Food in Culture & Society/Epicurus, the Foodies’ Philosopher

“How could you be so interested in food when half the world is starving!” The silliness of such a criticism presumably sticks out more these days. But the apparent self-contradiction was less obvious back in March 1984, when epicurean interests were relatively written off. Scholars might respectably devote themselves to the economics of sugar production, the genetics of pig breeding, the nutritional measurement of populations, the ethnography of gatherer-hunters, and the politics of Third World hunger, but not stray towards meals as such, and certainly not the pleasure of their own stomachs. The criticism was made at a lively dinner party, and the host specifically challenged my organizing of the First Symposium of Australian Gastronomy a few days later. Her objection only unlocked further fervor. We needed more food talk, not less. We could discuss both dinner parties and Third World hunger. We needed our conference. In the event, the two days of gastronomy and gourmandise brilliantly confirmed Brillat-Savarin’s advice that such gatherings should combine food theory and practice. With the participation even of a couple of gastronomically inclined academic philosophers, we had begun confronting the mystery of meals. Exhilarated, I resolved to take the question into the enemy camp, as it were. I would undertake a PhD to understand the intellectual embarrassment at our own dining. Indisputably, our existence depended on meals. We spend much time at, preparing, or paying for them. They connect people with one another, even across the oceans, and with the natural world. So why was the table scorned, and especially the enjoyment of it? The first finding was, of course, that the intellectual disdain was far from universal, and also softening. Some sharp London journalists, led by renegade philosopher Paul Levy, had already used the word ‘foodie’ in Harpers & Queen in August, 1982, even if the “new sect which elevates all food to a sacrament” was so tiny that all the foodies knew each other. Within academia, too, some well-credentialed thinkers were already working in the area. Following anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, the then fashionable structuralists dressed up meals as “culinary triangles”, “binary oppositions”, and “grammars”, an approach soon rivaled by more materialist scholars such as K. C. Chang and colleagues, Jack Goody, Sidney Mintz, Marvin Harris, and some of the French historians identified with the Annales school. The first significant academic journal in the area, Food & Foodways, would appear in 1985. In wider reading, I looked into the ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus, whose name had been appropriated for epicureanism as either irreligion and debauchery or, more positively, the display of refined sensibilities. Modern interpreters pooh-poohed any suggestion of the allegedly ascetic Epicurus’ own lower-case ‘e’ epicureanism. However, I was forcibly struck that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, Epicurus announced that he had based his philosophical system on the “pleasure of the stomach.” The more I investigated his system, the more I became convinced that here was the foodies’ long-neglected philosopher, still suffering from the strictures of the much too high-minded academic tradition. Soon I had persuaded a few fellow foodies to restore the Epicurean tradition of monthly philosophical banquets in Adelaide, South Australia. Once we adopted a relatively formal structure of someone delivering a paper, before dining and general conversation, these events seemed appropriately to honor Epicurus’ memory, and his request that such dinners should continue. More than two decades of further study and experience have only confirmed the correspondences between Epicureanism and epicureanism. Both value the material world, the senses, empiricism over ideology, pleasure within limits, friendship, and celebratory dinners. Within recent Anglophone culture, foodies have not always represented a reputable philosophical position. They have not always articulated a political, theological, economic, or other framework. They have remained largely besotted with gastronomic consumerism. Yet serious food scholarship has been multiplying, including within philosophy. With more recognition, the epicurean conversation has begun extending from its natural home, the table, to take on the world. Especially when coming from meals, rather than to them, so to speak, thinking foodies can usefully develop Epicurus’ big picture, which is astonishingly consonant with a modern liberal’s. This chapter urges food philosophers to embrace their hero.

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