A Philosophy of Food (or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Turkey)

There was a point in time very early in my life, maybe around 4 or 5 years old, when I was way too skinny. I was always a picky eater, and somewhere along the way I developed a pretty severe germophobia (which I have since gotten over apart from a few relapses). Understandably, as a result I had trouble finding food appealing. Slowly, though, I began to eat more and more of the foods I did like, and by the time I was around 8 years old, I was obese.

After 10 or so years of that, I decided to lose a lot of weight very suddenly. After a lot of research and a few failed attempts, I managed to finally drop the pounds using a mixture of tiny portions and weird diets. The key thing that made me successful, though, was the change of mindset. I stopped thinking of food as a luxury, and started thinking of it as a necessity. It was the moment I made an important distinction that we have to force ourselves to make many times in our lives between what we want and what we need. In a very stripped down form, this was my change of heart:

Fat mindset: This food tastes good. I keep eating and it just doesn’t stop tasting good.

Fit mindset: I’ve consumed enough calories for today. Food is just fleeting happiness anyway.

Of course, this information is obvious. It’s a classic battle between pathos and logos, id and superego, mind and matter. The problem is that this view over-simplifies the whole situation — but on the other hand, it is exactly the view that enabled me to accomplish my goals.

My thought process was something like this: I rarely remember what I’ve eaten even a week afterwards, and even then I rarely remember all the details. I’m not particularly good at cooking, nor do I have a particularly refined palette in terms of specificity or diversity. In short, food seemed to me nothing more than a temporary hit of euphoria. The fat/fit distinction mentioned earlier follows almost immediately from this logic. Either you give in to the immediate temptation and eat until your sense of fullness, guilt, or self-loathing overpowers the feeling, or you tell yourself it doesn’t really matter and try to enjoy eating as little as possible.

When you have such an abusive relationship with food — as many Americans do, I can tell you — it’s very easy to overeat. You could also use this information to approach diet in a logical, utilitarian way, at the cost of never allowing yourself to enjoy a meal ever again. What actually happens in practice for most people is an endless cycle of extreme dieting, followed by binge-eating. It’s a pattern I’ve gone through myself, and it’s gotten me in the best shape of my life multiple times.

But this is ignoring the whole point. The “food is fuel” mantra misses out on most of the reasons why we eat. Sure, in the most basic sense, we need to eat to live. But if that were true, there would be no five-star restaurants — after all, we don’t splurge on other necessities like gourmet toothpaste and designer toilet paper. There wouldn’t be any specialty coffee drinks either — after all, it’s way more economical to consume all calories in a solid form. There wouldn’t be a Food Network at all — no one needs to spend hours of their day learning how to cook a potato when they can just bake it and have a perfectly nutritious meal. And why, on a perfectly good day like today when people hurl themselves halfway across the world just to be with their families, do we spend most of the day cooking food?

The answer, of course, is that food means more to us than simply filling our stomachs. Even if we take a purely clinical view of what food can provide, we discover that food has wide ranging impacts on our psyche. Aside from its importance to one’s health, food can serve at least six other completely different functions that I can think of:

  • A cure for boredom
  • A source of comfort
  • A vessel for sharing culture, history, or tradition
  • A source of worthwhile art
  • A sign of social capital
  • A gift to others

With these categories, we can at least begin to construct a healthier relationship with food — which I’d argue is far more important to our daily lives than we give it credit for. After all, you are what you eat.

I don’t think this list is exhaustive, but I think it’s got pretty good coverage. The goal now is now to systematically come up with a balanced, internally consistent approach to food.

I’ve been guilty many times of eating when I have nothing else to do. This habit is most egregious at parties or social functions, where I repeatedly head over to the chips to have something to do in between conversations. Talk, nod, chip, dip. Talk, nod, chip, dip. The same is true with meetings. Got nothing to say? Take a pensive sip of coffee, and try to look as French as possible while doing it. I’ve had weeks where while TAing math lectures, I’ve downed 2 or 3 cups of coffee in between sentences without even noticing.

This is obviously not the correct way to approach food, as it looks at the whole experience of eating as a habit rather than an ordinary behavior. One distinguishing property of habits, is that they go often go unnoticed. Once we notice them, however, we generally have control over the situation (this one of the major difference in psychology between habits and addiction). This leads naturally to my first point.

Rule #1: Think Before You Eat

FOOD AS A SOURCE OF COMFORT:

The act of eating is a far more complex process than we give it credit for. Studies show that food that looks better tastes better, and there’s at least 5 distinct flavors our taste buds can experience, as well as a myriad of textures. Apart from the purely physical aspect of food, though, we also experience some emotional impact. Food, by nature of its smells and tastes, is incredibly good at provoking memories. It can also provide the shot of dopamine you need on a bad day, not to mention the odd phenomenon of food cravings, when you hunger not just for food, but for a specific kind of food (can you imagine a dog craving anything besides…well…everything?) In the same way that any experience that can manipulate our psyche can be used to provide a form of therapy, food can provide this as well. What’s important is that we apply this information mindfully, with a focus on causes and effects.

