There are lots of hard problems that require our thoughtful attention—poverty, climate change, quantum entanglement, or how to make a living, just for starters. But food and wine? Worthy of thought?
On the surface it looks like there are only three questions worth considering when it comes to food and wine: Do you have enough? Is it nutritious? And does it taste good? If you have the wherewithal to read this you probably have enough food. Questions of nutrition can be answered by consulting your doctor or favorite nutritionist. And surely it doesn’t take thought to figure out what tastes good.
But when we look at food a bit more deeply we find some important issues lurking beneath the surface. Some of the aforementioned “hard problems” have a lot to do with food. Our food distribution networks are anything but fair leaving many people without enough to eat; and our food production and consumption patterns are environmentally unsustainable in part because of their impact on climate change, as well as the disruption of water supplies caused by global warming. How we farm, what we eat, and how we cook have important social, political, and ethical ramifications—ramifications so important that we cannot think of these issues as purely private matters any longer.
But without minimizing the importance of these issues, I want to suggest that questions about what tastes good and why should occupy much more of our thoughtful attention than it does.
The aesthetics of taste are important because I don’t think one can live well in our world without taking an interest in the aesthetics of everyday life; and because food and wine are among the most accessible and satisfying everyday experiences, we should care about them much more than we do.
Why is the aesthetics of everyday life so important? This famous quote from the film Fight Club provides the experiential background:
Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so
we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be
millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact.And we’re very, very pissed off.” (Taken from Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club.)
Most Americans live lives that are highly regulated and standardized, governed by norms of efficiency and profit that crowd out any other value; and these norms increasingly colonize our home life as well thanks to intrusive media technologies. We tend to work long hours at boring, repetitive jobs, that demand our full attention–in order to make someone else rich. That is, if your job is not outsourced to a machine.
Everyone needs a way to resist these demands, a place where beauty, pleasure and attention to things that have intrinsic value occupy our attention. Finding extraordinary meaning in simple things like a meal or a bottle of wine is the most accessible path to a good life in this damaged world. This is not a new thought—ancient sages from the Buddha to Epicurus had similar notions. But it is more relevant now than ever in human history,
Of course the character in Fight Club creates a place where men get together and punch each other to feel better about their limited lives. I guess that is “aesthetics” of a sort—a sensory experience no doubt. But we can probably do better by seeking a form of beauty not tainted by violence.
Yet such a commitment means we must refuse to accept what is false and inauthentic, that we recognize and block the strategies of our corporate masters when they manipulate our desires. When we outsource our practical reasoning to marketers our desires are not our own. The only antidote to such outsourcing is critical thought and a mind sufficiently open to fully appreciate what is before us, as food and drink almost always is.
As Epicurus said “Not what we have but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance.”