The Cultural Contradictions of Modern Science   /   Fall 2016   /    Essays

Three Ideal Dinners

Mark Edmundson

Dinner Party by Luke Martineau; Bridgeman Images.

The eminently sensible British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips once observed that we in the West currently have little idea of what constitutes the good life. We lack a philosophical sense of how to be, what to do. We seem to have settled instead, I would suggest, for the enviable life. Out with the good life, in with the life others can wish they had—painfully wish they had. When we incite envy, we at least show that our life has some meaning, meaning that comes from our ability to evoke the jealousy of others: I wish I had that! I wish I were going there! I wish I had achieved such heights!

In few places is the pursuit of the enviable life more pronounced than in the world of food. Privileged people vie with each other for dining supremacy. They compete to go to the best restaurants, eat the fare of the foremost chefs, sit at well-placed tables, then photograph the results and post them here and there. Cooking is an art now on par with composing lyric poetry, and eating is a mode of appreciation that has become a bit of a subsidiary art in itself. Food, literary scholar William Deresiewicz says, “has developed, of late, an elaborate cultural apparatus that parallels the one that exists for art, a whole literature of criticism, journalism, appreciation, memoir, and theoretical debate. It has its awards, its maestros, its televised performances. It has become a matter of local and national pride.”11xWilliam Deresiewicz, “A Matter of Taste?,” New York Times, October 28, 2012,

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