01 February, 2006

The aesthetics of eating

It so happens that I attach to spinach, as to everything more or less directly pertaining to food, essential values of a moral and esthetic order. And of course the sentinel of disgust is ever on hand, vigilant and full of severe solicitude, ceremoniously attentive to the exacting choice of my foods. I like to eat only things with well-defined shapes that the intelligence can grasp. I detest spinach because of its utterly amorphous character, so much so that I am firmly convinced, and do not hesitate for a moment to maintain, that the only good, noble and edible thing to be found in that sordid nourishment is the sand.

Thus I know exactly, ferociously, what I want to eat! And I am all the more astonished to observe habitually around me creatures who will eat anything, with that sacrilegious lack of conviction that goes with the accomplishment of a strict necessity.
So writes one of the last century's finest writers, in one of the last century's greatest works of literature, Salvador Dali's Secret Life. Food, I fear, has largely gone the way of other artforms since the middle of the twentieth century. Lost is the great gourmandise, or rather it has become simply good cooking. Sure, chefs are the toast of utensiltown now, what with the rise of the Ramsays, the Harriotts, the Lawsons, the Worrall-Thompsons, the Olivers and so forth. But nobody these days philosophises (or perhaps gastrosophises) with his stomach. It was a great French tradition. . . one thinks, of course, of Rabelais, whose library was stocked with bottles, compiling bibulographies, and legendary epicures like Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who wrote succinctly in his 1825 The Physiology of Taste that "Gastronomy determines the degree of esculence of every alimentary subject; all are not presentable under the same circumstances." Dali was an honorary Frenchman by the time of the Secret Life, though he never lost that épate Espagnole which would toujours have kept him apart from Breton et al.

Anyway, following on from the Augustinian 'aesthetics of theology' of yesterday's post, I got thinking about the basis of value-judgements on other topics. If modernism ritualistically divorced aesthetics from beauty in literature, art, music and so on, then why should cooking be left behind? Let's eat with our brains as well as our tongues. The Americans have already made tentative (if a little half-hearted) stabs at applying politics to the kitchen, with their 'liberty cabbage' and 'freedom fries'—the latter actually instituted in the House of Representatives café, if the notorious Wikipedia, here, is to be believed. So why not apply some aesthetic considerations?

Dali ate only things with well-defined shapes. Pythagoras, likewise, forbade the eating of beans, which he called 'a sin comparable to eating the heads of one's own parents'. Several reasons have been suggested for this proscription (many from Aulus Gellius' Attic Nights 4.11, others found in books on pre-Socratic topics by Jonathan Barnes and Robin Waterfield, for those who are interested): a) beans resemble private parts, b) they resemble the gates of Hades, c) they resemble man himself, their husk like a coffin, and they smell like semen, d) they resemble the structure of the universe (a variant, perhaps, on the commoner comparison of the universe to an egg), e) they are the only plants with no 'joints', and therefore promote amorphousness (a positively Dalinian consideration), f) it is through beans, growing upwards through the soil, that disembodied souls return to the earth for reincarnation, g) they are digested with difficulty, which is a bad omen, h) the bean diet resembles the meat diet, which was also forbidden, i) an amino acid found in beans causes a strong allergic reaction in some men, and j) perhaps the most sensible explanation, that the bean-ban was only symbolic, as the black and white beans were used for voting-purposes in 6th-century Italy (Magna Graecia), and thus the philosopher was really warning his disciples from engaging in politics—a man after my own heart! Such a proscription might be compared to the much-debated injunctions against pork, hare, seafood etc. in Leviticus, of which the best explanation, for my money, was offered by the anthropologist Mary Douglas in her brilliant Leviticus as Literature.

Anyway, I'll have to go off and ponder some possible reasons for discriminating good and bad foodstuffs. As it happens I share a common loathing of mushrooms, although I'm not sure I can fully justify this on philosophical grounds (fungi being a separate natural kingdom, say) as I tolerate without enjoyment tofu. I've always found mushrooms to resemble moths, of which I also have a particular disgust. More on that, p'raps, another time.

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