Because on nightmarish traveling days like today, my five minutes with a lemon scone in the middle of Penn Station made all the difference.

Rule #2: Think While You Eat

FOOD AS ART:

I recently watched Netflix’s “Chef’s Table”, which if you haven’t seen it already, is pretty brilliant. The director is David Gelb, who you may know from Jiro Dreams of Sushi, but that’s obvious from just the intro: beautiful close-up shots of food in slow motion, accompanied by Winter from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Interestingly enough, this show, unlike Jiro, focuses mostly on the chefs themselves rather than the food, although the end of each episode treats the viewer to a barrage of the aforementioned slow motion close-ups. The heart of the show is each chef’s inspiration, philosophy, and relationships with others.

If you’re anything like me, and you haven’t ever paid attention to the bizarre world of high-level cooking, this show could completely change the way you look at food. The chefs approach their dishes with as much passion as any author, painter, or composer, and if you look close enough, you can see the artistry shine through. Like all art, cooking at this level is a constant dialogue between an artist and his or her past, a journey in which the artist discovers themselves and finds a way to both respect their influences and make an original statement. If you can appreciate art at all, you can appreciate this kind of cooking. On a smaller scale, the sheer technique and knowledge that you’ll witness at your local coffee shop is emblematic of the hard work that goes into cuisine in general. I’m not saying you have to marvel at the hoagie-wrapping skill of the employees at your local Wawa, but sometimes it’s important to understand that like most things, food can be elevated to an art.

Rule #3: Respect The Chef

FOOD AS CULTURE:

In that show, the chef Dan Barber shares his interesting take on the history of American food. He remarks that when settlers first arrived in the New World, once they got those pesky Indians out of the way, they were overwhelmed by an incredible abundance of food. The cuisine of our country, if you could call it that, reflects this history. Food in America is judged primarily on quantity, and not quality, and everything from hot sauce to Doritos emphasizes just how extreme the flavors are (unbearably hot; unbelievably crunchy).

But for most nations, the history of food is a history of scarcity. The Native Americans famously used every part of the buffalo. Indians don’t eat cows out of respect for how much they provide. Almost every country’s cuisine has invented hundreds of ways of preserving food — pickling, salt preservation, etc. We didn’t always live in an era where food is easy to come by no matter the season or the place, and to this day child poverty is a huge problem — which is why it’s important to take to heart what food can teach you about scarcity and our relationship with the environment. When you eat food from a different culture, at least try to understand what it’s telling you.

Rule #4: Try to Find the Message

FOOD AS SOCIAL CAPITAL:

Food has a way of becoming one of the easiest ways to show off your conspicuous consumption. I’ll never forget a moment I shared at CVS with a wealthy friend a few years ago. We were both thirsty, so I grabbed a Poland Spring water (because that’s what was the cheapest). He instead grabbed a glossy water bottle, with some nonsense about minerals printed on the front and an attractive design. Someone who, like me, believes that water is just water, asked him why he chose to pay so much for the premium water bottle. My friend responded matter-of-factly that he had an image to adhere to.

In a way, food has always been fashion. This is absolutely ridiculous. It’s not that I think that we shouldn’t think about what we’re eating –as I have already said, food is not just food, and if it matters to you that your food is organic, vegan, fair trade, or ethically sourced, then those are questions you should ask. But dishes like lobster started out as prison food and ended up as gourmet seafood, and I’ve had enough instant coffee in my life to know that good beans can do bad things, so I have a hard time believing that reputation is any indicator of quality. Like with most things in life, impressing people with your eating habits just isn’t worth it. Nothing to be learned here.

FOOD AS A GIFT:

Giving food as a gift is one of culture’s most ancient rituals. Every culture has some sort of feast or festival in the late autumn to celebrate abundance and share with others (in a way, modern American Thanksgiving paints itself as a continuation of such a festival between the Native Americans and the colonists, though that was not the original intent of the holiday). The first dowries were food or the promise of food. The first concept of insurance was invented to deal with poor harvests. Giving food as a gift is important because for centuries, that has been one of the central mechanisms for for how we express gratitude and strengthen social ties and communities. To this day, most people would agree that when someone cooks for you, it touches you in a certain indescribable way.

It’s important to remember this information and to utilize our relationship with food to complement our social relationships. Sharing food and cooking with others is a tried and true technique. Let us not forget, in the era of convenience store florists and 24/7 McDonalds, that sometimes the easiest way to get to someone’s heart is through their stomach.

Rule #5: If It Tastes Good, Share It

I hesitate to use the word “post-scarcity society”, but we’re doing well enough that it’s time to start thinking about what comes next (as philosopher Alain de Botton noted, there’s nothing more to be done in the field of breakfast cereals). These are first world problems, sure, but they are problems that matter to millions of people already, and all things considered, they haven’t been given nearly enough thought. It’s time to start thinking not just about the practical aspects of food, but about the philosophy of food and all the ways it makes up our social reality. As with most things in life, after we’ve figured out how, we really ought to be asking why.