Ignorance, Knowledge, Bliss, Despair…How much "Extensive" Eating Can We Handle?

glenn kuehn

Response to "The (Extensive) Pleasures of Eating," Lisa Heldke

            Since this is a session for "discussion" papers and not traditional papers, my comments will favor brevity over art.  My primary reaction to Lisa’s paper is not one of critique, but of cheerleading.  I whole-heartedly agree with Lisa that food is ethical, and that to divorce aesthetics from ethical concerns when it comes to eating avoids a great deal of depth in meaning in eating.  If we do separate these perspectives, we are, as she states, left with a very "thin" sense of the aesthetic.  "Adopting a sharp dichotomy between aesthetic and ethical considerations would impoverish our aesthetic experiences of food, by drawing our attention away from the very things that give food its significance."  Absolutely!

            Further, her conclusion is right on.  She wants food to be afforded the treatment that the history of art has had (assessed for all of its symbolic functions); not to make it "art," but to afford it an aesthetic appreciation that strengthens a philosophical legitimacy—to pay different kinds of attention to food experiences offers a broader, "world-view," it offers an understanding into the depths of the bigger picture involved in eating.

And, above all, I wanted to come and say, "Yay Lisa, way to go….stick it to Kimball."  And I could leave it at that, but it turns out I do have a couple other things to say…..though I must admit that none of it is too deep.

First, (and some of you may think I’m blaspheming when I say this) I’d like to make a "mild" case for ignorant, non-extensive eating.  Second, I’d like to offer a cautionary note about preserving a continuity throughout the range of eating experiences that does not pit the superficial against the profound.

Part 1:  The "what IISSS that?" Issue…

            Ignorance can be both a blessing and a sin when eating for, as Lisa points out, "knowing" the history of the food you eat can affect the taste in a negative manner—something is weird about croissants when confronted with their origin, something is odd about eating strawberries in January...and I definitely stay away from tomatoes in anytime but the summer months (even if they are advertised as vine-ripened).  I want to add that knowing what the food is can also adversely affect the taste; even to the point of putting a taste in one’s mouth prior to eating.  So, the issue of knowing here is divided into the food’s history and one’s knowledge (identification) of it as a type of food.  Both of these can have significant effects on the eating experience, and especially on taste.  As Lisa has said more about the historical problems, I will focus more on the connection between identification and taste.

            Knowing/learning about the food (that is, involving all the varying aspects of how it got its name, where it came from, how it was prepared, etc.) is obviously a natural part of understanding what it is and why you’re eating it…but it’s also a touchy issue.  Clearly, some knowledge is necessary for good health and not accidentally ingesting something poisonous, but too much knowledge can present some significant aesthetic problems.

Four brief examples.

            When I was living in Japan I had many significant eating experiences…three moments involved the "what IS that?" issue.  The first was when I came down to dinner and, as usual, there were many little bowls of picked vegetables, but there was one bowl of something reddish-brown and slimy that I had a vague sense of only seeing in the meat section of a supermarket.  "Is that……..liver?" I asked, "Yes, yes, doozo, doozo."  "Oh crap," I thought…and then I couldn’t escape the obligation to eat the raw liver.

            Second moment…we went to a Korean restaurant and had a very wonderful meat that we each cooked in small pieces over an hibachi and drizzled with lemon juice.  I savored every bite and ate as much as I could.  When we got home I asked what it was that we ate, as the idea didn’t seem important to me while we were eating because I could easily identify it as "meat."  "Inu," they said.  Inu means dog.

            Third, a friend and I were invited to a special sushi soirée.  My friend is deathly allergic to any seafood, but I ate everything.  One item there I had not seen it before.  I asked what it was, and they said just to try it.  After eating it (and it was delicious) I asked again.  "Fugu" was the answer…fugu…the poison blowfish.

            Fourth, this past Thanksgiving I got a food-care-package from my mom which contained my favorite holiday foods (as I could not come home, my mom sent me a bit of home-cookin’).  A friend came over and I offered to share a particular food item with him and when he asked, "What is it?" I said, "tongue."  Beef tongue is the most tender, sweet delicious meat, and I relish it when the time comes—and because it is a tongue, the texture is velvety.  Yet, my friend looked at me in horror as though I were eating human flesh…to him tongue was not only not food, it was edibly unthinkable.

