Philosophers have not had a great deal to say about food and eating. What little they have said has tended towards the dismissive. Aristotle, for instance, thought that since eating involved the “servile and brutish” senses of touch and taste, it created only base “pleasures as brutes also share in”. Plato did not credit the work of the chef as on a par with other artists because, as Socrates put it in the Gorgias, “Cookery, in attending upon pleasure, never regards either the nature or reason of that pleasure to which she devotes herself, but goes straight to her end.”
Both these founding giants of philosophy assumed that eating was an essentially animalistic act, one that did not do justice to our intellectual nature. And yet I seemed to be very far from the field or the farmyard when I met the philosophers Barry Smith and Tim Crane at St John in London to talk about food and philosophy over dinner. There were no noses in troughs of swill or grain here, but a good few hours of conversation and appreciative enjoyment of skilfully cooked food and beautifully crafted wine.
Despite the official disdain for the pleasures of the table, philosophers throughout history have often shown themselves to be more than a little interested in good meals. Albert Camus’s last meal, before he got into the car that crashed and killed him, was at Au Chapon Fin at Thoissey, then one of France’s top restaurants. A J Ayer ate at the high-class Ivy in London. David Hume claimed he had a “great talent for cookery”, boasting that when it comes to beef, cabbage, old mutton and old claret, “Nobody excels me”, and that one person who tried his sheep’s-head broth couldn’t stop talking about for it eight days.
It seems that Aristotle, Plato and many who followed missed an important distinction made by the French revolutionary era food writer Jean Anthleme Brillat-Savarin. “Animals feed; man eats”, he wrote. “Only a man of intellect knows how to eat.”
“Choosing a little bit of everything, being discriminating and exercising good taste and judgement is different from gluttony,” says Smith, over starters of lamb tongues, shrimp and cabbage, and brown crabmeat on sourdough toast. “So if you think philosophers should be interested in the mind, you don’t want them to just be stuffing themselves, indulging, bingeing out. But I think people who are interested in food are not bingeing. The people who are bingeing are the people who are not getting enough pleasure and enjoyment from their food, so they’re constantly seeking gratification: ‘That didn’t work, give me another doughnut.’ If you have something delicious and well-made, you’re satisfied. If I drink a poor wine I keep glugging at it to try to extract goodness from it, so I drink far more than something good.”
We can feed mindlessly like animals, but Smith is pointing out that when humans eat with discrimination and attention, they are doing something very different, which involves using those cognitive powers which philosophers have so rightly valued. And if you think about it, why would it be better to squander those capacities by failing to use them when we eat? To do that would appear to artificially discriminate against those spheres of aesthetic judgement that most obviously involve the body, when it is of course the case that the ear and the eye are just as much physical organs as the tongue and nose.
“You’re choosy about what music you listen to, you’re choosy about what books you read,” says Smith. “Why not be choosy about what food you eat? If you start to downgrade it, you’re letting lots of your experience rush by as though it didn’t matter. That’s a very utilitarian view – food is fuel. I don’t see why that should be the right way to think.
“In the eighteenth century, though sneered at since, Hume was rightly convinced that if you could discriminate in your food, in your meat and drink, that discrimination could apply to finer things. There’s a continuum.
“The reason that fell out of favour is that people thought in the end: we won’t trust our own judgement, there will be those who pronounce on what’s right and good, the connoisseurs. Connoisseurship was a kind of snobbery. But that wasn’t Hume’s idea at all. Good judges were free from prejudice, unclouded.”
Many people are very sceptical about the possibility of exercising meaningful aesthetic judgement when it comes to food. Isn’t it all simply a question of what you like, and as the ancient saying goes, De gustibus non est disputandum: there is no disputing taste? Crane disagrees. “Often people don’t distinguish between something being good and them liking it. I think there’s lots of music that is good, even brilliant, that I don’t like.”
Smith concurs. “A lot of people, if you give them a glass of wine and say what do you think, they’ll say ‘I like it’. You say, ‘No, no, that’s about you – what do you think of the wine?’ Now they’ve got to concentrate. If the point is how pleasurable was it, in the end it doesn’t matter what the ways of getting there were. That’s why, if you became too focused on just ‘Did I like it?’ you’re missing the joy of the travelling. It’s got to be about how I got there and just not where I got. For example, as soon as you tasted the crab you said, ‘That’s good, that’s not just brown crab, what did they do to it?’ Now you’re paying attention to the food. And I think it’s hard to pay attention to the food when you’re just trying to get your hedonic rating.”
In the case of our food and the Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley estate of Jean Pierre Robinot that accompanies it, the difference between quality and liking is thankfully hypothetical. I have, however, found that many people are extremely suspicious of any such intellectualisation of eating. They suspect that all talk of developed palates or superior food is a kind of snobbery or self-serving justification for indulgence.
“Suspicion has to be based on knowledge,” counters Crane. “I don’t respect people who say things are bullshit if they don’t know what makes it bullshit. It’s like saying philosophy is bullshit. There is a lot of philosophers’ bullshit, but you’ve got to know what’s bullshit and what isn’t.”
Of course, that is not to say that there isn’t a great deal of snobbery in the food world. “Snobbery is valuing something that shouldn’t be valued, which isn’t really a source of value. It has to be some kind of mistake,” agrees Crane. “I think there is genuine wine snobbery, which is making judgements by reputation or price. However, if someone knows a lot about wine and imposes those standards on other people, it doesn’t make them a snob, but it might make them a bore.” Ever the philosopher, Crane even has a technical definition of a bore: “a person who talks about something whether or not you’re interested in it and whether or not they believe you’re interested in it.”
