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, https://ourworldindata.org/hunger-and-undernourishment, 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, https://omahamagazine.com/articles/tag/jahd-khalil/. 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.
A Schema of Culinary Philosophies
Approaching the subject as a historian rather than an economist or political theorist, I suggest that in the United States and much of the Western world three or four culinary ethics—the aristocratic (or monarchical), the republican-liberal-democratic-capitalist, and an uneasy pairing of socialist (or social democratic) and romantic—have dominated thought about food since the seventeenth century, and still inform common wisdom.44x4 These traditions are explored in more detail in Rachel Laudan, Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2013). The first two have been, in sequence, the established culinary philosophies; the second two have been important as counter (and sometimes even established) cuisines as people have tried to deal with the culinary aspects of the sweeping changes of the last two hundred years that the term modernization struggles to capture.
Although the schema of culinary philosophies I propose is simplistic and idealized, and although all have evolved and overlapped over time, this schema helps make sense of the differing basic assumptions that underlie today’s tit-for-tat arguments about natural versus processed food, home cooking versus fast food, and small farms versus industrial agriculture. In my own life as a cook, a diner, and a food historian, I have found each of these philosophies attractive at one time or another, unsurprisingly because each has something to offer. A first step in thinking about a culinary ethos for the twenty-first century is to assess its strengths and weaknesses. Although, as the introductory examples show, any ethos should take as given that food systems are now global, I focus on the United States.
From Independence on, thinking about food in the United States has been a long debate about alternatives to aristocratic or monarchical culinary philosophy, the established ethos in the traditional city-based agrarian kingdoms and empires in which most people lived prior to the last two hundred years. According to that older ethos, living beings were hierarchically ranked, each rank distinguished by its food and way of taking nourishment. Plants, the lowest, needed only water and earth obtained in place. Animals ate raw meat or vegetables, alone and standing. Humans ate cooked meat or grains, sitting, kneeling, or reclining with their fellows.
Among humans, there were two major ranks. Most fell in the lower one, the group that spent their lives toiling in the fields to grow food, the best of which went to the small upper rank with the rest left for the laborers. People in the lower rank, or so those in the upper rank postulated, had hearty natural appetites as a result of their labor, and coarse constitutions with powerful digestive systems. All they needed was a humble cuisine of rough fare—dark bread or porridge, root vegetables, watery drinks, and a rare bite of meat—prepared by women and eaten from a common bowl.
Those who ruled, prayed, and fought, by contrast, although of greater stature and girth as befit their status, had delicate constitutions. So those who prepared their victuals, usually professional male cooks, had to entice them to eat by creating an “unnatural appetite,” with offerings of refined (highly processed) food. In French high cuisine, adopted by the English-speaking world in the eighteenth century, fine white bread, beef enveloped in delicious sauces, delicate confections rich in sugar and fat, stimulating wines and liquors, and exotic ingredients from distant lands were prestigious foods for the rich, signs of their power in a world of scarcity. Nearly invisible waiters served this high cuisine to men, sometimes women, but never children (who ate separately), on fine serving dishes in rooms dedicated to dining. Conversation centered on affairs of state and high culture. Lavish feasting, recorded in writing and often witnessed by the poor, reflected and reinforced the gulf between rulers and their subjects.
French high cuisine has had great staying power. Until recently, the well-to-do advertised their status by dining on French high cuisine in restaurants and hotels worldwide. The aspiring middle class gave their daughters one piece of fine china or silver for each birthday so that they could accumulate the material capital to move up the social scale. In the 1970s and even later, many regarded Julia Child’s adaptation of French high cuisine for the servantless household as the pinnacle of culinary achievement, the winning game in cooking as a competitive enterprise.
