Why Civilization Rests on that Roast

by Dwight Furrow

Roast chickenFood is part of nearly every aspect of social life. Both our biological families and the families we choose coalesce around food. We converse with friends over coffee, tea, a snack or a glass of wine. Going to lunch or dinner with friends is the dominant mode of socializing in modern life. For many families much of their communication takes place around the kitchen table. We share our tables with friends and family at celebrations where food takes on the ritual meanings of shared values or shared history. Even at funerals, at least at the wake, food is often served.

The other sense modalities do not lend themselves so easily to social life. We seldom think of visual experiences as paradigmatic ways of spending time with others. Viewing a sunset or a work of art in solitude can be wonderful, the solitude enhancing the experience. With modern technology we listen to music through ear buds designed to lock out the rest of the world. Although listening to music is sometimes a social occasion, only rarely is sociality essential to the experience. Touch is a shared social experience only in the most intimate of relationships. Taste, by contrast, is the sense modality that, as a matter of practice, is intimately tied to social life. Although we can and do eat alone, we only rarely contrive to do so, and few would consider it an enhancement.

The reason for this intimate connection between food and socializing is not hard to discern. Given the time involved in, and the necessity of, gathering, preparing and consuming food, no other activity plays such a prominent role in giving form to daily life. We divide up the day according to when and how we eat. Thus, only the most solitary lives avoid implicating others in food-related activity. But more importantly, when we eat and drink, time slows, the rhythms of the workday must decelerate, making it an ideal time for socializing. (Europeans, historically, have understood this well. Many Americans seem to resent the loss of those precious moments of “productivity”).

Food and wine are so intimately entwined with sociality that they are more than an instrument through which we pursue social relations—they have come to symbolize social relations. It is hard to think about the act of eating without visualizing a table with others present, especially if eating includes certain foods such as roasts, casseroles, and pies that are designed to feed multitudes.

This social dimension of food is the focus of most food writing both academic and popular. Sociologists and anthropologists often view culture through the lens of food production and consumption. In much academic research, food preferences are markers of identity defining us as American, Mexican, or Indian. They are signs of social status indicating our level of income, social connections, or cultural importance compared to others with less refined tastes. Food is a fashion statement that sends a message about how hip or traditional we are. It is a signal that one is committed to certain values such as health or environmentalism, a form of seduction, a public ritual, or vehicle for religious or ceremonial meanings. Thus, according to this research, when we eat, we are not merely enjoying the taste of food, but doing something else that has more significance than mere enjoyment. Food is a symbol system through which social and political meanings are communicated and relationships are enacted.

In popular genres of food writing, the social dimension of food takes precedence as well. Although the characteristics of food hook the reader, where and with whom one is eating and what they say or do become the focus. Often the people who produce the food and their trials and joys take center stage, the pitfalls and challenges of finding and preparing food providing narrative thrust to a story that reveals a form of life. More often than not, popular food writing slides into travel writing giving the reader a way to imagine the intrigue or romance of distant destinations. Thus, food is employed as a kind of stage setting for the unfolding of a human drama. It becomes a metaphor for ruminations about desire, adventure, memory, or romance. While M.F.K Fisher, Jeremy Steinman, or Ruth Reichl excel at describing how food tastes, they are really writing about the social context in which food is produced and consumed.

All of this suggests that the flavor of food is not essential to its social dimension. Although our social gatherings coalesce around food, the meaning of these gatherings does not seem to depend on flavor, at least on the surface. We can enjoy the company of others regardless of how the food tastes. Flavor assists with the narrow purpose of filling the belly, and once that is accomplished it provides the backdrop for whatever social dynamics characterize the gathering and these can be understood independently of the flavor of the food on offer, which produces merely a personal, private, subjective reaction. The ceremonies and rituals around food, the social events that supply food with its meaning, do not depend on the quality of sensations provided by the food and to focus excessively on flavor is to miss the larger significance of these social relations. How many Thanksgiving dinners have featured dry, flavorless turkey, stuffing out of a box and cranberry sauce from a can? Yet the gathering can nevertheless be a success; or so it would seem

But I doubt that this is true. I think flavor plays a more crucial role in social relations than food writing would suggest. Food writers, both academic and popular, focus on stories which are driven by the dynamics of the people involved. Flavor need not be the focus of the narrative but instead it functions at a more fundamental level as a precondition for the narrative—flavor hides in plain site as something we assume without needing to mention it. Yet, without flavor the stories about food could not be told.

Whenever food is provided to anyone, two attitudes are necessary—trust on the part of the recipient of the food and generosity on the part of the provider. (Generosity is less a factor in commercial transactions, a point I discuss below.) Trust is required because we take food into our bodies. We cannot hold food at a distance as we might view visual objects from afar. Thus, our health and welfare depends on taking food only from reliable sources worthy of trust. Generosity is required because acquiring and preparing food involves substantial time, energy, attention, and money. Thus, anyone who provides food to others in a non-commercial context must be willing to give without expectation of getting something in return. The cook or host, although often providing food for herself as well as others, is providing beyond what she needs—she gives more than she gets. The relationship between guest and host is not symmetrical, except at pot luck dinners.

