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Monday, November 28, 2011

Revisiting Wendell Berry's "The Pleasures of Eating"

A good meal is more than just a well-seasoned dish.

By Weston Eaton

This column is all about the pleasures of eating, but I am probably going to talk about pleasure in a way you may not be familiar with. Pleasure has at least two sides: receiving pleasure, which has a gluttonous ring to it when speaking of food, and giving pleasure to others, which strikes me as altruistic. The pleasure I’m talking about below, as related to food, spurns such categorizations, collapsing this dichotomy into a unified practice. I’ll keep it short so as not to preach, but if you find my logic appealing then maybe you too will come to think of pleasure in a new way.

In his essay The Pleasures of Eating Wendell Berry tells us “eating is an agricultural act.” This is a conceptual reminder that no matter how difficult it is for us to see, the food we eat was once grown someplace, and that the very act of eating itself links us to that place and the people there. As eaters then we have certain responsibilities as our actions are linked with both land and livelihoods. Berry’s point is two-fold. First, industrial food is unhealthy for people, animals, and the land. We are disconnected from this type of food: those who produce it do not want us to know how it was produced; they would rather we remained ignorant. Second, and the point on which I want to elaborate, is that eating food is innately connected with what is pleasurable.

What does it mean to take pleasure from food? Of course it has everything to do with taste, smell, the feel and sense of the experience. But can we extend this? Moving into the realm of aesthetics seems fair. This is to say, the company we keep, the background music we play, even the setting of the table contributes to the overall pleasure of the meal. As has been said, beer, for instance, tastes best when shared with people you love and respect. But there’s more. Preparing food, making food, this is an act of creation. We are the creators. We plan, mull over, select, and then act. Our creation is shared and enjoyed. This kind of pleasure reaches beyond the individual. This is a collective act, and in being so it cannot be experienced alone.

But this all takes place after the growth, harvest, hunt, slaughter, or fermentation, each a primary act (before cooking) that can be pleasurable as well. Berry tells us “a significant part of the pleasure of eating is in one's accurate consciousness of the lives and the world from which food comes.” This kind of difference, between knowing your food’s origin and being ignorant to it, is not something that can be measured scientifically—there is no instrument for this. Economically too there is difficulty in deciphering importance. In fact there is little common language for expressing a spiritual connection, as we are no longer much of a spiritual society. But Berry asks us to go here anyway, specifically too for the sake of pleasure. The simple act of knowing is important in itself.

Yet each process that takes place before we cook (or have dinner served) is brutal or violent in its own way. Each takes place “out-of-doors” and miles away from the supermarket, co-op or farm market. Moreover, each process involves "resources" that we ourselves did not create, resources that only require our stewardship and care (and even that may be an overestimation). People, for instance, don't make wine. Yeast does. Seeds become plants independent of the people who planted them. Animals simply are their own meat. We may express our influence upon these things, but we did not create them; they are not borne of our own conception. SoufflĂ©, on the other hand, is something we created.

Perhaps that’s why the acts of agriculture and horticulture are seen by many as brutal. Too often we try to master nature, to make it our servant, to force it to bend to our will. But as Katrina, the Gulf oil spill, the Dust Bowl, Japan's nuclear disaster, and countless floods, hurricanes, and snowstorms have shown, we are not really in charge; in fact, we are hardly in control. And perhaps our desire for control is also the root of our disconnect, our ‘original food sin’, our disenchantment. By acknowledging the limitations of our control, however—and by giving up the infinite options for food provided to us by often faceless corporations—we can in fact become empowered. In the words of Berry, “eating with the fullest pleasure—pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance—is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world.”

Is this a zero sum game, practically speaking? Must I denounce much of society to re-enchant my life? Must I pay premiums for “green” food? And what about those who cannot afford it? Change takes place in many forms both small and large. Perhaps the best way to begin answering this question is to meditate on the heart of Berry’s message, which I think benefits from a little explication. Yes, eating is an agricultural act—we eaters are often at the end of a commodity or value chain. But eating is also a social and spiritual act, one enhanced when we learn the origins of food, when we begin to participate, and when we take on the responsibilities of being a good “food citizen”. My point then is that starting to make a change is much better than no change at all.

