June 28, 2015
Is there anything less enduring than a meal? Whether cobbled together from leftovers and scraps in the refrigerator or the result of detailed planning and careful preparation, that last meal you ate, well, it’s gone. And really, folks, is there anything less memorable? I mean sure there are going to be a few exceptions in your life. The octopus in its own ink I ate in Bilbao has stuck with me, but mainly, if I’m honest about it, the visual effect of that inky black plate being set before me, that’s what I remember. And there were plenty of reinforcing threads around that particular meal, too: joking with Peter Sandøe, thinking about the octopus itself, not to mention just trying to stay awake until 11:00pm to start dinner. But I mention such peripherals only to underline the sensation of memory. Most meals won’t surrender themselves to that kind of recall.
There are also those dishes from one’s childhood or from some especially precious habitus. We remember them fondly. Except that I’m going to say, in fact we don’t. What we remember is something else—a generalized feeling of well-being, perhaps, but probably a generalized feeling of well-being that we recall from some previous episode of thinking about those times, those people. We may associate a smell, a taste or the picture of some especially scarlet tomato sauce with those memories, but I’m going to insist that we’re not really remembering any particular tomato sauce at all. It’s something with a real referent, to be sure, but what we’re remembering is a collage, an assemblage of emotion colored images that we have, in fact, projected and constituted in a performance of nostalgia.
Not that there’s something wrong with that. These kind of false memories can play a role in “essentializing” ideas of Motherhood and femininity, to be sure. When that happens, stereotyped roles can get constructed that can, in turn, be deployed in oppressing real people—strangers and family members alike—who inhabit our orbits of daily practice. Not a good thing. But surely everyone lives in a memory palace that is largely tissued of bricolage and partial lapses, bearing little actual verisimilitude to our respective pasts. The fault lies not in the way we re-member the past, but in the way we (sometimes) project those constructed memorials on the present. And that’s not what I sat down to write about today.
No, I was stirred by the ephemerality itself, and then I got carried away trying to evoke it. Of course there’s another sense in which our past meals are anything but transient. Those fats, carbs and proteins become a part of us in a very literal sense. And if they happen to be carrying a few toxins along as hitchhikers, well, those pesky little badboys become a part of us, too. We are what we ate, and we may yet pay for it. Yet I’ll insist it’s that the temporary and evanescent dimension of eating that we should lift up in food ethics. We should remember how far we are from the eternal verities that are more typically celebrated by the moral sages of yore.
George Steiner says that most people who write have a hankering for immortality lurking somewhere hidden in their subconscious, and I can’t say he’s wrong. He wrote that a few years before blogging became commonplace, and he even anticipated the way that the Internet might undo the potential for anyone to hanker for immortality without simultaneously feeling a keen sense of embarrassment. Yet if food is the quintessence of transience, what can we say of food writing? And if food writing lives only for the Wednesday “Food” section, what can we say of a food blog?
And yet, and yet, there are so, so many of them! What are we trying to memorialize?
Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University.