrates, Galen, Paracelsus, and Western nutritionists.
It’s possible to point those parts of their writings that bear on food. It’s possible to trace how rulers, priests, bureaucrats, quartermasters, and housewives implemented their ideas in the kitchen. It’s possible to trace how established customs linger on in language (our daily bread), in meals (Thanksgiving), in marketing patterns (fish in markets on Fridays), in patterns of education (school lunches) and so on even after the original motive is largely forgotten.
So, in my view, not pretentious, just precise.
Or put another way, food has an intellectual history.
Culinary Philosophy and the Meaning of Food
Now for the nerdy part. How does culinary philosophy, so important in shaping cuisines, relate to what anthropologists call “the meaning” of food? If you want an example Sidney Mintz‘s Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom is all about the meaning of different foods.
I’ve always been a bit uneasy about the phrase “the meaning of food.” To begin with, meaning does not inhere in the food but in the mind. Just as important, the meaning of food is diffuse. Where does the meaning come from, who shares this meaning?
Take the American biscuit, the southern biscuit, for example. In the South, it was a bit fancier than cornbread. It “meant”, for many, a certain level of gentility. Obviously not always, because biscuits and white gravy “meant” poor food. And when the biscuit migrated to Mexico with Chinese railroad workers, it “meant” an exotic food to be eaten with coffee in a Chinese restaurant.
So as a first stab, I would say culinary philosophy and meaning overlap but are not identical. Anthropologists tend not to study thinkers, especially not literate thinkers who tease out their ideas in prose, so they don’t turn their attention much to culinary philosophy. Obviously culinary philosophy often creates “meanings” for food, as in the case of the world religions. Not all food “meanings” though come from culinary philosophy, at least I don’t think so. The cronut means fun. But then perhaps it means sinful too.
Thoughts, fellow nerds?
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