Thus, generosity and trust are core elements of hospitality when providing food and drink to people who are not regular members of our household. The reason why food and drink are intimately bound up with sociality is because sociality requires hospitality. Hospitality may be the most fundamental meaning that food has because every act of social eating takes place only against a background of hospitality—of generosity and trust. Stories about food, therefore, have a subtext of hospitality. It is seldom the focus of the story because it is presupposed unless the norms of hospitality are disrupted.

What does hospitality have to do with flavor? Everything!

Hospitality is not limited to food and drink. The good host is responsible for someone else's well-being in general, providing shelter if necessary, cheering up someone who is down in the dumps or providing diversion to someone who is bored. But this requirement that the guest's well being must be served means that flavor is essential. Hospitality cannot be achieved unless the guest is happy and that means that whatever is served must be enjoyable—it must please the guest. Providing food that someone doesn't like or being indifferent to their tastes is a failure of hospitality.

This, I think, is fairly obvious. But less obvious, though equally important, is the requirement that the food be enjoyable to the host as well! If we do not enjoy our own food then giving it to someone else has little significance because we are not invested in it. The kind of giving involved in hospitality is not like giving spare change to a homeless person or donating money to support a cause. In the context of hospitality, food and drink is not given to confer a benefit on someone. If in lieu of refreshment you wrote your guest a check she would rightfully be insulted, regardless of the benefit the money might confer. Hospitality is a giving of oneself, not only one's time, labor, or money but one's passion, intensity, and sensibility. Hospitality is a genuine welcoming in which one's uniquely essential being is shared. The host gives something of herself, her own sustenance out of genuine concern for her guests.

It is interesting that in restaurants, where the motive may not be generosity but profit, the trappings and rituals of hospitality must still be preserved if the experience is to be satisfying. This includes friendly greetings, a helpful wait staff and a responsive kitchen. (Today, it might mean a perky waitperson pretending to be your best friend ever). In the very best restaurants that survive over the long run, their management maintains more than the trappings of generosity but have a genuine concern that their guests enjoy their food because their own passion and sensibility are invested in it.

Genuine hospitality cannot exist without enjoyment–mutual pleasure is its essence, not a mere by-product.

However, the role of pleasure in anchoring the meaning of food has an even larger significance. It was recognized long ago by the French essayist and gourmand Brillat-Savarin that our food practices are attempts to tame unruly desires and that civilization depends on our success at this endeavor. Adam Gopnik, in The Table Comes First, summarized Brillat-Savarin's writing as follows:

“For Brillat-Savarin, gastronomy is the great adventure of desire. Its subject is simple: the table is the place where a need becomes a want. Something we have to do—eat—becomes something we care to do becomes something we try to do with grace. Eating together is a civilizing act. We take urges, and tame them into tastes.”

The possibility of civilization depends on our ability to take our very powerful desires and submit them to a discipline that encourages socially acceptable patterns of expression. We don't eat like pigs at a trough because the resulting conflict and turmoil regarding something as essential as eating would threaten the foundations of society.

Of course one could argue that it is not a concern with taste that tames desires but the enforcement of manners and social sanctions for violating them that does the work. We learn to share, listen, take turns, and argue without offending at the table where parents can punish violations of social norms. But sanctions and moral disapproval only go so far. The best way to control a desire is by another desire and the desire to savor food in a secure environment with little conflict is a strong one. Once the rituals of the table are in place, diners are then free to consider the aesthetic dimension of food, which then feeds back on those rituals reinforcing the fact that dining has become a fundamentally aesthetic experience. Part of the reason we don't nab food off someone else's plate or grovel face down in the soup bowl is because that is not conducive to enjoying the finer aspects of what one is eating.

Furthermore, good food is something that can be enjoyed across racial, political, and class lines. It can be appreciated despite other differences we may have and thus contributes to social peace. The enjoyment of food requires we direct some attention inward, that we pay attention to our internal psychological states while maintaining contact with others. Conflict and tension interferes with that inward-turning attention. Taste is thus one among several civilizing strategies that make a human life possible and for that strategy to be successful, flavor must matter. Gourmandism is not just fussbudgetry but an activity that strives for a certain kind of control over desires that exemplifies a modest yet very real commitment to civilization.

Thus, flavor does play a central role in the meanings that food has, although it operates below the surface anchoring common expectations that are noteworthy only in the breach. Food cannot play the functional role it plays in our lives unless the norms of hospitality and civilization are upheld, and flavor is crucial to both.

There is therefore a good reason why taste is the sensory modality that is most closely associated with social value. It is essential to the hospitality that makes most social relations possible. Today food has become a kind of medicine, a source of adventure, and on Cable TV a popular spectator sport. But these activities seem only remotely connected to its fundamental meaning as the pleasurable medium through which civilization is enacted.

For more ruminations on the philosophy of food visit Edible Arts.

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