Morality and Eating


Spending chunks of time in the U.S. and Italy gives me a little distance from each culture and a chance to observe.  Italians are nowhere near as hung up on food as Americans are. Italians are passionate about their god given right to pleasure and Americans still seem to be hung up on Puritanical virtues.   The U.S. supermarket aisles are full of denial packaging; lots of ‘no fat’, no this, no that. Diet fads sweep the nation, wrapped in that all consuming quest for eternal good health.  We came back from Italy last year and no one was eating anything white. So bizarre.

I had never considered this from a moral point of view, until last night when I attended a lecture given by the Culinary Historian Society. Rachel Laudan, noted author and food historian, was speaking on the topic of “Refined Cuisine or Just Plain Cooking”.  In a very tight nutshell, the essence of her theory is that primarily in Western culture, there are two broad schools of thought: cooking foods brings refinement and perfection and is emblematic of culture, the opposition says cooking causes the food to be disguised, the enhancement to  food encourages unnatural appetite and therefore corrupts.

For example: when the ancient Greeks analyzed their nemesis, the
Persians, the Greeks felt superior because their food was plain,
simple, pure and strong, while the louche Persians were eating their
food with sauces and spices. 
Fast forward to the 18th century
where the English and the Dutch cuisine is plain and therefore they
consider themselves morally superior to the decadent haute cuisine of
the French. Think of the film Babette’s Feast where the village
Puritans are seduced by flavor.

This debate continues today in a variant form. Almost everyone in
the U.S. now has access to meat. Quarter-pounders and chicken fingers
are cheap and can be obtained without too much searching. So, how does
the upper crust of society distinguish themselves from the lowly fast
food burger eaters? By insisting on Kobe beef, or cows that only graze
on the north side of the hill in early morning mist or when you buy a
package of Murray’s chickens it comes with a number on it so that you
can go to their website and read about the family that raised your
chicken (the chicken thighs that we ate last night came from family no.
28). There must be an element of exclusivity if the hoity and the toity
are to stay above the rabble. And there you have it; morality has
entered the food debate. Something to think about while you munch on
your lunch. 

Leave a Comment