Food and pleasure

It is surely significant that people with all the money necessary to feed themselves and those they care about more than adequately nevertheless seek to reserve to themselves the privilege of the chase.



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Food and pleasure

(From Lionel Tiger's 'The Pursuit of Pleasure')

I Hereby Sentence You to Dinner in the Cafeteria

It is merely banal or redundant to announce that nutritious food should also be tasty and offered to diners under agreeable conditions. But this hasn't governed the catering for countless schools, prisons, hospitals, and even private kitchens in which convenience, habit, and sufficiency loom larger than pleasure and invention. I was once told by the Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson that he wanted very badly to design a hospital, along the lines defined by the classical Greeks. Sick people should have the most beautiful architecture, the best clothing, the most interesting artwork, and the most delicious food. After all, they are ill and need it most. An elegant idea, it took the industrial world's medical system many years to realize that a sense of treatment as punishment was not helpful to patient recovery. Meanness can cost more, too, because patients recover less quickly. There is little reason why the same Greek principle should not extend to the healthy; pleasure is not only desirable but, as I have tried to define it, is also an evolutionary entitlement. Not only that. Where food is concerned and simple survival is not the issue, its taste and meaning, and its art, may loom far larger than nutrition. This can run easily to foolish extreme. The remarkable American gastronomic writer M. F. K. Fisher describes how during the fatal reign of Louis XVI of France, humble cow's milk became a fine delicacy when it was expressed and presented by aristocratic ladies. Evidently, the more adventurous not only offered the milk but provided their admirers with porcelain drinking cups made from impressions of their breasts. The gruff Napoleon who followed later on and who had other priorities soon extinguished this folderol of food. But the principle of embellishing nutrients stands. Pleasure remains a principal goal.

Gone Fishin'

It has been wistfully observed that the heart is a lonely hunter. But human beings are not lonely hunters or lonely gatherers. While the move to agriculture some ten thousand years ago required our ancestors to complicate their social arrangements drastically, even hunters and gatherers lead strongly complex social lives and in general are intensely co-operative when they gather food. By contrast with the animals closest to us, the other primates, we are highly co-operative food gatherers. Once they are weaned, the other primates tend to acquire and consume their own food – though they will communicate with each other about fruiting trees and will occasionally – among the baboons, for example – co-operate to catch and eat a small mammal such as an immature gazelle or other primate. Nevertheless, as adults they are principally independent operators who each eat what they can individually acquire.

Not so people. Not only do we co-operate but we enjoy it. In some contexts this we call work and in others recreation. For example, hunting and fishing remain the two most popular participant sports in North America despite the cost, inconvenience, and danger, as well as the legally restricted return even skilful predators may earn. (The Canadian government has estimated that the average sport fishing enthusiast spends about $350 to catch a single salmon.) In an almost wholly industrial society in which 90 percent of all trout consumed in America are raised on farms, and despite ever-scarcer land and growing criticism of gun-using hunters, squads of eager men and, in some cases, women wake before the autumn dawn to squat in cold, damp blinds hoping to outwit ducks or to engage in spylike sorties in forests hiding leaping deer.

Such groups possess signal emotional meaning for their members. One hunter in British Columbia described the meaning: when he drank rye whiskey, he customarily purchased Seagram's VO; but when he went hunting with his chums, they drank only Crown Royal, the ranking premium brand. In American society, male hunting and fishing groups (as well as regular gambling cliques) offer one of the few examples of enduring groups that cut across the lines of social class. So a bank manager and a dentist and a mechanic and fireman may hunt together, though they will be far less likely to belong to the same golf or country club.

My proposal is that the emotional satisfaction of co-operatively acquiring food, in nature, stimulates voluntary and often intense solidarity between men – the communal activity Wendell Berry refers to and calls a source of "pleasure… so to speak, affection in action." They continue to enjoy this, however inconvenient the process and however costly per pound the ultimate yield of protein. It feels good to people when they do it now, when it's a luxury, because it felt good when people did it back then, when it was a necessity. Food gathering – what was acquired and how – was obviously critical to survival. The emotionality surrounding such co-operative gathering of food was part of the selective evolution of our species, like the emotionality surrounding courtship and sex. People who enjoyed each other and the process of co-operative food gathering were more successful than loners or non co-operators. This was part of the package of successful behavior and adequate nutrition transmitted to the next generation.