Re-enthroning any form of the aristocratic culinary ethos is obviously neither desirable nor likely. The agrarian empires, not limited to Europe, were inequitable systems in which the majority labored on inadequate diets to support the few. That said, aristocratic culinary systems have a couple of lessons for the present. First, high cuisines underwrote culinary innovation because the wealthy had the money to introduce exotic foods such as sugar, spices, tea, coffee, and chocolate, and to find new ways of preparing known ingredients such as flour and eggs into, say, ice cream, cookies, and cakes, leaving a culinary heritage that modern and more equitable cuisines have been able to democratize and turn into foods for all. Second, that wealth also allowed the flourishing of the decorative arts associated with dining—furniture, linens, silver and glassware, china—as well as the improvement and beautification of the estates where the food was produced. In today’s wealthier society, those achievements are worth preserving.
The alternative culinary philosophies, all aimed at more equitable, less hierarchical cuisines, evolved in response to the long-standing aristocratic tradition. Following American independence, republican culinary philosophy haltingly displaced the aristocratic as the established ethos of the United States, most haltingly in the planter economy of the South, where a formal system of chattel slavery preserved the old aristocratic foodways well through the Civil War and beyond. Nevertheless, even in colonial times, many Americans looked to the Roman Republic as a model in which all citizens (a status unavailable to women and slaves) were entitled to the same cuisine, along with participation in new forms of political organization. Unlike the lavish feast of aristocrats, the republican meal was ample and tasty but simple, to be eaten in moderation. It was a middling cuisine that lay between the high cuisines of the aristocrats and the humble cuisines of the peasants. The saying “Hunger is the best sauce,” repeated in various forms over the centuries, captured the idea that republicans’ appetites did not have to be stimulated by excessively refined morsels. Theirs were natural appetites, sharpened by hard work.
Instead of peasants, a self-sufficient yeomanry cultivating their farms with the help of their families became the republic’s preferred producers of food, the yeoman’s physical strength and independence from political influence making him the model citizen. His wife’s moral responsibility was to nurture the children, who, by eating with adults at the family table and listening to the conversation, would receive mental and moral sustenance along with bodily nourishment, learning that virtuous citizens exhibited courage, simplicity, dignity, fidelity to duty, honesty, civility, and reason. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving, with its ample family meal of American turkey and plebian vegetables, a national holiday. Five years later, the great midcentury New England manual of household management, The American Woman’s Home: or, Principles of Domestic Science; Being a Guide to the Formation and Maintenance of Economical, Healthful, Beautiful, and Christian Homes (1869), by Catherine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, translated the ethic into practical advice.55xIt’s significant that the book’s English equivalent, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1859), was published by Isabella Beeton’s republican husband, Samuel Beeton, who was also the first to publish Uncle Tom’s Cabin in England, in 1852. While fresh-baked bread of wheat or maize, juicy grilled or roast meat, a pot of beans, a dish of cabbage, tasty cheeses, and eggs could all come from the farm, the distance of the republican citizen from the peasant was symbolized by dishes for each diner instead of a common bowl, and a clock and dresser in a dining area separate from the kitchen.
Over the next hundred and fifty years, this ethos was modified in tandem with the changes in American politics. The old two-tier system of high and humble cuisines did not just fade away. Civic organizations, rapidly expanding government agencies, food businesses and farmers, among others, worked to change behaviors, regulate food, and open up new lands through initiatives such as programs of domestic science and home economics to create appropriate family behaviors such as the serving and sharing of regular meals. Their efforts led to the provision of safe, nutritious food for babies, government support for homesteading, subsidies for irrigation projects, agricultural research and outreach, and support for farm incomes.
As African Americans and immigrants gradually and often painfully gained citizenship, winning the right to eat like and with other citizens symbolized inclusion, most dramatically during the civil rights movement. By the closing decades of the twentieth century, Thanksgiving had become a true national holiday, quickly adopted and adapted by immigrants, while family farms and family meals remained embedded in the national imagination as self-evidently ideal ways of producing and consuming food. Around the same time, the McDonald’s hamburger, eaten by children and presidents alike, a simple, ample meal of beef and white bread, accompanied by french fries and a sweet, chilled beverage, and enclosed in an individual clamshell container in clean, decent surroundings, came to exemplify decent middling cuisine. Food formerly out of reach for all but the wealthy was now available to all Americans. As the chain expanded around the world, diners flocked to it in large measure because it symbolized the link between a powerful democracy and abundant food accessible to all.