            These experiences all point to the conundrum that while ignorance does offer a thin pleasure, it is nonetheless a blissful pleasure because too much knowledge can make eating and tasting and appreciating very very difficult.

KNOWING IS PROBLEMMATIC:  LEADS TO PRE-TASTING AND NEGATES POSSIBLE EXPLORATION

            While I have no problem eating raw meat (cannibal sandwiches made with ground round, carpaccio, and steak tartar…and if it weren’t disease-prone, I’d probably eat raw bacon), I cannot stand the taste of liver (raw or cooked).  Had I not "known" what it was I would have certainly been surprised when I put it in my mouth, but I am almost positive that had I experienced it in ignorance, I suspect I would not have detested it quite so much.  Surprised, yes, disgusted, probably…yet I was afforded no sense of aesthetic discovery.  Knowing fully that I was about to gnaw on raw liver caused me to stare at my glass of beer to make sure it was within easy reach and plan on how to get it to my mouth as quickly as possible without looking as though I knew I had just swallowed part of an organ that secrets bile.  Here, the knowledge of what it was (and its function in the body) truly affected my ability to taste the food…it was repulsive before it ever got to my mouth and thanks to the beer, I did my best to avoid tasting it at all.  Knowledge killed any potential aesthetic for me.

KNOWLEDGE PROBLEMMATIC:  SKEWS ABILITY TO TASTE WITHOUT THINKING TOO MUCH

            In contrast, when I dined on Fido, I didn’t know what it was when I ate it and never questioned its "foodness" because I thought it was simply tasty, tender meat.  Had I known beforehand, I’m sure I still would have eaten it, but I’m also sure that the aesthetic pleasure of the moment would have been skewed by sitting there and thinking, "so this is what dog tastes like"…."I wonder what kind of dog it is."…."should I really be eating this?"…"What would Erin McKenna Think and will she talk to me anymore?"  Here, the "extensive" issues would have clouded my ability to taste the meat simply for what it was.

KNOWING IS AGAIN PROBLEMMATIC:  WOULD THINK TOO MUCH

            As for the fugu, here too the issue plays out in that knowledge of the food’s identity (and it’s deadly history) would affect the aesthetic pleasure…and, because of what it is, perhaps affect it to such a degree that a sense of taste might not have even been possible.  Had I known what it was I would have been thinking, "This could kill me….are my lips going numb, if my lips and tongue go numb, I’m done for….are my lips numb, I can’t tell, should I keep chewing should I swallow….wait, are my lips going numb……"  The problem here is that I doubt I would have actually been able to "taste" the fish for the severity of knowing that there is a significant change that this, however delicious, could kill me.

KNOWING IS REAL PROBLEMMATIC:  ONCE IDENTIFIED, IT IS NO LONGER FOOD

            Finally, regarding the beef tongue (vegetarianism aside), knowing what it is completely negated my friend’s attempt to even try tasting it….no matter how much I implored its deliciousness, the reaction was one of revulsion……..the response was simply, "I can’t eat that."  I also remember eating in a Panera Bread Co. in Chicago one time and, while lapping up french onion soup served in a big hard roll, I heard a lady at the next table exclaim (in a rather whiny voice) as she picked apart her lovely spring green salad, "I don’t eat weeds."  Arugula, escarole, radicchio…to her they didn’t need a vinaigrette, they needed herbicide.  She not only "knew" what they were, she "knew" that they weren’t food.

            Obviously, knowing what you’re eating prepares you for the experience, but knowing a lot about what you’re eating (an issue involving both identity and history) can result in a great variance in taste and can preclude enjoying the potential taste available.  And on that note, I’d like to make a slight pitch for aesthetic discovery…that is, eating without knowing a whole lot.

            As Lisa warns us, "extensive" eating isn’t easy…and at least for the short term, it can be rather disturbing.  Knowing too much about the food one eats can be as detrimental to one’s sense of taste as knowing too little can be to one’s health and moral standing.

