Food and Philosophy: Eat, Think and be Merry

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Food and Philosophy: Eat, Think, and be Merry Edited by Fritz Allhoff, Edited by Dave Monroe, book reviewI’ve worked in the food industry for nearly 15 years. I think I’m quite a thoughtful and philosophical soul. So the idea of a book on Food and Philosophy appealed to me. However, perhaps I’d been expecting something a bit ‘lighter’; a bit more ‘Food for Dummies’ perhaps. I’d not really prepared myself for a highly academic treatment on the subject of food. I tried to read it in bed, I tried to read it in the bath but I never really found the time and place to get the most of this book.

In the introduction to the book the editors – Fritz Allhoff and Dave Monroe – suggest that the reader can treat the book as a menu from which choose the courses that interest them. This gave me permission to pick and choose and avoided a sense that I should feel obliged to gorge on the entire book. This was a good thing because I doubt that every essay in this collection will appeal to every reader. I dipped in and out taking dishes that appealed, started a few and pushed the plate back across the table when they didn’t suit my palate.

It’s not that I don’t read non-fiction; I do. But most of my non-fiction tends towards historical biography or accounts of big historical events. Reading Food and Philosophy felt a bit too much like being at work. Some of the essays grabbed and held my attention but these were the exceptions rather than the rule. In the Appetizers section I gobbled up the essays on Vegetarianism and Eating Disorders but rejected the section on Epicurus. And let’s go back to that word ‘Appetizer’ – why the irritating Z? Further examination of the profiles of the authors soon set me straight that despite being a Blackwell Publishing book the authors are almost all American academics. Sorry guys but that was a turn off for me. Too many writers who’ve had any sense of humour surgically removed.

I perked up briefly in Michael Shaffer’s essay on taste when he raised the topic of ‘Phenol Tasters’ – people who perceive phenolic compounds as bitter when most of the population don’t. I’d come across similar ideas when I worked in the flavour industry and, as one of those who’s very susceptible to bitterness, I thought he might have some answers for me. Perhaps he did but a couple of paragraphs in it was just too intellectualised for me and I skipped on in search of something more accessible. Jeremy Iggers’ chapter on the power of branding hooked me all the way through with its insights into why people eat at Burger King and introduce the concept of Gastroporn which will be familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a Marks and Spencer’s food advert – “This is not just food, it’s gussied up food with a deeply voiced porn-star style voice over”. You know the ones I mean! Fabio Parasecoli fascinated me with his treatment of food and associated memory – going beyond Proust and his madeleines into a host of other examples from literature.

As one who eats with my nose and my mouth and not generally my eyes, the essays on food aesthetics didn’t work well for me. “Is food art?” they ask. “Shut up and eat”, I reply. Carolyn Korsmeyer asks one of life’s big questions – how did anyone discover you can eat an artichoke? This should be funny but isn’t. It’s like how did birds discover they could fly. She goes on to touch on some of the more disgusting things people have eaten – quoting for example a passage of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain where the protagonists eat roasted squirrel. What can I say? My cat Baloo catches and eats them raw.

Things picked up in the section on ethics and morality which touched on whether we should and whether we can eat ethically, whether it’s a moral issue to be ‘picky’ about food (the Brussel sprout manufacturers will be following that one perhaps) , GMOs and their place in food (a bigger issue in the USA where they’ve lost the battle on that one but pretty out of touch with European legislation), a chapter on hunting. Then I got lost again as we hit the final section in which I struggled to find a theme.

Finally, like an exquisite little after dinner chocolate served beside your coffee that makes you wish the whole meal had been as good as that final mouthful, we get a rare treat. “Thus Ate Zarathustra” by Woody Allen stands out as a little bit of slightly lighter relief after the heavy meal that went before. But for me this was a bit too little too late – I was stuffed on the chapters before, uncomfortably full of ideas and arguments and finishing the book was a clear indication of the need to take an Alka Seltzer and go and lie down in a darkened room.

Whilst Food and Philosophy undoubtedly gathers together a lot of thought and discussion, it’s not an easy read – in fact I’m not sure who it’s for if not the same type of academics who submitted the material for it. I hoped for entertainment and enlightenment but it just left me feeling a bit stupid and a lot bored. Sorry but this wasn’t the book for me.

Food and Philosophy: Eat, Think and be Merry edited by Fritz Allhoff and Dave Monroe
Published by John Wiley & Sons, 320 pages
Thanks to the publisher for a free review copy.


Buy book online
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Food and Philosophy: Eat, Think and be Merry
by Fritz Allhoff and Dave Monroe

One Comment on "Food and Philosophy: Eat, Think and be Merry"

  1. eilidhcatriona
    08/11/2010 at 15:35 Permalink

    I would have had exactly the same expectations of this book – something lightweight but intellectual, something to read while thinking about tasty food, and probably fairly lighthearted. And as for Gastroporn – M&S have toned it down lately, which is good news for my bank balance and my waistline.

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Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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