Rachel Laudan

Culinary Philosophy: Pretentious or What?

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.

Photograph by Patrickxdaniel licensed under CC BY SA 4.0

Photograph by Patrickxdaniel licensed under CC BY SA 4.0

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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11 thoughts on “Culinary Philosophy: Pretentious or What?

  1. waltzingaustralia

    Food is so completely tied up in life and ideas that it is impossible at any point in history to separate cuisine from thinking and philosophy. So I agree completely that “culinary philosophy” is a legitimate term. Just look at how food was used to establish one’s loyalties in situations that range from the spread of Hellenism to the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition, to simply establishing one’s position in the modern hierarchy of food fanatics.

    And speaking of America’s democratic ideals of food equality, one of the greatest thinkers in U.S. history was also one of the most important early “foodies” — Thomas Jefferson. The man who wrote the Declaration of Independence also wrote, “the greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add an useful plant to it’s culture; especially a bread grain. next in value to bread, is oil.”

    So all points well taken. And, as always, thank you for making them. Cynthia

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks, Cynthia. I did not know the whole of that Jefferson quote. Perspicacious about oil plants.

  2. Bala


    I don’t think the term “culinary philosophy” is pretentious. I often use the word philosophy in conjunction with the words cooking, eating or gastronomy to describe the thought process, as in, the thought process that guides the way I cook or eat or understand gastronomy.

    By saying, “my philosophy of cooking is based on…”, I also make philosophy subjective to my thought process, interpretations and perceptions. “My philosophy of cooking…” then becomes, almost, what cooking means to me. Meaning of food can be subjective as you point out using your example of southern biscuits. In this example, however, it is hard to replace meaning with philosophy. So, does philosophy then refer to an action like thought as opposed to an object like food?

    By the way, what are good references for the statement: “…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”. Thank you.


    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      These references are scattered and there’s not a single source. This short piece of mine on American Thanksgiving has a bit.http://www.rachellaudan.com/2013/11/thanksgiving-or-how-to-eat-american-politics.html You might also look up Mark McWilliams on Google scholar–he’s looked at republicanism in American literature–or Rebecca Spang’s short discussion in Birth of the Restaurant, or Simon Schama in Embarrassment of Riches, for starters. It’s a subject that deserves more serious treatment.

  3. Mae

    As you explained about “philosophers,” I was thinking about what you wrote in your previous post about your mother:

    “I now realize that when she said getting a meal on the table on time was what made a good cook, she did not mean that it was the only thing that made a good cook. It was that without that, the finest meal in the world was worthless to the people it was her job to feed.”

    As you say, food has meaning for most people whether they are cooks or eaters or “philosophers.” I’m not convinced that the academic distinction is really useful.

  4. Linda Makris

    You are a food historian after my own heart! Of course there is a philosophy of food and of gastronomy in general. One has only to consider the work of Athenaeus, Greek “food writer” from Egypt who wrote “Deipnosophistae” or “Wise Men at Dinner” who discussed for hours and maybe, days at a time, whatever and whoever was “trendy” back in the old Greco-Roman world up to the time he wrote his treatise in 3rd c. AD.

    I would also like to mention that our modern word “diet” comes from the ancient Greek word “diaita” which meant a way of life, which encompassed among other things the ancient Greek concept {philosophical?] of moderation in all things, including food. So when someone considers his diet today, he should remember that it was once an all inclusive “lifestyle” that, unfortunately, has had the philosophy removed. Not a bad idea to put some of that philosophy back into our culinary and gastronomic habits.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thank you, Linda.I agree that different culinary philosophies are much in evidence in Ancient Greece. Just look at Socrates’ critique of fine dining in the Republic.

  5. Joseph Hegarty

    Yes, there appears to be a lot of pretentious rubbish written about food. The essence of food philosophy is Gastronomy. The note recognises that gastronomy is the science and art of ‘all that pertains to the nourishment of man’. A science which has been neglected in the general accumulation of scientific knowledge since the early 1900s. This was a time when scientific knowledge accumulated more rapidly than ever before, and has had a more direct and persistent influence upon human civilisation.
    Culture is the expression of a society’s civilisation, and as such, is manifest in a variety of ways, in its art (including culinary art), language and literature, music, and in all forms of religious and secular ritual. Cultural expression, however, whilst being a powerful factor in the definition and development of the human species, is not always vital in the utilitarian sense. Rather, it can be regarded as a group of activities usually referred to as ‘art for living’, which provides substance, meaning, continuity and value to living in a particular social grouping. This note argues that gastronomy, -the selection, preparation, processing, presentation and participation with culinary and gastronomic aspects of food, falls squarely into the category of ‘fine art activity’ since most societies seek to differentiate their food preparation into either the purely utilitarian or the highly developed and stylised methods of presentation and participation which, in many instances, are not designed for consumption merely, but also, for status, neurological, ritualistic and aesthetic purposes’. Larousse does not define Gastronomy, save to identify Gastronomes as experts in it.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hello and thanks for this, which helps clarify my own thinking. I think that the way I use culinary philosophy is a little different from gastronomy. I entirely agree with you about gastronomy falling within the “fine art of food.” But I think a lot of the thinking I am referring to does not have to do with food as a fine art. Are you the Joe Hegarty of DIT? Would love to pursue this more with you.

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