Eating and Being   /   Fall 2019   /    From the Editor

From the Editor

Sketching a culinary ethos for the twenty-first century.

Jay Tolson

At the Dinner Table (detail), 2018, by Hesham Sharif, copyright the artist; courtesy Janet Rady Fine Art.

“What we need is an ethos that comes to terms with contemporary, industrialized food, not one that dismisses it, an ethos that opens choices for everyone, not one that closes them for many so that a few may enjoy their labor, and an ethos that does not prejudge, but decides case by case when natural is preferable to processed, fresh to preserved, old to new, slow to fast, artisanal to industrial.”

So concluded historian of science Rachel Laudan in her widely read essay, “A Plea for Culinary Modernism: Why We Should Love New, Fast, Processed Food,” published in 2001 in the inaugural issue of the pioneering journal, Gastronomica. It struck us as both an astute examination of the normative underpinnings of all food cultures and an appeal for a more carefully considered ethic to inform the food systems we are building for our increasingly complex and interconnected world. To launch our symposium on Eating and Being, we asked Laudan to respond to her own challenge and sketch such an ethos for the twenty-first century.

Laudan begins her essay by defining a culinary ethos as “the set of presuppositions, often implicit, that shape choices about what is good to eat, correct to eat, or natural to eat. It draws on beliefs about the human body, the earth, society, ethics, aesthetics, and, frequently, about the divine, and it carries with it a story about culinary history.” She then surveys four successive (but sometimes overlapping, competing, or vestigially lingering) culinary regimes extending from the early modern era through our own postmodern time, each with its own deeply embedded norms. Laudan concludes by presenting her own ideal, one that draws on the strengths of the earlier major traditions to critique and modify the highly industrialized and globalized food systems that prevail today. Acknowledging their many shortcomings, she nonetheless spurns the variously utopian and fashionable criticisms of those systems that contribute so vitally to human flourishing, not least, she writes, because they have “reduced the proportion of the globe’s population that goes hungry even as that population has soared.”

Taking up different aspects of Laudan’s notion of a culinary ethos, although not always agreeing with her affirmations, other contributors explore the various ways people in the contemporary West explain and interpret their own culinary practices, whether in partial or complete defiance of the dominant food systems. James McWilliams, a prolific writer on food and society, examines the character and influence of the various strict dietary regimes from which many people today derive identity and meaning as well as culinary direction. While understanding the impulse to immerse oneself in one or another cult diet, vegan or paleo or something else, McWilliams sees that tendency as ultimately hurtful to efforts to achieve more substantive changes in how we produce, prepare, and consume our food. “Given the recent arrival of the industrial food system, and given how we were blindsided by it, one could be forgiven for failing to ask a question far more critical than what kind of diet I should pursue to protect myself. What we need to explore instead is this: Why should we assume that we would ever get food production right on the first attempt?

For his part, writer and historian Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft considers how the distance from our food (and the processes that bring it to us) helps shape our moral thinking and actions in relation to what and how we eat. “Distance,” he writes, “does not necessarily make us cruel; nor does proximity automatically make us kind. But their respective aid to cruelty and kindness is amply attested. Although the shortcomings of neo-agrarian projects are real, such projects, from community gardens to butchery classes, give us opportunities to enact ethics at a human scale.”

Culinary practices not only engage us as moral actors. They also draw us into keener awareness of our fully human nature as both spiritual and bodily creatures, forever prone to emphasizing one side at the expense of the other. Essayist and historian Wilfred M. McClay explores that ongoing dialectic in our various encounters with food both in sacred and profane contexts, and, even more commonly in those situations in which sacred and profane are subtly intermingled. “The power of well-prepared food to elevate us is suggested,” McClay observes, “by the wonderful coffee-cocoa dessert called tiramisu, whose name means, in Italian, ‘Lift me up.’ In examples ranging from psychedelic mushrooms to Proust’s famous madeleine, the power of food to lift us up, to open doors of perception and summon memories out of the vasty deep, is widely attested, and for good reason.”

Beyond our thematic essays, other contributions range from Becca Rothfeld’s personal yet rigorously argued reflections on the meaning of philosophical practice to Phil Christman’s illuminating homage to bad movies. Both authors have drawn wide recognition for their past contributions to THR. We trust their new work will do the same.

We are also delighted to welcome a newcomer to the journal, Isaac Ariail Reed, one of the promising intellectual lights of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. In his groundbreaking critique of political mythology, Reed brings the fertile insights of German historian Ernst Kantorowicz to bear on what is now clearly a global “crisis of liberal modernity.” In the closing issue of the twentieth anniversary year of our journal’s founding in 1999, it is fitting that we take a deep look at the cultural sources of a malaise spreading throughout the democratic world.