It is surely significant that people with all the money necessary to feed themselves and those they care about more than adequately nevertheless seek to reserve to themselves the privilege of the chase. I have a cottage in New York State in an area rich with trout, deer, wildfowl, and rabbit. Hundreds of thousands of potentially valuable acres are kept pristine so that the members of dozens of hunting and fishing clubs can on a relatively few occasions during the year re-create the secretive strategies of the Upper Paleolithic less than two hours from Times Square. My outsider's sense is that the members think that what they are doing is close to the sacred, a luxury beyond dollar calculation. One legal deer per year, some trout, some noisy birds – worth it, worth it disproportionately for the pleasure.

There is controversy in anthropology about the status of the hypothesis that hunting had an overwhelmingly decisive physical and emotional impact on the evolutionary scheme. A strong and technically skilled group of scientists have asserted that early human beings secured most or much of their meat by scavenging – by taking or stealing the prey killed by master hunters such as lions. They base their interpretation of the archaeological record on detailed and exquisite study of, for example, the microscopic marks made on fossil bones found near human sites – marks that appear to suggest, among other things, that the teeth of other animals made the first or main impression on these remains.

They have a point. There is evidence from various other fossil finds and from contemporary ethnography that reveals that people were and are opportunists. They will take quick advantage of another species' kill if the killer is gone or can be driven off. Leopards and hyenas can be made to flee, though lions are reluctant and may become prey themselves if the human hunters are sufficiently numerous and confident.

Nevertheless, there are some problems, too, with this notion. One is, of course, that dead animals, particularly in the hot climate in which we evolved, would be dangerous to eat if not quickly consumed. Presumably for this reason, many animals, including domestic cats, will not eat a prey animal they have not themselves killed. This reflects an evolved inhibition, complex but understandable. As well, the existence of the dead animal implies a stronger living one that killed it and that may retain some interest in it – for example, a lion. Reposing much confidence in the tolerance of a large predator for theft of his kill is plainly potentially hazardous.

But my principal question about this scavenging hypothesis is raised by what provides pleasure to contemporary people. Do you know of one royal scavenging preserve? Do you know of one club where people pay high fees in order to scavenge the leavings of others? Is not the status of ragpickers, "bag ladies," urban scavengers, the least enviable in the social system? Do they compare in any way to the hunters with their ceremonial red jackets, their complex leatherware, their costly guns, their killing grounds? No. The two groups are incomparable. One is envied, the other not, even though in a simpleminded sense the scavenger's job is safer, easier, and closer to home.

But one is fun, the other isn't. One yields pride, the other resignation. I think this reflects an evolutionary heritage that focused most passionately and skilfully on hunting, and only from necessity and episodically on scavenging.

Most people are unlikely to be fervent about this seemingly technical academic argument. But it may guide us as we try to examine what contemporary behavior is pleasurable – to earn an insight into what worked for us in the past and perhaps, in some complex but durable way, selectively gained a foothold in our nature. Only a few people enjoy being hit with whips. Nearly all enjoy gentle caresses and sexual intercourse. Why? This is "natural" – the result of our evolutionary nature. There is something intrinsically sensible in the idea that what pleases nearly all people must have helped most of their ancestors endure. It seems likely that the way people choose today to acquire wild food reveals something about how we used to get it in the past. The low status of scavengers in societies as disparate as Belgium and India (where the caste system formalized it ruthlessly: they were the Untouchables) suggests that this is a compromised form of survival.

Gone to Market for Hearth Food

If scavenging for food is not fun, shopping for it often is. Outdoor markets and ambitious food shops are widely attractive to both purchasers and voyeurs. If such shops don't permit hunting, they offer gathering, in a garden even more plentiful, various, and colorful than any imagined Eden. Contemplating, comparing, choosing food obviously involves elaborate and absorbing skills and enthusiasms.

One of the most interesting markets in the world is the Tsujuki fish market of Tokyo. By four o'clock in the morning, a vast congress of buyers and sellers converges around what seems to be a virtually complete aquatic museum of natural history. Because so much fish is consumed raw in Japan, as sushi and sashimi, choosing it is a vital part of preparing it. A sushi chef can stand or fall on the freshness and quality of what he buys as well as on how he prepares it. The market is intense, varied – a phenomenal display of demand for what people can and want to eat and the ability of fishermen to find and provide it.

The Tsujuki provides a snapshot cross section of Japan's dinner that day. With the inexorability of digestion itself, the improbable, exuberant spectacle happens every morning. By eight-thirty the heavy traffic ebbs. The retail trade begins. Then the thing to do is have a sushi breakfast in one of the restaurants nestled at the outskirts of the market, where its participants repair after their late-night negotiations.

