Title: Rules for Eating: Culinary Philosophies from J. J. Rousseau to Michael Pollan
Date: April 13, 2015
Location: NYU, Department of Nutrition

Rachel Laudan’s talk began with a provocative question, “What does Rousseau have to do with contemporary food?” Pointing out that Michael Pollan, in his 2008 book In Defense of Food, laid down three rules: “Eat Food. Not too much. Mainly plants.” Laudan went on to show that those rules, now so prominent in contemporary ways of thinking about food, are, “a 250 year update of what was going on in the 18th century.”

She described the development of three parallel culinary philosophies practiced since the mid-18th century, which she called the Monarchical/Republican, the Communitarian/ Socialist, and the Romantic. She examined the conflicting and competing rules for cooking and eating propounded by these three ways of thinking about food, and compared these rules with contemporary views about what is good to eat and how it should be prepared and consumed.

The Monarchical/Republican culinary philosophy which Laudan argued is still the mainstream culinary philosophy today, is defined by a reliance on highly refined food, cooked to get at its essence. Monarchical culinary philosophy involved practices such as the state dinner seated by rank, and heavy meals with rare and costly ingredients. Over time the philosophy evolved and eventually French cuisine, with its refined techniques for dessert, and sauces was taken up as a route to develop plain food for Republican citizens and is today still the culinary philosophy of many states and nations.

Laudan described the Communitarian or socialist philosophy as one that features food that is communally grown, cooked, and eaten. Like the Republican philosophy of food, communitarian principles are taken up by entire nations, for example Israel, the Soviet Union and China.

Laudan illustrated the third culinary philosophy, the Romantic, with a quote from Elizabeth David describing the perfect meal, a picnic, “It is summer, you are on holiday, you are in company of your own choosing. You can smell wild fennel and thyme, dry resinous pine needles, the sea. For my part, I can think of no greater luxury.” This philosophy elevates the natural state of food in its unprocessed, and even uncooked state.

The Romantic is the culinary tradition of Rousseau, and also of many contemporary food philosophers, including Michael Pollan. Laudan said, “Everybody’s’ problems are somebody’s earlier solution. Our problem is that we don’t want the cheap, abundant food that came with a rival system. We are arguing for food with fewer intermediaries.”

Concluding, Laudan pointed out that the Romantic culinary philosophy, although prevalent just now, has not been taken up by states. “If we want to eat like Rousseau, we can choose to,” said Laudan. What matters, “is not our personal styles which we have the freedom of choice for, it’s where we go politically.”