Too often food and wine are understood as symbols of “the good life”, a life of ease, luxury, sophistication, and refined taste. But this is not quite right. Food and wine are symbols, not of a life of luxury, but of the essence of life itself.
To live is to be surrounded by a sensuous plenum. We live in spaces filled with matter that we continuously interact with—the surfaces we touch, the air we breath, the sounds that surround, the tastes and smells that permeate our environments. Most of the time this sensuous environment goes unnoticed. it slips into the background while we focus on an endless list of specific, practical tasks that occupy our days. Yet that unnoticed environment effects our sense of how we are in the world. When that immersion in sensation is painful life is dreadful. When it is neutral, life feels like a chore because it’s boring. Only when that sensuous medium contains positive stimulation do we feel truly alive.
The small, delicious pleasures of everyday life are essential, because they fill that sensuous medium with positive stimulation that sustains the meaning of life from moment to moment, a consummation of our successful immersion in reality. Happiness is achieved not by grand gestures and heroic deeds but by doing the small things in life well.
Food and wine are among the most accessible of these everyday pleasures. When we eat and drink well, our lives are infused with a continuous source of meaning, minute by minute, hour after hour, day after day.
Those who have discovered this secret live to eat—we do not eat to live.
In Adam Gopnik’s fine book on the meaning of food, The Table Comes First, he opens by describing a condemned prisoner eating his last meal. Gopnik asks “Why do we think of food at times like these?” I’m not sure he gives us an answer.
I would suggest the answer is that food stands as a symbol for our most fundamental connection with reality—our total immersion in a field of sensuality that constitutes life itself.