Perhaps it is because I am a grocer's son, but there has always seemed to me to be a special and significant drama to markets. They encapsulate well much of what people are doing and efficiently dramatize whatever flora and fauna of the region pertain to human society. But I mean markets, not supermarkets or groceries where you see and smell packages. There is a firm difference between the clinical rows of boxes at the MallMarket and the piles of cardamom, oranges, mangoes, and fifty-seven varieties of rice in the Bombay market or the one in the Old City of Jerusalem, or the spectacular jumbles of Ibadan or Accra, or even the comparatively wan earnestness of the Greenmarkets in New York City.

To a traveler, some of the difference is undoubtedly the result of the exoticism and intensity of new environments. Nevertheless, there is also a difference in the naturalness of the heaps-of-herbs market versus the wall-of-boxes store. One is gathering at its best, the other is administration. Of course, good markets are also well managed and there is a clear and traditional order to them. They may be visually lively and seemingly fresh, but the arrangement of stalls, who occupies them, and under what terms is not casual. The markets convey a sense of deftness and directness – the person behind the counter today may have yesterday been behind the plow. This somehow rounds out the meaning of the food. It was never possible to charge very much at the Automat, however good the food.

Nude Food

The distribution system pioneered by Huntington Hartford of the A&P stores in the United States has enabled more people to enjoy healthier, more abundant, more various, and more interesting food at a relatively low markup than other extant systems. The US industry norm is that net profit hovers around 1 percent of volume. However, as the century draws to a close, the most progressive and successful chains draw particular profits from traditional, primordial, boutique-type sections of their stores: in-store bakeries, fish markets, prepared-food sections, custom butchers. Produce is increasingly displayed in hearty and relatively dramatic ways. Theatrical lighting designers have entered the grocery business. Sensual visual appeal replaces perfect clinical geometry as the style of presentation. A grim blend of sub-Bauhaus aesthetics with perfect row-house hygiene yields to vivid and lucid displays of naked food. Voila! Tableaux of suddenly rediscovered artisanal culinary drama: the baker baking, the butcher slicing, the barbecue chef assessing the food, the smoke, the heat.

In these lusty sections, the markup is much higher than in the grocery Bauhaus. The operators of industrial-style food stores were surprised that people enjoy ways of selling food that are nostalgic, even primitive. But the marketers have been adept and are adapting. The industry is changing. Shoppers are willing to pay extra for what they perceive as interesting and robust food whose origins and preparation are accessible and plain. Not only "natural" food connects, but seemingly "natural" ways of selling it. A fruit-and-vegetable store called Balducci's in the Greenwich Village neighborhood in which I once lived redigested itself into a beyond-scale temple of food. Nonetheless, it retains some sense of a neighborhood feedlot (though now a rich neighborhood). Bus-loads of tourists come from the suburbs to explore food shopping that is sensually intimate. It is a sensory success. The memory recurs to me of the effectiveness of the Food Halls of Harrods in London. This is the luxurious upper-class shop marked by traditional English reserve in most other areas. But its celebrated food shop is visceral – hanging game unplucked, colorful, flagrantly dead and elegant; fish swimming in ice at arm's length; cheese odorous and unpacked; unrinsed wild mushrooms pyramided in their traveling crates. It is a sentient, dramatic shop, the jewel of the enterprise, borne of passion not propriety.

If people feel there is a danger that food will exterminate rather than succor them, they will want to control the process of feeding themselves and thus enjoy what they consume. It becomes at once pathetic and reassuring that the word "natural" on a food product is supposed to be an endorsement. It is pathetic because what else but natural things should be permitted to enter the stomach? At the same time, it's reassuring because people want contact with elemental substances along with the pleasure they enjoy during their pit stop – smell, taste, flair, aggressive surprise, anything. The stomach – that turgid bottom-line arena of encounter between person and environment – will do its work, no problem. But before that obligatory chemistry, there's an opportunity for play. Enjoying food. Lively people become tax collectors. What they eat in order to survive must also yield some tax. The tax is pleasure. Not just from candy, either. Think about your best dinner during the past seven months. It was mainly not dessert.

Cooking with Gas

Hunting, fishing, gathering, gardening, and shopping for food provide pleasure. Obviously, so do cooking and serving it. Here is the end point of the underlying mammalian transaction, the POP – the point of purchase. For the hungry person it may be better to receive than to give. But an elaborate suite of pleasures is associated with feeding other people. Virtually everywhere, there is a colorful mixture of art, technique, economy, and tradition. This is called cooking – the art of how food is prepared.

How people fashion the substances that sustain them is of deep interest to them. There is usually an added extra ingredient; the herbs, spices, and other flavorings, how and when they are added, and the various methods of preparation. Take a common and drastically simple foodstuff such as lima beans. Try to predict how many genuinely different recipes will exist for it in the world. It is likely you will underestimate severely. There seems to be no limit on the quite urgent aesthetic ingenuity of cooks. There is also surprisingly little real loss of already successful recipes.

