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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

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