The Ethics of Food

The word “foodie” grates on my nerves a bit. We cannot live without food, water, and oxygen, but somehow it always seems to me misguided to give too much attention to something as basic as provender. On Maslow’s hierarchy food ranks pretty high as a basic necessity, but in the hierarchy of the soul’s work it ranks (for me at least) far down the list of desirabilities. It was Erasmus, the greatest of the humanists, who said, 'When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.' That seems right to me, within limits.

I’m not quite with Diogenes the Cynic from ancient Athens, who said, “eat only to banish hunger, sleep only to banish fatigue,” but I am closer to that than I am ever likely to gush over a mango reduction on a fresh catch of Mahi Mahi served on a bed of saffron. For me, food’s food, more or less. I’m an agrarian, like my hero Jefferson, and I believe the old Farmer’s Union bumper sticker that said, Farming is everyone’s bread and butter. I have an extensive garden every year. I’m never happier than when I eat an August meal straight out of my garden—a cob of corn snapped off the stalk, a ripe tomato, a cucumber, an onion. That simple meal of things I actually grew with my own hands tastes better to me than the best entree at the highest rated bistro in Greenwich Village.

I admire the farm to table movement, and I think questions of food security and the quality of our food are extremely important. Almost every other first world country is more thoughtful about what we put into our mouths than America, and more watchful of the chemicals that are used to make food production possible. There is not much that is truly agrarian about the American way of eating, and certainly not much that is wholesome.

When I go to Greece, I order a Greek salad—cucumber, tomato, green pepper, and feta-- at every meal, and I marvel that we make such a fuss about food back home in opulent, overstuffed America. In Rome, as often as not I order a wee basket of bread—always better than what is available in the United States--, a small plate of some kind of pasta, often Aglio e Olio, garlic and olive oil, and a glass of house red wine. Sitting in an Olive Garden in Maple Grove Minnesota, that would be an insult, but sitting in th4e square before the Pantheon or overlooking the Bay of Naples it is essentially paradise on earth. Remember Jefferson said it is most sensible to order house wine, vin ordinaire, unless you really know what you are doing or are trying to seduce Maria Cosway.

In the end food is just fuel. It keeps the engine running, and for me the engine was designed to do the work of the soul—to read books and maybe write some too, to imagine the world you want to live in, to evaluate the events that take place in the public square, to lift oneself and those around you to a higher plane of enlightenment, to do what you can—in Jefferson’s words—to ameliorate the condition of mankind.

A meal is always infinitely more interesting to me before I eat it than after, when I always feel a little sheepish for making such a fuss about it or spending that much money to stoke the engine. I’ve made a lifelong study of Henry David Thoreau—you should come on the winter humanities retreat west of Missoula—who teaches that a kind of deliberate simplicity, what he calls “voluntary poverty” is the key to human happiness—I’d rather take a special date to the top of a butte than to the best restaurant in Paris: with a baguette, a bit of very sharp aged cheddar cheese, several squares of fine chocolate, and a flask of vin ordinaire, or as Edward Fitzgerald put it in the Rubyiat of Omar Khayyam,

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough, 
A Jug of Wine, A Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness— 
O, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

Yes, Jefferson may have been a foodie, in some sense of that term, but a whole mythology has sprung up around him that we know is exaggerated even when we trot out the usual claims; that he brought ice cream to the United States, that he introduced macaroni and cheese, that he was a vegetarian, that he brought to America the first waffle irons, that he served a kind of baked Alaska in the White House. For all of these, yes, and mostly no.

Jefferson did say, no man ever regretted having eaten too little, which turns out to be true. He took great pride on the meals he served at Monticello, his Virginia plantation home, and those he served in the White House, where he used food as a way of softening the tensions inherent in the political arena.

Both Jefferson and Thoreau were known to eat very sparely—one observer said there was not an ounce of excess flesh on Jefferson. They were among the greatest thinkers in American history, the most creative minds we have produced. It was Thoreau’s view, certainly, that the more we stuff into our mouths the more we actually clog our souls. You don’t want to try to write poetry after dinner on Thanksgiving, and more than you would want to perform in ballet. Since obesity is ow the number one killer of Americans—think of that—we all might wish to reduce and simplify our gastronomical intakes.

If I had any moral courage, I’d be a vegetarian. One of the best people I know decided many years ago never to eat anything that once had a face. I’ve toured a couple of slaughterhouses, and I know how America’s chickens are raised and with what additives, and I know how hog confinement works. From a certain point of view, no rational being would ever eat meat again, unless we raised and butchered it ourselves, which I have also done once or twice.

What’s worse than a food snob. Well a craft beer snob, but that was not my point. What’s worse than a food snob? A reverse food snob: that may be the rhetorical “reduction” of this week’s Jefferson Watch.

"The top of the season to you from two 'Chaps'", from the New York Public Library Digital Collections.