Yet this republican-democratic culinary philosophy has never gone unchallenged. Family meals gave way to afterschool activities and women sought roles outside the domestic sphere, and feminists rejected the moral burden of the home-cooked family meal. A quick bite of a McDonald’s hamburger in the car was hardly conducive to an education in civic values. Nutritional advice, however well meaning, often came across as dismissive of the values and cuisines of those outside the white middle class, suggesting that they were failures morally as well as nutritionally. Small family farms had been precarious economically from the start, as became clear when sharecroppers and homesteaders without capital or labor other than family members struggled to care for their land and make a living. Increasingly, they were incapable of providing the steady supplies that large processors, retailers, and food service operations required.
Searching for a counterethos to aristocratic culinary philosophy that avoided the perceived contradictions in republican-democratic culinary philosophies, many Americans in the 1960s and ’70s, particularly those in the counterculture, adopted an ethos that was an uneasy and unstable merger of socialist (or social democratic) and romantic culinary philosophies. The New Left, while not advocating the radical agrarian or economic reform of nineteenth-century utopian religious settlements in the United States, the Soviet Union, or the Israeli kibbutzim, nonetheless embarked on smaller-scale efforts to form communes to grow and prepare food, where, in theory at least, men and women worked to break down gender distinctions entrenched in aristocratic and republican culinary philosophies. Concern about the population explosion and world hunger was central to dietary overhaul. Co-op groceries, which sold “natural foods” (at a discount to members who contributed their labor), were set up in all major cities. White bread and red meat, held in high regard in both the aristocratic and republican ethos, were out. Brown bread, brown rice, and vegetables were in.66xWarren James Belasco, Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took on the Food Industry, 1966–1988, (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1989). Cookbooks dealing with non-European cuisines introduced economical ways to use rice and beans, the wonders of soy and tofu, and the hope of reducing Americans’ disproportionate use of the world’s food resources. Storefront restaurants founded by immigrants who moved to America after enactment of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 offered new tastes and ingredients. Marxist sociologists, geographers, anthropologists, and historians, including Immanuel Wallerstein, Harriet Friedman, Philip McMichael, Eric Wolfe, and Sidney Mintz, introduced concepts such as systems and regimes to argue that both producers and consumers of food were at the mercy of long capitalist supply chains.77xRachel Laudan, “The Food System (Ways of Talking about Food 2),” March 24, 2017, https://www.rachellaudan.com/2017/03/the-food-system-ways-of-talking-about-food-2.html.
By 2000, calls to overthrow corporate capitalism and the nuclear family, never mainstream in the United States, had become muted. Hunger was increasingly perceived less as an absolute shortage of food than as a problem of equitable distribution, even though the world’s population had climbed to six billion (having doubled in just forty years). Communes vanished and co-ops went under or evolved into supermarkets. Saferway, a co-op in Austin, Texas, became Whole Foods, a Fortune 500 company, with its director, John Mackie, arguing for “conscious capitalism.”
Today, interest in a socialist or, perhaps more accurately, social democratic ethos is rising again, as modern societies are perceived as becoming less equitable, and as shrinking households contending with low incomes and high costs for rent, transportation, and communication must scrimp on food. Although some food justice advocates direct their attention overseas, with organizations such as Via Campesina supporting small peasant farmers, the main focus has shifted to the United States. Some argue for making food access a universal human right, others for establishing urban farms and eradicating food deserts (areas, usually impoverished, whose residents have limited access to purveyors of healthful foods). Others battle for decent wages for farm laborers and restaurant workers. The pursuit of better working conditions in the fields and the alleviation of poverty (because even if it is relative rather than absolute, it is still misery) is absolutely necessary, but as yet these efforts have had only modest success.
