The great blessing of being a high school teacher is, of course, summer vacation. While on summer vacation, I’ve been known to go on quests of various kinds. At first, it was mostly mid-sized household renovations. Last summer, I taught myself how to play guitar. This summer, I made a bunch of avocado toast.
If that seems laughably low compared to the noble pursuit of suburban assimilation or the long shot of rock superstardom, you should read Raymond D. Boisvert and Lisa Heldke’s Philosophers at Table: On Food and Being Human. If you think my pursuit of avocado toast is indeed a very engrossing idea, then you should most definitely read Philosophers at Table.
Boisvert and Heldke are proceeding from our shared, lived experience as people with stomachs, so prior familiarity with the work of Immanuel Kant and Rene Descartes is not needed. The book is carved with that crisp, clear precision common to academic philosophy texts, never advancing any idea an inch without a concise explanation of its origin. Boisvert and Heldke’s combined voice is never haughty or self-indulgent, but instead jovially tries to reach past the classically dry, snooze-inducing language of too-tidy minds into something closer to the tone of sociology or ethnography, lush with specific anecdotal examples and some sense of humor.
They take a page from Mary Midgley, suggesting that a philosopher should be viewed more like a plumber, except that a tangled-up philosophical conundrum is far less likely to illicit an emergency response than some faulty pipes. Food is an area of daily living that has historically been very undervalued by the discipline of philosophy and perhaps this is significant to the wellspring of food-based problems faced by society today. Are these farming practices sustainable? Can we end world hunger? Is this meal healthy? Problems of ecology and economy increasingly rising to the level of crises are, of course, first problems of philosophy. We suffer from some bad ideas about food.
Philosophers at Table inquires into four of the main ideas we have about food, investigating their consequences and suggesting an alternative idea that would enable better practices in matters of food. Undergirding these several bad ideas is one generative idea: dualism. We went awry separating the body from the mind, setting up a whole host of dichotomies: “subjective versus objective, art versus craft, knowledge versus opinion, absolutism versus relativism, rational versus emotional, value versus fact” (164). We understand our culture primarily as competing sides, where the mind side of the mind-body dualism is a privileged winner and our stomachs metaphorically and then ultimately literally lose.
As I read through the four chapters, each a tight and well-paced grappling with one bad idea, I returned every time to my avocado toast project. The first chapter, “Hospitality is Ethics”, argues that it’s a bad idea to consider the question of how to accommodate dinner guests as having a fixed, absolute correct answer. It offers an extensive consideration of Isak Dinesen’s short story “Babette’s Feast” alongside the mythology of Baucis and Philemon in Ovid’s Metamorphosis and a colorfully thorough history of Jane Addams’ Hull House. These all point toward the utterly contextual nature of breaking bread with other people. How we are to eat depends on our momentarily given situation.
I had two encounters with avocado toast that compelled me to go on a quest to make it all summer. The first occasion was when meeting up with friends at a newly opened, trendy brunch spot that did not accept reservations. We arrived there like high tide and waited a full two hours before we could get a table. It was supposed to be worth it for the avocado toast. Our poor waiter then had to approach this very crabby table to inform us they were out of the avocado toast. He specified that they were out of the bread for it. I asked him to put it on a bagel for me instead. He blushed and returned with a manager who said they absolutely would not put it on a bagel instead because the bread was crucial to the whole idea of the dish. In a vacuum, I certainly respect that as a decision, but in my own life, I’m not going to try that brunch spot for a few years—not until the stink of their hospitality dissipates.
After the phantom avocado toast, I was on the prowl to fill its void. My wife and I went to visit our niece, who is out in Los Angeles for college. She likes cheap vegetarian food and can be picky, so we often let her guide us to restaurants that can satisfy her. We went to a place she frequents: Swinger’s, whose amazing $6.25 avocado toast is humbly described by its menu as “thick cut multigrain toast topped with avocado, olive oil, kosher salt, lemon and chili flakes”. I made her take us back there the next day so that I could order it again. We took pictures of it and posted them on our social media; we stayed long after the check arrived and had a great time just hanging out together.