Our dinner is certainly bolstering my conviction that good eating can bring together body and mind in ways which do justice to their genuinely integrated nature. Philosophers, however, have tended to downplay the physical, preferring to exalt the intellectual as more indicative of our true nature, dismissing the sensual as though it were an inconvenient necessity.
But “why do we think the mind is so separate from the body?” asks Smith. “Why do we think how the mind functions is going to be so disconnected? That’s a Cartesian hangover.”
“Although,” adds Crane, “Descartes of course said ‘I am not lodged in my body like a pilot in a ship, I am everywhere intimately connected with it. So I form, so to speak, a unity with my body.’”
Our main courses provide further opportunities to consider some specific ways in which food has its particular aesthetic. We have ordered mallard, braised veal and venison offal, good examples of dishes which no matter how brilliantly cooked, some will just not like. Nor is this a place for those who, as Crane says, “go to a restaurant to see a certain kind of culinary wizardry”. But really good cooking is not always about ostentatious creativity. “St John is all about doing simple things incredibly well, so that they become exceptional,” says Smith. It is remarkably difficult to do this, and part of the pleasure of coming to a restaurant where they pull it off is appreciating this. “You want to taste something that you couldn’t actually do,” says Smith. “That’s what’s really good about the best restaurant experiences. You’re almost appreciating the skill of what somebody’s doing for you.”
Our plates of animal flesh also invite questions about the morality of food sourcing. St John prides itself on its adherence to the “nose to tail” philosophy of its founder Fergus Henderson. To kill an animal for its flesh and then not to eat it all is to show a disregard for the value of its life. Henderson also proves with his cooking that the less fashionable bits of animals can be extremely tasty. “Spleen actually smells like you’re in love,” he told me when I interviewed him. “It’s the most romantic organ. It’s something that needs to be cooked tenderly with love and care.”
Animal rights is not an issue we’re spending much time discussing, but one thing that certainly is true is that if you do pay attention to what you eat, that should require thinking about where it comes from as well as what it tastes like, and that should involve consideration for how animals are reared. But I agree with Smith when he says “Animal welfare has very little to do with whether you eat it or not.” The lacto-vegetarian who does not take care to source dairy products from high-welfare farms is almost certainly contributing more to the sum of animal suffering than the carnivore who eats the kind of well-reared meat on offer at St John.
As we order dessert, the meal moves towards its end. For me it has exemplified perfectly how thinking and eating make for perfect companions, and how the most intelligent and acute of philosophers can be as at home at the table as they are in the lecture theatre. The “moralistic nerds”, as Smith describes them, who think that good eating is unbecoming of a philosopher, are surely wrong. Smith believes that this tribe comprises many “great friends of Kant”, whom we usually think of as “utterly convinced of the life of the mind, a bit of a poster boy for the ascetic minimalist and denialists of the flesh.” And yet, as Smith points out, “Kant actually had views about wine, he liked canary wine, he thought that people who didn’t know about wine were deficient, and that dinners were the ideal place to bring out the best conversations and discussions.” Indeed, in his lectures on ethics, Kant even said, “People who are otherwise hard-hearted become, through intoxication, good-humoured, communicative and benign.”
A plate of Eccles Cake and Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire Cheese arrives, an alchemic combination of apparently mundane elements. The dish has a perhaps unexpected link with Kant. According to Kant’s friend and biographer E A C Wasianski, Kant’s deteriorating health towards the end of his life was exacerbated by a poor diet containing too many English Cheddar sandwiches, which is Mrs Kirkham’s style of cheese. On 7 October 1803 he indulged his craving more than usual. The next morning, out for a walk, he lost consciousness and fell. Another biographer, Manfred Kuehn, suggests, “The excitement over the forbidden food might have raised his blood pressure and brought on the stroke.” Kant was never the same again and he died on 11 February 1804, his last words being, “Es ist gut”. (It is good.) This was not a judgement on his life or work but on the bread and wine he had just been given by Wasianski.
There is something wonderful about the most basic trio of cheese, bread and wine playing a leading role in the last days of one of the greatest thinkers in history. Food can bring even Kant right down to earth. And this has more relevance to his philosophy than might at first appear. In his famous essay “What Is Enlightenment?”, Kant answered that it was “man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance.” He implored his readers, “Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) Have the courage to use your own understanding,’ is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.”
If you thought this exhortation applied only to weighty, intellectual matters, you’d be wrong. Enlightenment requires “freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters”. Kant offers “a physician who prescribes my diet” as an example of a lazy reliance on authority. Deferring to him means “I have no need to exert myself. I have no need to think, if only I can pay; others will take care of that disagreeable business for me.”
As Crane and Smith have so well demonstrated, there is no reason why we ought not to apply our reason and independence of thought to food and drink, and by so doing transform the necessity of feeding into the rich experience of cooking and eating.
The bill arrives, and being a good quality London restaurant, it is not small. This is another red rag to the ascetic bulls, but Smith does not believe we have anything to apologise for. “There’s an ideological prejudice against paying for food. I find that many people who complain to me about wine are also people who will pay huge amounts of money to see a premier league football match.”
Indeed, the more you dig into the lives of philosophers, the more you find that even the most enthusiastic emphasisers of the mind liked a good slap-up supper as much as the next person. The British polymath William Kitchiner captured this beautifully in The Cook’s Oracle of 1830: “Those cynical slaves who are so silly as to suppose it unbecoming a wise man to indulge in the common comforts of life, should be answered in the words of the French philosopher. ‘Hey – what, do you philosophers eat dainties?’ said a gay Marquess. ‘Do you think,’ replied Descartes, ‘that God made good things only for fools?’”