Slow, Fresh, and Natural
As socialist culinary philosophy waned in importance at the end of the twentieth century, romantic culinary philosophy, the choice of those who believed gastronomic excellence could bring about social reform, gained a larger following. Its basic tenets were laid out by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who drew on a tradition dating from antiquity that idealized pastoral life and manners as an alternative to court and city life. Turning aristocratic culinary philosophy on its head in his 1762 treatise on education, Émile,88xLesley Chamberlain, “Rousseau’s Philosophy of Food,” Petits Propos Culinaires 21 (1985): 9–16. Rousseau argued that peasant food, far from being coarse, was delightful and healthful. Imagined as consisting of freshly gathered and lightly cooked vegetables and fruits, with milk fresh from the cow, the pastoral fare satisfied the appetite without overstimulating it, as rich sauces and desserts did. A picnic eaten with friends was far more enjoyable than a family meal served with a side of stodgy moralizing or the rigid formalities of an aristocratic dinner served by flunkeys. No wonder the picnic in a pastoral setting—part of what has been called the “elite dream of happiness”—is the point where the aristocratic and romantic culinary philosophies make contact.99xAdam Nicolson, Earls of Paradise (London, England: Harper Perennial, 2009), 5.
Reformers in this line looked to the English food writer Elizabeth David; the American restaurateur Alice Waters, proprietor of Chez Panisse, in San Francisco; American businessman Dun Gifford, founder of Oldways, a nonprofit that promotes healthy eating; and the Italian writer and political activist Carlo Petrini (whose background included organizing Communist groups in Italy) who all advocated returning to slow, fresh, and natural foods. The cuisine of the Mediterranean, a land where lemon trees bloomed and olives gave forth their oil, enjoyed special prestige. Ancient grains, garden vegetables, and artisan cheeses were to displace commodified products based on scientific research and technological innovation. The cook was an artist, not a servant in the aristocratic household or the idealized republican housewife or the commune member taking a turn at the stove. Like poets, cooks offered diners a way to perceive and enjoy the world. A single perfect peach on a plate was the essence of fresh and natural. Slow food was the riposte to fast food, such as McDonald’s, the exemplar of American capitalism and imperialism as it “McDonaldized” the world.
Romantic cuisine appeals to an increasingly urban population. It is trumpeted by the food media, most chefs, and most cookbook authors, and taken for granted by culinary organizations, including the James Beard Foundation and the Chefs’ Collaborative in the United States, the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery in England, and the Slow Food Movement in Italy. The diffuse group known as the food movement—journalists such as Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, chefs such as Dan Barber, and a growing cadre of students in college and university food studies programs—has taken as its unofficial slogan “Our food system is broken. We must fix it.”
Fixing it, in food writer Corby Kummer’s neat summing up, meant endeavoring to “do well by eating well.”1010xCorby Kummer, “Doing Well by Eating Well,” The Atlantic, March 1999, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1999/03/doing-well-by-eating-well/377485/. Supporting small farms would provide opportunities for women and minorities and ensure a supply of organic vegetables rather than commodity monocrops of soy and corn. Farmers’ markets would cut out the middlemen, offer consumers the chance to talk to farmers directly, build community, and support local economies. School gardens would enhance environmental awareness, improve health and academic achievement, and develop social awareness. Chef-run or, better yet, farm-to-table restaurants, or careful home cooking, would enhance appreciation of the link between moral, fresh, local, and delicious food. Fixing the food system promised to be such a simple and enjoyable way of bringing about social change that it is small wonder that the food movement has won the media battle.