With this exemplar in mind, I set out to make my own at home, eventually tallying up just over 100 pieces of toast in the course of three months. Anybody who entered my house at mealtime was invariable subject to testing the toast with me. An old friend from grad school swung by for a few days, and needed an adjusted portion of chili flakes and a bread with fewer seeds in it. She said it was better with lime than lemon. My niece came home for an internship and mocked me for using guacamole instead of fresh avocado. My wife took tiny bites of 30 or 40 pieces and declared every one of them roughly equally delicious. Is there not one avocado toast that can satisfy the masses? No, to each her own avocado toast, wrought by the tensions of every unique circumstance.
The second chapter, “Food as/and Art”, argues that we must replace our distancing understanding of aesthetic taste, where food cannot be art, with the idea that art is a consummatory experience, where food may indeed qualify as art. The authors juxtapose elite fine dining at El Celler in Spain with American tourists eating at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Ghana. As work that is meant for intimate consumption, as opposed to bracketed off in a museum, food whose fineness meets any measure of art will have an investment in being “delightful, and delicious, and nutritious, and inviting, and creative, and achieving a special level of attainment” (94).
My avocado toast project was, taken as a whole, delightful. I examined new angles every time. People would ask for updates. Most of the toasts were delicious. Sometimes one side was too burnt or the chili flakes were piled too high in one corner. I had to keep telling myself that avocado was “good fat” and then resist temptations to look up what that actually means. All the different loaves of bread I tried were made with whole wheat. The ones I made didn’t photograph as nicely as the ones I ate in L.A., but my kitchen smelled like freshly toasted bread all summer. When I figured out that I could infuse the olive oil with lime instead of squirting lime juice all over the place, that was a major breakthrough. I sometimes drizzled the olive oil in a heart shape and once nudged the chili flakes around to spell out my initials. It feels true to say that I have mastered avocado toast.
The third chapter, “Tasting, Testing, Knowing”, asks “how are we to know that our decisions about what to eat make sense?” (26). Pretty much every day, a new study tells us that an old study was wrong about what we should put in our mouths. The latest books pushing fad diets of every stripe have proliferated wildly. But at the end of the day, we still have to shop for groceries. Boisvert and Heldke advise that the answer is predicated on “three intersecting factors: the need to act (how should I fill up my shopping cart?); some time constraints (this has to be done during the next hour); and less-than-deductively-certain conclusions (can I be certain that choosing organic, more expensive carrots is the better choice?)” (110).
I went to three different grocery chains, one baker and one farmer’s market in search of the right bread to make the toast. The baker was too expensive and the farmer’s market loaves were more round than square. I tried avocados imported from different states, with different sizes and skin colors. I tried guacamoles that were more or less chunky and more or less spicy. There was lemon and lemon juice, lime and lime juice and finally lime olive oil. There were two different kinds of olive oil and four kinds of salt. Even though I had all summer to work on my toasts, I seldom had time to idle in any one grocery isle for more than five minutes before choosing the relevant item. I felt guilty about buying a shaker of dried chili flakes instead of slicing and drying the chilis myself. I’m also on a teacher’s salary and I was hoping not to gain any weight in the service of this project.
The fourth chapter, “Being Hungry, Hungry Being”, argues that self-sufficiency is out and interdependency is in. From the sun and the rain on our crops to the bacteria in our guts, we can only feed ourselves by reliance upon and cooperation with factors other than ourselves. There are poetic asides here about St. Simeon Stylites up on his pillar and W.H. Auden’s understanding of botany, followed up with deep dissection of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s model of freedom/authenticity. The authors suggest that “hungry being metaphysics substitutes a response/responsibility model, one in which our task is to engage in ‘recipe making’—that is to say, responding to our circumstances as best we can; experimenting with our surroundings, translating traces and clues, materials and methods into workable formulations for optimal forms of life” (161).
So I have made a recipe for avocado toast. I’m happy to give it to you, but in many ways, it will have no impact. You’ll still need to examine your own situation, to consider the constraints upon your own hospitality, to do your own shopping. Better your should take my reading recommendation and look into Philosophers at Table. It won’t give you any new information either; you already know that life is full of gray areas and that we all must reckon with our food. You’ve been living with those two ideas for years, though perhaps you never thought of it per se as a stomach-endowed ontology. But there is something so satisfying about feeling all this philosophical plumbing laid bare when you are peering into the depths of your refrigerator or waiting for your company to arrive.
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