            Yet, I think there can be a middle ground, which is very close to what Lisa is saying, that is…we should eat attentively (and this does not necessarily presuppose a great deal of knowledge).  Continuing with Lisa’s use of the work of Wendell Berry, eating is an incredible, environmentally complex act.  Berry states, "Eating with the fullest pleasure—pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance—is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. [i]   But eating with the fullest pleasure, eating attentively, does not have to mean that I necessarily know much about the food I’m eating.  Tell me it’s food, that it’s good, and that I should try it…and chances are I will.  Tell me that it came from a giant, industrial farm, tended by migrant workers, treated with chemicals, and so on…and I’ll just end up thinking about it too much.

            The obvious over-reaction is that if I knew "too much," I wouldn’t feel comfortable eating anything that I didn’t grow myself…and even then, it might get kinda personal.  I love chicken and I love eggs, but there was a period when I had to stop eating them……as a kid in Wisconsin, I saw the inside of a massive chicken farm where they’re stacked to the ceiling in endless rows like the warehouse scene in Raiders of the Lost ark…..living in virtual darkness, crammed together so close that their beaks and toes were clipped so they didn’t kill each other...and never seeing daylight or moving more than a few inches…that knowledge made me stop eating eggs…and it still makes me look twice at an egg before I crack it.

So, I am initially cautioning against too much extensive eating…as many of us simply either would not be able to handle the level of shock that would arise from knowing all there is about the food we eat, or that the "knowledge" would so affect our sense of taste that the pleasure would so diminish that we would be repulsed by having to eat.  Lisa asks the question, "why wouldn’t we continue to be satisfied with thin pleasure if the alternative is in the short term is extensive displeasure?"  I answer with:  there’s a lot to be said for thin pleasure.

Part 2:  There’s a lot to be said for thin pleasure.

As much as I appreciate the deeply profound gastronomical experiences I’ve had (and there have been many), I have to admit that I appreciate a certain level of superficiality when it comes to eating.  I still really enjoy McD’s, and at times not caring where the Big Mac came from and what conditions it endured to get to my ketchup-laden plate allows great (though admittedly not very deep) pleasure.  Just as, 4 years ago when Lisa commented on my paper about the disembodied-cooking involved in microwaves, I retracted my claims about microwaves as being evil because they made "cooking" purely mental and disembodied…now I have to further admit that some "base" pleasures in eating (popping a Tombstone pizza in at 11 on a Sunday night; eating White Castle "sliders" after bar-close; savoring KFC and the extra-salty gravy; and sitting in amazement at how no matter how many times I’ve had McDonald’s chicken mcnuggets, they always come in only three distinct shapes); these pleasures are so fruitfully enjoyed based upon that oh-so tenuous thin pleasure.

            Thin pleasure may be fragile, and it is definitely true that it takes hard work to overcome the disturbing facts.  Yet, my case for supporting thin pleasure is in terms of claiming that it exists on an aesthetic continuum with, instead of being "opposed," to a deep, involved, aesthetic, extensive pleasure.  I’m still stuck on Dewey (being from SIU this is a natural affliction), who expressed the importance of seeing the continuity in and throughout aesthetic experience—and how the only enemy to its richness is not superficiality, but boredom and mindless repetition.

            Sure, there is a great difference between Seinfeld and Shakespeare, between Friends and The Big Chill, between The BackStreet Boys and Beethoven…but they are not aesthetically "opposed."  There is a continuity and connection between Big Macs, Outback steaks, the finest filet at Charlie Trotter’s, and the french onion soup made from the stock I made from the beef bones from the cow I raised on my farm (not that I have a farm, but if I did, I’d probably have some cows).

Attentive eating allows a thin and thick aesthetic to exist together, and it reinforces the view that all instances of eating exist on a continuum of aesthetic potentiality.  Absolutely, we should take seriously Lisa’s proclamation that we should cultivate our capacity for experiencing extensive pleasure.  We should "increase our attention to, and understanding of, the number and variety of symbolic layers on which we experience any given food."  Yet, at this stage, at least for me, I must caution against wanting to know too much about the food we eat, because, at least for now, I want to continue eating Big Mac’s without a whole lotta guilt.

[i] Wendell Berry, "The Pleasures of Eating," in Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Transformative Philosophies of Food  Ed. Deane Curtin and Lisa Heldke (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), 378.