Eating and Being   /   Fall 2019   /    Thematic: Eating and Being

Toward a Culinary Ethos for the Twenty-first Century

Never has food been delivered in such abundance, so far, or so safely.

Rachel Laudan

Photo: Pressmater/Shutterstock. Inc.

Never has food been delivered in such abundance, so far, or so safely. The prevalence of undernourishment in developing countries appears to have declined from about 30 percent to 15 percent since the 1970s, although the world population has doubled.11x Max Roser and Hannah Ritchie, Hunger and Undernourishment, 2019,, includes data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Cities of twenty million-plus in both poor and rich countries rarely face shortages on a daily or annual basis, so that when these threaten, as they did in 2006–07 in Latin America, Africa and elsewhere, the resulting riots are widely reported in the press. Although the rice trade is still relatively local, the wheat, corn, and soy trades are global. Egypt imports 100,000 tons of beef liver per year from the United States, and street vendors prepare it as a delicacy without fear that it will have spoiled on the long journey.22xJahd Khalil, “The Land of Pharaohs and Omaha Beef Liver,” Omaha Magazine, August 6, 2017, The United States imports its avocadoes from Mexico, while China turns to South Africa for these perishable delicacies. The top five food retail chains in China are nationally based Resources Vanguard, R-T Mart (Taiwan), Walmart (United States), Lianhua (also based in China), and Carrefour (France). The number of items in the average American supermarket has grown from around 7,000 in 1970 to 50,000 or more today.33xMichael Ruhlman, Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America (New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, 2017), 29–31. All but a half dozen recipes in a cookbook published in 2018, At My Table: A Celebration of Home Cooking, by British food writer and cooking-show host Nigella Lawson, would have been impossible to prepare when I started doing home cooking in the 1960s (the decade Lawson was born), given that almost every offering in Lawson’s book requires ingredients from all over the world that were then unknown or unobtainable but are now widely available in supermarkets.

In short, the world is now served by multiple linked systems covering anything from a few miles to thousands, moving grains, meats, fruits and vegetables, and processed foods around the globe in a way that could not have been imagined even a generation ago. These systems are far from broken.

That’s not to say these systems are all that they might be. As always, as old problems are solved, new ones appear, particularly the interrelated issues surrounding equity, abundance, and sustainability. More than 800 million people still go hungry, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the poor even in rich countries are increasingly dependent on food banks, and the world population has yet to peak. Abundance, which might have been thought to be a blessing, has brought its own problems of malnutrition, and the creation of culinary identities and food snobbery at the expense of sociability. Pressure on water and land has increased, while property and environmental laws struggle to keep up. Food systems depend on plentiful energy, most of it still generated by the fossil fuels implicated in climate change.

How, then, do we think about these systems so as to correct their flaws and move toward a future that is better, not worse, for all the world’s peoples? What culinary ethos (or philosophy) should we adopt? I call it culinary (having to do with the kitchen or, more generally, the preparation of food) because it’s the fact that as humans we make the food we want that we have such a wide spectrum of choices about what counts as good food, choices that then ripple back through kitchens to farms. A culinary ethos, then, is 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.

Usually shared by large numbers of people, a culinary ethos is as important as material resources in shaping cuisines—ordered styles of cooking and dining—if not more so. Indeed, it is the ethos that shapes what are regarded as resources and how they are used. Rarely created from scratch, a culinary ethos persists for centuries, though never without constant adjustments to changing circumstances, and never without competition. Culinary philosophies are thus embedded in the broader cultural imagination of society. Commonly in any society, one culinary ethos will be “established,” sanctioned by civil, military, or religious authorities. Those who contest the authorities create alternatives that I call counter cuisines, which almost always cross with the established cuisine and occasionally replace it.

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