Sumptuary Law

May 26, 2013

My mother used to tell me to clean my plate (green beans, as I recall it) because there were starving children in China. Her mother used to say the same thing. I don’t think either of them thought that the starving Chinese children really provided a convincing reason against leaving food uneaten. My mother was being sarcastic, while my grandmother was being sardonic. This would be a great opportunity for an extended Thornapple Blog tangent exploring the difference between sarcasm and sardonic cynicism, but since there’s already an entire webpage dedicated to that question, I’ll forego the temptation.

I suppose there could be a lot of reasons why mothers would want their kids to clean the plate. When green beans are the point of contention, it’s just another way to say “Eat your vegetables.” The message I took from it was that is morally wrong to waste your food, and the fact that there are hungry people in the world who would dearly love to have those green beans was supposed to reinforce this message with a sense of guilt. Somehow, it’s your fault that those Chinese children are starving—never mind the fact that it was Mom who snatched those green beans out of their mouths and put them on your plate. The only way to expiate that guilt is through the Christian virtue of frugality. Clean your plate!

In fact, choosing the Chinese to underline this point was particularly unapt. The Chinese have a custom of placing more food on the table than can possibly be eaten. If you are the guest of a Chinese host, you need to leave at least a bit of uneaten food on your plate to relieve them of any sense that that they have been ungenerous or stingy hosts. There needs to be even more uneaten food lying around in the numerous serving bowls that crowd the table of a ceremonial dinner. And any dinner where you are entertaining a guest is a ceremonial dinner. I don’t know what goes when a Chinese peasant family is eating together at home. It’s hard for me to believe that this custom pertains there, too. But it is widespread enough that over-ordering is pervasive at restaurants in China.

So much so that Vege-Tiger on Shuanqing Road in Beijing has instituted an incentive program for customers who order only what they can eat at any given setting. Vege-Tiger is operated according to strict Buddhist principles. It’s all vegan, all the time. Their business card has a little box on the back which you can get stamped when you eat there, pretty much like a U.S. coffee shop that gives you a free cup after ten visits. Except that you can’t get the stamp at Vege-Tiger if you order more than you can eat. Once you’ve collected six stamps, you get a discount applicable on future visits. I guess that’s the Buddhist way to frown on the Chinese custom of wasting food when you eat out, combined with a little bit of capitalist economics.

All in all, the whole thing is reminiscent of ancient Greek and Roman laws that were intended to promote frugality. Montesquieu tells us that civic virtue is essential in a republican form of government, and that nothing undercuts virtue in a republic faster than luxury. Luxury is a necessity in monarchies, he thinks, where endless ranks and distinctions of honor reinforce loyalty to the sovereign. But in a republic, only love of one’s homeland holds the society together. Under those conditions, a communal ethic of self-sacrifice and personal discipline breeds a strong sense of community. I suppose if you are generally poor, it’s fine for that once in lifetime wedding banquet to be associated with excess and uneaten food. But once people get to be wealthy enough that they are going out to a restaurant once or twice a week, the ethic of excess becomes an ethic of waste. Then next thing you know, the republic goes to pot.

Hats off to Vege-Tiger. Next time you are near the Wudaoku Subway stop, drop in and give them a look.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University