Why moralism spoils the appetite

Adam Gopnik makes a powerful and entertaining case for why we shouldn’t ruin the aesthetic pleasure of food by adding a side order of moralism.

Kirk Leech

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A few years ago, I found myself eating alfresco in a back garden in Stockwell, London with chef Fergus Henderson, co-founder of the fabulous restaurant cum shrine to meat eating, St John. Henderson, whose first cookbook Nose to Tail Eating sums up his philosophy on food, was asked who he thought was currently the best writer on food. Quick as a flash, he named Adam Gopnik, then a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine.

Gopnik is now an established columnist and writer. In his latest book, The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food, he repays Henderson’s compliment. The title of the book is borrowed from a conversation he had with Henderson, who said: ‘I don’t understand how a young couple can begin life by buying a sofa or a television. Don’t they know the table comes first?’

It is an ambitious book, part memoir, part cultural history, part journalism; it is pulled off with remarkable aplomb. It begins as a culinary disquisition on restaurant history. Gopnik places the birthplace of the modern restaurant in revolutionary Paris, following a decree in 1789 allowing wine and coffee to be served under the same roof. Expanding on this theme, he accounts for the mediocrity of British cooking through our favouring of the pub over the café and the historical segregation of the consumption of alcohol and caffeine.

The book is also a philosophical tasting menu on our modern obsession with food. Gopnik believes that, ‘Having made food a more fashionable object, we have ended by making eating a smaller subject.’ When ‘gastronomy’ was on the margins of attention it helped explain much: ‘the nature of hunger; the meaning of appetite; the patterns and traces of desire; tradition, in the way that recipes are passed mother to son’; and ‘history, in the way that spices mix and, in mixing, mix peoples’. You could picture, ‘through the modest lens of pleasure, as through a keyhole, a whole world’. Now, he writes, ‘the door is wide open, but somehow we see less, or notice less’. Betrayed by its exposure, ‘food becomes less intimate the more intensely it is made to matter’.

Gopnik is on to something here. Eating is one of life’s most enjoyable sensations. It’s fun and life-enhancing. Yet today, the pleasure of eating is increasingly weighed down with anxiety. Eating, once a relatively uncomplicated activity for many of us, has become laden with ethical and moral meaning and which has been tasked with grandiose political purpose.

Last year, a group of the world’s top chefs – including René Redzepi of Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, Ferran Adrià of Spain’s recently-closed El Bulli and Michel Bras, of his eponymous restaurant in Aubrac, France – came up with a plan to save the planet through changing the way they cook, and the way we eat. Their Open Letter to the Chefs of Tomorrow spelled out duties towards nature, society, ethics and development: ‘We all have a responsibility to know and protect nature… we dream of a future in which the chef is socially engaged, conscious of and responsible for his or her contribution to a just and sustainable society… through our cooking, our ethics and our aesthetics, we can contribute to the culture and identity of a people, a region, a country… we practise a profession that has the power to affect the socio-economic development of others.’

Gopnik has labelled this fixation on food as ‘gastronomia’. For him, ‘Food has become an increasingly obsessive subject with all of us’. We are being increasingly urged to see every taste as a moral test. ‘We have to ethicise. All of our food becomes a lesson, a parable’, he argues. For a growing number of people, making the correct moral food choice allows entry into a social complex of alternative production, distribution and consumption – farmers’ markets, organic lifestyles, co-ops, independent restaurants and stores. Moral consumption is seen as the keys to the door into a better society, a welcome change to the often dismal choices typically posed by environmentalism, which most of the time seems to ask people to give up things they like.

Simon Kuper, writing in the Financial Times, has noticed a similar trend in the growing middle-class obsession, particularly strong in Britain, of eating so called ‘natural food’. The stuff once eaten by peasants is, ironically, now consumed to distinguish one from the masses and to show one’s moral worth. He recounts seeing members of the educated middle classes ‘buying raw food’, often still growing as they put it into their shopping trolleys, adding that they take cookery classes with the ease that earlier generations took art classes. For Kuper, the consumption of peasant food, with its supposed ‘natural and ethical components’, is the marker of having attained educated middle-class status.

Through their purchases, these consumers are consciously seeking to affirm and demarcate themselves from the rest of society. Those who purchase ethically believe that they are more ethical than those who don’t. The chapter in The Table Comes First where Gopnik tries to eat only locally sourced food – bashing a few tenets of those who promote a locavore’s life – is a particular treat with regard to this.

Ethical consumption is an act of acute narcissism. It’s all about casting a positive light on one’s self. As Jay Rayner, food critic for the Guardian, discovered when he visited a farmers’ market in London: ‘Wandering from the artisan breadmaker to the cheese guy to the bloke who only sells beef from wild cattle that are slaughtered lovingly… feels like a sacrament, a physical expression of an ideology. It’s like Hare Krishna’s donning the saffron robes – an outward expression of a belief.’

By viewing the acquisition and consumption of food as an ethical and moral act, we diminish the fundamental pleasure that eating food provides us. By attaching social worth and political meaning to what we eat, and hoping that consumption can make the world a better place, we will not only fail to improve the world, but in the process lose the essential fact that eating should be about enjoyment.

Eating should be seen as pleasure and not penance; something that brings happiness and joy rather than anxiety. Gopnik has made a strong case for eating to be a solely gustatory experience. I’ll have a slice of that.

Kirk Leech works in government affairs for the (ABPI) Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry.

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