We Are What We Think About What We Eat

Photo from Sknitty

Why is literature about food -- read in a state of inner solitude, much like the experience of dining alone -- so alluring?

Serve It Forth (Art of Eating)

Publisher: North Point (reissue)
ISBN: 0865473692
Author: M.F K. Fisher
Price: $12.00
Length: 160
Formats: Paperback
US publication date: 2002-09-18
In this PopMatters' column I will observe and discuss the ever-present and fascinating web that connects us, through the ostensibly personal and solitary act of eating, to contemporary society and culture, national and international commerce and economy, and to historical, religious and aesthetic issues.

The term, “garde manger” originally referred to a storage space that kept grains, cured meats, dried and pickled vegetables and such things in the medieval times, and it literally means “guard to eat”. In the modern French brigade system (the traditional hierarchy among cooks and chefs in hotels and restaurants), the term refers both to the position and the person who is in charge of preparing and plating cold appetizers.

As an aside, being often an entry-level position, the term sounds a bell of excitement mixed with a hint of anxiety and humility for someone who has gone through the hierarchy, for it was probably one’s first job in the fine dining industry. Yet, it is work one should be proud of: being the first course, plates produced by the garde manger are the ones that introduce the patrons and guests to the complex and precious experience of eating. While I by no means claim that I will be introducing my readers to these social and cultural issues pertaining to food for the first time, I do wish to contribute to deepening our understanding and appreciation of them.

Bon appétite!

Eating is not only an intensely personal but also a social affair. We all have personal likes and dislikes of foodstuffs and firm preferences for how proteins should be cooked; it is nearly impossible to talk others into enjoying food they dislike by insisting upon the subjective pleasure of consuming it. We also have various inclinations as to when to buy organic or conventional vegetables, when to buy free-range or mass-produced meats.

These choices, though personal, at the same time have immense social implications, not only because our choices influence the food industry and our collective proclivities form the current culture of taste, but also (and more simply) because one is judged by others based on, among other things, what one chooses to eat. In other words, in a society where choice is available, what one eats marks what one is.

That is precisely what French lawyer, politician, and famous epicure and gastronome Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin meant when he bragged, “Tell me what you eat: I will tell you what you are.” We all have heard the old German adage, “you are what you eat.” The food one consumes forms one’s body and has an immense effect on one’s health. In short, eat healthy and your body is likely to be healthy.

Brillat-Savarin, however, meant much more. What one eats is a reflection of his gastronomic knowledge, economic resources, his social status, and most importantly, his taste. In our current society, where there is unending debate and concern about the environment and diminishing family farmers, one might add that it is also a reflection of his moral stance. Food writing brings together the seemingly contradictory and potentially conflicting nature of eating -- its personal and social aspects -- and presents the ostensibly private act of eating as a profoundly cultural entity that in turn marks one’s identity.

Brillat-Savarin was born and raised in Belly, France, an area renowned for its foodstuffs. Throughout his life, he and his family were known for their love of good food and jolly company. His The Physiology of Taste, published in 1825, is generally considered to be one of the earliest and certainly most enduringly popular writing that salvaged the act of eating from a pure necessity to something of scientific, social, and artistic importance. It is a collection of “meditations” on various topics all in relation to food: such as death, the history of a nation, and aging.

He also gives a detailed list of how people of different levels of means expect and appreciate different types of foodstuffs. For example, a man of “competent” means would enjoy fillet of veal, turkey stuffed with Lyon chestnuts, pigeons or sauerkraut garnished with sausages and Strasbourg bacon. At the next level, a man of “affluence” would like fillet of beef, venison, boiled turbot, turkey stuffed with truffle, and early green peas. Lastly, a man of “wealth” would expect, among other delicacies, a seven-pound fowl with Périgord truffles shaped spherically, pâté de foie gras shaped as a bastion, truffled quails served on buttered toast flavored with basil, and a hundred early asparagus, five or six threads in diameter served with osmasome sauce. It is interesting to note that it is only at the “wealthy” level that Brillat-Savarin specifies how the dish should be shaped and presented.