Romantic culinary philosophy, with its welcome emphasis on the enjoyment of food, on taste and gastronomy, has helped bring about the widespread availability of out-of-season fruits and vegetables, the explosion of smart-casual dining, and an appreciation of dishes that are fresher and less elaborate than those with the rich sauces of French high cuisine. Its sketchy economic underpinnings mean that it has been less successful at transforming food systems. American diets may be better for the addition of whole-wheat bread, granola, yogurt, herb tea, kombucha, and fresh salsas—once pioneering foods made in the home kitchen and proclaiming a political commitment—but their availability depends on the established food systems, with their large factories, container shipping, and supermarkets so large that some employees get around on roller skates. Farmers’ markets have made only the smallest dent, since frequenting them demands considerable time and money, and, in most parts of the country, is limited by the season. Urban farms must contend with the fact that many of the poor who struggle to earn a living are less than enthusiastic about spending their spare time digging and weeding. while school gardens never quite overcame the problem that they are most productive at that time of year when, per a policy harking back to the need for their labor on farms, children are on vacation. Organic produce and meat remain niche items, most of which come from big mechanized farms that take advantage of permitted pesticides. Many would argue that romanticizing peasant life has held back agricultural improvement in large parts of the world, notably Africa.
In sum, not one of the culinary philosophies inherited from the past is adequate to a world in which abundance has brought unexpected problems and where maintaining economic viability and increasing equity have to be balanced against environmental stability. Nor do they do justice to the complexity of contemporary food systems— global grain chains that make bread and noodles available worldwide, global cold chains that make fresh milk, eggs, fruits and vegetables obtainable year round, each with their fleets of container ships, trucks, and storage facilities, milling and food-processing plants, food service industries, and multinational corporate retailers. These systems also engage the support of numerous government agencies, eight major national ones in the United States alone, that mitigate hunger, oversee safety, and support farming and the international aid complex.1111xPeter Hertzmann, “Food and Governmental Power in the United States,” Dublin Gastronomy Symposium, 2018, https://arrow.dit.ie/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1127&context=dgs.
Perhaps it is ignorance of food history and perplexity in the face of complexity that leads to an increasingly common critique of food systems, one that calls for the elimination of middlemen and the rejoining of the two endpoints of our food systems—farming and final meal preparation and consumption—by reinstating small farms and family meals or farm-to-table restaurants. As for the poorer countries, this line of thinking goes, peasants should be encouraged to stay on their tiny plots.
I believe quite the reverse. I find the complexity thrilling; the human ingenuity that has so improved our food, impressive. Yes, the systems are flawed, but they always have been. There never was a golden age when everyone in a given society was fed without environmental problems, social and economic inequalities, or nutritional inadequacies. Modern food systems have reduced the proportion of the globe’s population that goes hungry even as that population has soared. They have made safe, fresh food available in cities of a size not even imagined a century ago. They have expanded culinary options so that much of the world can enjoy dishes invented half the globe away. And they have unlocked the secrets of taste that chefs rely on. It was partly in recognition of such achievements that, almost twenty years ago, I wrote “A Plea for Culinary Modernism: Why We Should Like Fast, Processed Food,”1212xRachel Laudan, “A Plea for Culinary Modernism: Why We Should Love New, Fast, Processed Food,” Gastronomica 1, no. 1 (2001): 36–44. an article that I ended with an appeal for a culinary ethos for the twenty-first century. My idea for such an ethos is a modified version of the tradition that has done so much to shape the progress that our major food systems have made, namely the republican-democratic-capitalist tradition. If a lot less dramatic than the culinary schemes that propose to fix the system or engineer a food revolution, it has a proven track record of successful incremental change, which is far less perilous than proposals for wiping the slate clean and starting over. There would be changes, of course. I would rid this ethos of its presumption that small farms and family meals are the epitome of food systems and that women should do the unpaid labor of cooking. I would recognize that for at least the better part of a century the state as well as the market has played a role, and a very necessary role, in food systems, and that it will and should continue to do so in the future. Formerly unrecognized problems of global environmental sustainability need to be incorporated in its agenda. Taste and beauty, strengths of the aristocratic and romantic traditions, need more attention than in republican and socialist traditions.
