Saturday, May 23, 2015

Culinary modernism and reflections on aesthetics and virtue

A Plea for Culinary Modernism
Modern, fast, processed food is a disaster. That, at least, is the message conveyed by newspapers and magazines, on television cooking programs, and in prizewinning cookbooks. . . .

[But...] As an historian I cannot accept the account of the past implied by Culinary Luddism, a past sharply divided between good and bad, between the sunny rural days of yore and the gray industrial present. . . .

[M]ost men were born to a life of labor in the fields, most women to a life of grinding, chopping, and cooking. “Servitude,” said my mother as she prepared home­cooked breakfast, dinner, and tea for eight to ten people three hundred and sixty five days a year. . . .

For all, Culinary Modernism had provided what was wanted: food that was processed, preservable, industrial, novel, and fast, the food of the elite at a price everyone could afford. Where modern food became available, populations grew taller, stronger, had fewer diseases, and lived longer. Men had choices other than hard agricultural labor, women other than kneeling at the metate five hours a day.

We have to remember, every second of every day, that we have more than seven billion people to feed, and not a single one of those seven billion is expendable. There is a reason why Whole Foods is mockingly referred to as Whole Paycheck. Luddite, artisanal, non-industrial food is expensive: to consume such food exclusively is to consume more of the labor of others than one could ever replace or repay. Only a privileged few can afford to forego industrial food.

It is one of the arguments of every elite that they are the guardians of (expensive and rare) beauty. David Mura expresses the point eloquently: "There is simply no way, when power has acquired the trappings of beauty, to avoid the spiritual wonder and humility such beauty provides." To destroy the elites is to destroy the beauty only they can embody.

Every egalitarian society is portrayed in fiction and nonfiction as dull and dreary, gray, monotonous, devoid of beauty. More importantly, an egalitarian society must necessarily be devoid of virtue; beauty and virtue are not only closely connected, but actually identical, two apparently different ways of talking about the same thing. Elitism is beautiful, therefore virtuous; egalitarianism is ugly, therefore vicious.

Beauty and virtue are dichotomies. There cannot be beauty without ugliness; there cannot be virtue without vice. Beauty and virtue must be rare: only the exceptional, never the common, can be beautiful or virtuous. An egalitarian society thus can be neither beautiful nor virtuous. Egalitarianism does not (cannot, should not) eliminate exceptionalism (while I admire Vonnegut, Harrison Bergeron is an absurd fantasy), but an egalitarian society must resolutely disconnect both beauty and virtue from exceptionalism.

(The connection between exceptionalism and beauty and virtue is, of course, more complicated. The exceptional is not always beautiful and virtuous, but the beautiful and virtuous must always be exceptional.)

It would be a mistake, I think, even as a tactic, to simply reverse the dichotomy, to construct our social reality such that only the common could be beautiful and virtuous. Somehow, these concepts must (should) simply be disconnected. Common or exceptional, the beautiful and virtuous are what make people happy; the ugly and the vicious are what make people suffer.

In a sense too, everyone is, I think, exceptional. And everyone is common, "normal." Everyone is different in some ways, the same in others. It is only the underlying aesthetic and moral distinctions that raise some differences to exceptions.

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