Thursday, January 08, 2009


Over on KHG's blog, there's a really interesting post (Titillating Food) about her experiment with trying to make "caramel sea salt." Reading it, and amazing at all of the care and thought that went into such a project, got me thinking about that odd-variety of human being that we call the foodie. The foodie differs from the gourmet in a couple of significant ways: (1) the gourmet is an epicure of refined taste and hence only wants to eat the very best foods, where as the foodie loves all food and is fascinated with its consumption, preparation, study and news; and (2) the gourmet is usually a professional chef or food critic, whereas foodies are usually amateurs. I wouldn't say that I'm a foodie myself, but I know a lot of them (including KHG). I do have some foodie-like tendencies, though, inasmuch as I like to cook (and cook some things quite well, I think) and I am fascineted with molecular gastronomy showcases on television like Top Chef.

At any rate, the discussion following KHG's blog post made me realize that food is a grossly under-represented topic in philosophy. This is particularly curious given the importance of food for human life and well-being, as well as the myriad social, political and ethical issues surrounding food (like world hunger, animal rights, industrial farming, genetic engineering, and the concentration of food-related diseases in lower economic classes). Also, food can not only taste delicious but also be really pretty, especially when prepared by people who love it, making it a far better object for aesthetic analysis, all due respect to Heidegger, than Van Gogh's shoes. Finally, the history of Western literature and philosophy is literally busting a gut with food metaphors that are just waiting to be thematized.

One problem, of course, is that philosophy has a long history of denigrating food, stretching all the way back to the Phaedo, in which Plato claims that neither "truth" nor "thought of any kind ever comes from the body." The body is a distraction to the philosopher, according to Plato, "keeping us busy in a thousand ways" because of its need for food. According to Wittgenstein's biographer, Ludwig "did not care what he ate as long as it was the same"; Schopenhauer reportedly praised still-life paintings unless, of course, they contained food. And for all of the confidence with which Descartes presented his famous mind-body dualism, one wonders how he got through all six Meditations without ever getting hungry. In the last couple of centuries, philosophers have come around to admitting that we are bodies after all, and folks like Nietzsche and Dewey asked directly after the peculiar abesence of food in philosophy. But it's still amazing that, after 2000 years of eating and drinking-- and, trust me, philosophers can drink!-- the subject remains so marginal.

What I like about foodies is that they think about food. Unlike gourmets, they think about it in all of its complexity, not just whether it tastes good or whether it challenges the most refined palate. They think about it as a social function, a beautiful thing, a source of nourishment, an activity, an experiment, a political tool (or weapon), a manner of carving out one's personal identity. Those are all clearly evidence of "philosophical" thinking, despite their much-maligned object of analysis.

One last thing. A good friend of mine recently introduced me to one of the greatest food-related neologisms I've ever heard: hamtasty. "Hamtasty" is a synonym for "awesome" or "spectacular" or "amazing," as in the following (real) conversation that he and I had recently:
ME: How did your class go today?
FRIEND: Oh man, it was hamtasy!
I'm such a fan of this word that I've started using it all the time now. It's almost as perfect as the neologism that Christophresh came up with last August ("blogspossier") , which was also hamtasty. I encourage you all-- even my veggie friends-- to try out "hamtasty." I can guarantee that you'll never need to explain yourself.

Food glorious food - Nancys & Olivers


Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

Dr. J.,

As should be evident from the discussion over at KHG's blog, I agree with your claims that food (and foodies) represent more interesting phenomena than philsophers have often realized.
One quick thought, a paraphrase and a quote:

1) I'm not sure that suspicion of the body is the sole culprit, and let me take Heidegger as my example here. Heidegger might well grant that food presents a better description of aesthetic judgments than the famous shoes, but he could (and probably would) respond that he doesn't really care about aesthetic judgments --- this is a response, btw, which he would share with most continental and quite a few analytic philosophers of art and which they are all (but especially post-Kantians like Heidegger) wrong to make.

What would be the beef, then? I think it would be that the shoes present the phenomenon of worldhood better than food does (and he's of course taken a lot of shit for seeing the particular kind of worldhood that he did in the shoes). This claim would also be untrue, but in a slightly different way --- what it would reveal, I think, is his bias (and as, you point out, it's probably the dominant bias) towards privileging certain kinds of experiences --- what kinds of experiences? Those accessible to a certain kind of religious imagination (that analogize religion and art): and religion is not, pace Nietzsche, a wholly unbodily thing. This leads me to:

2) A paraphrase of Pascal: The stomach has its reasons which reason cannot know.

and finally 3)
an approximate quote from William Blake:

"Father, dear father, the churchhouse is cold / but the ale-house is happy and pleasant and warm."

Emma B. said...

Can I direct your attention to It's by bff Kate in English at Bryn Mawr with whom I passed a lovely north London evening last night... foodie literary and learned to the core.

Till the next time, Dr. J!

christophresh said...

Philosophers never talk about clothing, either.
(What was the last time you didn't wear any clothes, all day long?
Humans are more 'naturally' clothed than they are unclothed.)

Don't worry, people: I'm working on it.

Gregory Recco said...


You're absolutely right, of course. (That's a quote, I think.)

There was a French book about 10 or more years ago called "Le ventre des philosophes, critique de la raison diététique" that looked interesting.

As far as hobbies go, I think it's better to have friends who are foodies than friends who experiment with home-made Tesla coils in their likely-to-explode garages.


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