Unsettling the table

Few experiences define us as human quite like our food practices. To sustain ourselves as living beings, we are required to eat. Cooking is one of the most basic and ancient labours sustaining humanity – perhaps even dating back to pre-Homo sapiens times. Over the last millennia, food practices have evolved from a culture of roasting animal bones over open flame to a one of fast food and juice cleanses.

The relationships between our food practices and other features of our society disclose much about the human condition. Today, these relationships are more invisible, mobile and fluid than ever before. This column will respond to such changes by considering the ways our experiences with food define us.

Humans have always collected, grown, harvested, reared and slaughtered their food within the context of community. These practices directly influenced some of our most basic social formations: agriculture and husbandry created a social practice of procuring and managing food; the familial structure guaranteed the performance of cooking for and eating with others; and language made our food spiritual.

At the same time, food has become an object of numerous pleasures. Alone or in the company of lovers, friends, family and colleagues, we practise an eroticism of food. Eating is often about the sensation of pleasure: jamón ibérico melting in the mouth, fragrant star anise lifting from Taiwanese beef broth, the allure of overripe fruit. We ceaselessly paint, sing, photograph, worship and fantasize about food.

We also discuss food, subject it to critique, recommend, share and document it. As more than mere sensation, our food practices – etiquettes, cuisines, and rituals – are often aligned with the principles and norms that distinguish our cultures.

For example, the western notion of overconsumption is evident in our supersized fast-food culture. However, a certain amount of gluttony during times of harvest can celebrate our relationship with the land that provides our food.

saturday-ac-sept15Food invites us to question both our entertainment (what is it about Buzzfeed Tasty videos that are so erotic?) and the current state of society (why do Tasty videos compel us to cook food too fantastic for supermarket shelves?) My hope with this column is to inspire Epicurean reflection – not only to experience, but to think through the pleasures of food.

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