*Photo credit Mark Siciliano


  1. I recently read an essay by Wendell Berry called “The Pleasures of Eating”. Berry is an advocate for local agriculture and production of food on a small scale. I will discuss what I found to be Wendell Berry’s two most important ideas from this essay: being a proactive participant in agriculture and eating, and using agricultural knowledge as power.
    Wendell Berry’s first overall concept is that we should be active participants in agriculture such as when choosing food. In the first paragraph of “The Pleasures of Eating”, Berry focuses on the consumers interaction with food. Berry recognizes that currently our society is focused on price and volume over quality and health. Berry says about our current society, “They buy what they want — or what they have been persuaded to want — within the limits of what they can get. They pay, mostly without protest, what they are charged. And they mostly ignore certain critical questions about the quality and the cost of what they are sold.” Through this quote, Berry is commenting on the fact that we disconnect ourselves from the origin of our food. He says that because there is a disconnect from food origin, food becomes an abstract thought for us. I find this to be true for myself. As a consumer, I often don’t think about where my food is coming from or the distance it has traveled to reach me. In todays modern world with food readily available to us in grocery stores, it’s easy to forget about the link that the food has to a farm.
    The second theme of Wendell Berry’s overarching argument is that consumers of agriculture and food should seek knowledge. Berry suggests that the consumer find out where the local food sources are around them. Today there are more socially acceptable trends towards getting a weekly food supply from a local farmer. A consumer can pay a certain fee and have a box of fresh produce to pick up locally. The more localized our food sources can be, the healthier and fresher the food will be for the consumer. Another benefit of localized food is that less sources will be used due to less transport. When consumers buy products that are not local and have been shipped or trucked in, they often don’t realize the added costs that are tacked on because of the travel. Many times the consumer does not even realize that the food had to be trucked in. Berry is an advocate for participating in agriculture by growing something yourself. With this participation will come the knowledge of nature's process of growth. This will increase the consumers appreciation for quality of food.
    Another form of knowledge Berry suggests to seek is to find out what is added to food and how that is reflected in the cost. I liked a concept in his essay that directly relates to this passage, he says that food wears as much makeup as actors these days. Overall we have a distorted image of food. Many times we are shown perfectly shaped polished bright fruits that very possibly have chemical preservatives and additives in them to make them appear that way. Consumers are taught to want perfect food, yet they don’t realize what it takes to make it appear that way. By visiting local farms, orchards, or growing food at home, one could come to appreciate the imperfections of food and the natural form it comes in without all the added gunk.
    Through Wendell Berry’s suggestions of actively participating and educating oneself about food, we can see that it is best to become a proactive agriculture participant. I would encourage consumers to make small steps such as going to local farmers markets, finding where orchards and produce farms are near them, and planting food at their own homes. If consumers can guard themselves with knowledge they can make more informed decisions and be more in control regarding the food they eat.

  2. few different point of view,

  3. This essay and first response are beautiful windows into the examined life, especially the examined life of an eater and drinker. I so appreciate our local home-brew shop taking the time to publish thoughts that depart from the everyday shop talk of IBUs and ABVs. The act of making beer is totally dependent on the physical world in which we live, but it has a strong spiritual sense to it as well. One word that Weston used - re-enchantment - speaks to the intrinsic, non-scientific ways of exploring the world that is largely lost in our late-modern intellectual paradigm. There is more to eating and drinking, indeed there is more to baking, cooking, mashing, etc, than simply preparing ingredients and awaiting the calculated end of procedural steps. There is an enchantment to the process, as there is an enchantment to sharing a meal with friends (as opposed to, e.g., drinking alone). Thanks to Weston and Sicilianos for this contribution! Next step - sponsor monthly discussions on topics like these. Bring your own brew, contribute your thoughts, become a better person!

    Mixing beer and Berry can never go wrong.