A Culinary Catechism
To spell it out, the ethos I subscribe to holds that all citizens (now the global population) are entitled to sufficient food, qualified only by the provision that all members of society are entitled to decent and sufficient food. Decent food is food that sustains, grows, and repairs the body, that is safe to eat, enjoyable, accessible, and affordable. It should support the dignity and self-respect of its consumers, while fostering sociability, civility, and a regard for the cultural meanings (religious or otherwise) associated with the production, preparation, and consumption of food. Not least, this ethos values culinary practices that aim to avoid exploitation of human beings or inflicting further damage on the planet.
For all its seeming familiarity, this ethos is challenged by the changed circumstances of food abundance in much of the world, of a population that is still growing, and of mounting pressures on land, water, air, and energy resources. Weighting and reconciling these values will necessarily be an ongoing venture on which complete agreement is not to be expected but in which both market and state have a role to play.
For example, what counts as decent food has changed. While a soupy dish of root vegetables and meat with white bread and water once qualified as such, the standard of “decent” became a hamburger, fries, and a Coke by the mid-twentieth century. Today some might insist that it would include a dry-aged steak or a plant-based burger and a glass of wine. Can the environment sustain such an acceleration of what counts as basic decency? How does such a standard apply globally? And as what counts as decent rises, as the better off discover new foods, how can disdain for those who are happy with, say, a pink zinfandel instead of a white varietal be discouraged, let alone for those who might, for good reasons of preference, price, or disability, fill their shopping carts with canned and packaged foods?1313xS. Margot Finn, Discriminating Taste: How Class Anxiety Created the American Food Revolution (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2017).
How much does good taste matter, and what is it anyway? For the better off today, it is fresh and natural (a preference that often overlooks the advanced technology needed to deliver milk, eggs, meat, fruit and vegetables year around), but for much of history it was appealing flavors created in preserved foods. The search for exquisite taste can even work against gastronomy, blotting out appreciation of the subtler tastes of the varieties of brown rice or corn tortillas that are needed to balance rich and bold tastes. More important, the pursuit of good taste can work against other values. It can lead to that “unnatural appetite” that always worried champions of the republican culinary tradition, not least because it encouraged eating after hunger was satisfied. It can also cut against the grain of social life if every member of a family or group will eat only what he or she likes.
Who is included at the table? If it is no longer the elite men of the aristocratic tradition, should it be family members, fellow workers, or friends? Is the model of the restaurant catering to individual preferences (based largely on income) the best one for imagining the social dimensions of the new culinary ethos? Or should more emphasis be given to other arrangements such as the meals served in schools and universities, retirement homes, and workplaces. Often such institutions follow the restaurant model of individual choice, but would more limited choices and more sharing create stronger communities?
Who cooks? The unpaid family member who does not share the view that cooking is fun and creative and who is hurt when offerings are rejected? How does home cooking, with an energy-gobbling refrigerator, oven, and outdoor grill used to prepare meals for three or four people, make sense environmentally? Should the cook be a chef who often puts his artistry first? Or the novice in the fast-food restaurant who follows instructions to master the uses of the deep fryer and the large griddle? Or a valued and well-paid professional in food processing or a large-scale food service who produces food for large numbers without exorbitant use of fuel?
Who farms and how is farming conceived? Is agriculture in opposition to wilderness, a view that enjoys wide currency in the United States? Or are farms part of a human-controlled landscape that can be thought of as a garden, a position more common in Europe? What is the relation between the wealthy cities and their (often) poorer rural hinterlands? Is stewardship of the environment one of the activities that farmers should be paid for?
All these and more are questions that need to be debated in an evolving culinary philosophy that shapes cuisines embedded in wider social, political, and economic systems. Abandoning the slogan “Our food system is broken. We must fix it” would be a good start to this ethos. It is at best unhelpful, at worst misleading. “Our food system” suggests a monolith, perhaps even a conspiracy, with problems that no one except a chosen “us” has noticed or is trying to improve. “Broken” suggests that in the past this imagined food system was whole when it never was. Instead of such sloganeering, I urge continuing the steady, ongoing work of identifying and solving the multiple problems of our multiple food systems so that, without exploiting workers or endangering the earth, the riches so many have come to enjoy can be spread yet further.