However, the principal purpose of this seemingly elitist list is not to judge what one is, or more specifically, what one is economically, by observing what one opts to eat. Rather, the list is a part of the overarching scheme of the book, namely, to draw a clear line between gluttony and gourmandism. At the beginning of the book, Brillat-Savarin acknowledges that he decided to publish his writings to give gourmands their long-owed respect, and he defines Gourmandism as “an impassioned, reasoned, and habitual preference for everything which gratifies the organ of taste.” Brillat-Savarin devised the aforementioned list of foodstuffs in order to fairly assess if one is a gourmand. In other words, a man of modest income might not show due excitement at the sight of a boiled turbot, but as long as he shows enough excitement and satisfied contemplation upon being served a turkey stuffed with chestnut, he nonetheless qualifies as a gourmand. In this sense, not only did Brillat-Savarin boast that he could tell what one is from what one eats, but also, and more importantly, how one eats.

To quote Brillat-Savarin one more time, animals merely feed, but men eat. Eating in the broad sense is much more than just satisfying caloric and nutritional needs. What differentiates humans and animals is that we expect the act of eating to satisfy far more than the basic bodily needs, and when it does, the sense of gratification (one might even call it happiness) can be rather memorable.

Why, then, do people write about food? And why is literature about food -- read in a state of inner solitude, much like the experience of dining alone -- so alluring? I'm not talking about the ubiquitous colorful, saliva-generating cook books that merit their own section in nearly every book store, but rather just simple, suggestive text. Take M.F.K. Fisher’s “Borderland”, for example (Serve It Forth (Art of Eating), 1937). The ostensible topic of this short essay is the strange things people like to eat surreptitiously. For Fisher herself, it was segments of tangerine laid out on top of radiator and then chilled in snow on the windowsill. If one were to just care about what she eats, the only thing one draws out of the essay would be its strangeness. Needless to say, there is much more to be digested, here. The essay is not merely about preparing this bizarre concoction. It is about how the act of preparing this inexplicable treat marked the passing of Fisher's cold February days in Strasbourg.

She starts the preparation by peeling the tangerines and separating the segments carefully, while sitting by the window watching the early-morning activities of the town and listening to the chambermaid clean beds and gossip. Next, she lays the segments on the radiator. Around this time, her husband comes home for lunch. She will go have lunch with her husband leaving the tangerines behind, and after he has gone back to work, she buries them in the snow. After a few minutes, they are ready. She will then pull her chair by the window and spend the whole afternoon savoring the treat while watching school children come home and workers picking up tulip bouquets on their way back from their labors. What made her record this? More importantly, why would one care to read this, possibly over and over?

A sympathetic reader would understand why Fisher had to write about this carefully prepared delicacy of hers. At the end of the essay, she wonders if anyone understands her secret obsession, and concludes yes, because everyone must have his/her own. That is, however, not why one likes to read about hers. It is because one understands the preciousness of an ordinary, uneventful day, passed daydreaming and waiting for the loved one to come home. Fisher recalls the calm satisfaction of such a day in connection with the whole preparation, and this is precisely why a reader comes to care about her tangerine segments. After sitting by the window for a whole afternoon, the tangerines are gone, the day is over, and we understand why she has to record the whole experience.

Eating is a very fleeting experience, and to some, it might look like a poor token by which to remember a day. However, precisely because of this ephemeral nature, the act of eating, the anticipation of it and the gratification one receives from it, leaves a lasting mark on our memory and comes to stand in for the fleeting, ordinary, but painfully precious moments of a day. By the same token, it is not too simplistic to say that by savoring the food one eats, one celebrates life, the day it is consumed, and the season that has produced the food. Stuffing one’s face and gulping down food as sheer necessity would have a very different implication for the appreciation of moments, both ordinary and extraordinary, of life. This is also why some insist on writing about eating, and others savor their craft.

Even Brillat-Savarin -- whose ostensible purpose of writing The Physiology of Taste was, as a responsible scholar and scientist, to keep up with the progress of gastronomic science and to make people recognize gourmandism as a form of artistic endeavor -- cannot hide his personal, brimming love of food and his enthusiastic appreciation of what life brings him on a plate.

Pleased with the sight of a wonderful banquet with his friends, Roman philosopher and dramatis Lucius Annaeus Seneca asked, “When shall we live, if not now?” Eating keeps one alive, of course, but the best meal, whatever that might be, makes one feel alive, and deepens the sense of life, by providing an intense moment of fleeting pleasure and a sense of connection to nature and its seasonal changes. Eating also affects wider economic and cultural realms of our life, which at the same time form us. In other words, eating is an ever-changing cultural entity that is both subjective beyond reconciliation and unequivocally social. And this is why one writes and reads about eating; to record the wonderful ambiguity of our being, our conflicting desire not only to zealously guard the preciousness of private experience, but also to be understood and validated by others.

Garde Mangers photo from MontrealNewYork

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