When we eat or drink, we not only modify raw materials, we consume them. Nature is transformed into my energy though the act of consumption. Eating is transubstantiation—I transform what is alien, what is outside myself, into my own substance.
Thus, the satisfactions of eating are correlated with an act of brute force. Does the transmutation of edible nature into the self contribute to its enjoyment? Do we eat to express our exhilaration in possessing the world?
No other activity enables us to possess the world so completely. Eating enacts our dominion over nature and symbolizes that dominion as well. The grip that food has on us, its centrality as an anchor for our sense of belonging, rests on the symbolic meaning of this transubstantiation. We don’t kill to live, but live to kill, since much of our dominion over nature is freely chosen and not a necessity. We need to eat, but we don’t need to eat well. (This is true of vegetarians as well; plants after all are living organisms) This is not to say we get thrills from tromping on tulips. It is not the destruction we enjoy; it is the assimilation, the transubstantiation.
Other animals digest food to get energy. But among all animals only human beings turn necessities into enjoyments freely chosen. Only human beings chose to live decadently and turn our power over nature into a symbol for what we hold dear.
There are many human characteristics that distinguish us from other animals. Rationality has long been a philosophical favorite; the capacity for self-reflection and the use of complex tools are additional candidates for what is distinctly human. The capacity to live decadently is one characteristic among many. We should not privilege this capacity over the others but only add it to the constellation that is a human being.
Food is not a simple enjoyment. It rests on a chasm of deep meaning that we usually pass over in silence.