Culinary knowledge has been maintained as lore and tradition. It is a pervasive, unquestionable element of daily life. Formal schools for cooking are a relatively new addition. Apprenticeship has been the customary way of training professional handlers of food. There are also systems of inherited status, such as the Indian caste arrangement. The principal route for learning about food ran through the home kitchen, across the dining table, or by the fire- side. The extraordinary variety and invention in the foods people produce are revealing. They confirm the role of pleasure in both production and consumption. They underscore the significance of pleasure in determining what people decide to do with their time and energy. Food is not just part of the veterinary process of feeding people. It is the starting point of recurrent pleasure.

Not all is artful folderol and cultivation of the mouth's muse. There is nutritional justification for major elements of interesting cuisine. Beans must be cooked or they can be dangerous. Yogurt contains enzymes that allow people who otherwise couldn't to digest milk solids. Roasting pork to a tasty turn kills potentially dangerous parasites. Garlic and onions add decisive tastes to food and provide a variety of medical and antiseptic benefits. Piquant marinades are interesting to taste and also tenderize and even "cook" some foodstuffs.

Nevertheless, pleasure counts big. Like music, which is not necessary for survival, food, which is, can be fun to make. This is genuinely optional pleasure. It is unlikely that we are genetically urged to cook. No chromosomal whispers are known to lure us to the stove. Cooking depends on our control of fire, an ability we acquired relatively recently in our history; it is not probable that there has been genetic selection for good cooking, at least in the modern sense. But for better providers of more interesting food – yes. Better hunters and gatherers will set a better table. Skilful butchers, skinners, peelers, salad makers, and nutcrackers would then as now benefit themselves and those who ate their food with a real advantage in both the productive and reproductive systems.

Fire and cooking sharply heightened the ways to enjoy the pleasures of food. They must have enhanced the impulse to create and share these pleasures. Cooking was the social equivalent of the wheel. Our exquisite and dauntless sensitivity to tastes and smells, which impelled, governed, and guarded our consumption of food, now could be turned in a symphonic way to its production. The stakes were suddenly higher. If the way to a man's heart was through his stomach, the way to a woman's was through her broiler and her breadbasket. Once communities expanded, particularly after the emergence of agriculture and pastoralism, feasts became a hard central feature of social interaction, especially between and among families. As Levi-Strauss instructed us, the sharing of food was next in importance only to incest prohibition. The exchange of mates between families was the only process more significant for human evolution than food sharing. But it was also wholly associated with it; the wedding dinner established a circle of implication and meaning.

The new methods of food production increased supplies markedly. The new social density they permitted and required also turned food into the focus of much of the domestic and familial diplomacy around which social life now turned. Skill at producing pleasure at the table had a new meaning for social status, for marital arrangements, for political and similar alignments. It defined and supported the network of female alliances so crucial to sustaining and monitoring the social group, because women managed the distribution of food.

Recent discoveries suggest that hunters, gatherers, and, later, foragers lived with considerable and unexpected complexity. Excavations in Denmark reveal that foraging groups some five thousand years ago were quite large. It appears that they were both affluent and sedentary. They successfully made the transition from a culture dependent on the reindeer. They settled near water, hunted large sea prey such as porpoises and whales, and collected shellfish and fish – this provided the bulk of the diet – much like con- temporary Greenland Eskimos, who take 75 percent of their food from the sea. Interestingly, it has been estimated that prudent hunting among the Aleutian Islanders would have required a core group of some six to eight families involving about seventy-five people. This already presupposes a fair amount of co-operation, mating arrangements, and the like.

Of course, cooking was available to add complexity and taste to food. Like the 1820s Manhattan dinner described by James Fenimore Cooper, dinner around the campfire, in the tent, cave, igloo, or copse, both defined social life and stimulated the enjoyments of the mouth. Compare the dinner of five thousand years ago with the newly traditional barbecue, with its particular primordial attention to the taste of smoke – grapevine, mesquite, apple, hickory, charcoal, always surrounded by the magnetic aroma of charring fat.

New foods and more food meant more opportunity to create more tastes and new ones. Hence, more and new pleasures. Now – then – not only food but also its taste could be exchanged. The currency of the pleasures of the mouth increased in complexity. More syllables permitted more vocabulary, which made speech more elaborate and, hence, eloquence more conspicuous. The language of food and its complexity also developed new norms of complicated excellence. Not only cooks but sailors explored the spice routes.

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