“Gastronomy is the art of using food to create happiness,” writes Theodore Zeldin.
Zeldin, both a philosopher and a historian has dedicated much of his life to discovering what it means to be human and what it means to be happy. One of his books, An Intimate History of Humanity, is a treasure. Each chapter explores a different theme, emotion, or element of the human life. Examples of chapter titles include, “How men and women have slowly learned to have interesting conversations” and “Why the crisis in the family is only one stage in the evolution of generosity.”
Underlying all his writing, regardless of the subject, is the common thread of pleasure and happiness – and it is no different in his exploration of our relationship with food.
Eating is one of the most basic ways by which we experience pleasure. Zeldin posits that our approach to eating and receiving pleasure from eating mirrors our broader approaches to pursuing other types of pleasure in life.
According Zeldin, there are Three Ways of Eating and each corresponds to a different way of searching for happiness.
Zeldin’s Three Ways of Eating:
1) Eating until one is full
“The first and most traditional way, putting faith in old recipes and well-tried methods. The aim is to be contented, to be comforted, to feel cozy, to purr. This is the cautious approach to pleasure, with the motto ‘Protect yourself from foreign bodies.’”
This is a search for contentment, for satiation, in a way that is safe and without risk or danger (and excitement).
2) Eating as amusement
A second way of eating is, “treating food as an amusement, a form of permissiveness, a caress of the senses,” “creating conviviality around delicious odours.”
This variety of a search for happiness is for temporary relief from ordinary hardship, in the one who “yearns for distractions and surprises, who seeks a different kind of happiness in frivolity in being jokey, cynical, ironical, refusing to be made permanently miserable by the big problems, like starvation and stupidity.”
3) Food as a means of exercising creativity
“When peace and quiet, or wit and detachment, began to pall, a different yearning was born, to make a personal, original contribution to life. The search for a third kind of happiness – which moderns call creativity – demanded a way of eating which corresponded…
Creative cooks found qualities in food that nobody suspected were there, uniting ingredients that never used to mix. Creative diners are constantly engaged in losing their fear of strange foods, and of foreign bodies.”
With this third way of eating, cooking and eating become forms of art. Cooking is another medium for expression and our food, the canvas and materials through which we can create.
“Every time a recipe is not strictly followed, every time a risk is taken with changed ingredients or proportions, the resulting food is a creative work, good or bad, into which humans have put a little of themselves.”
His point with these three ways of eating, he is careful to note, is not to categorize us into “three different kinds of people, each of them stuck with their habits.” No, rather, it’s to suggest that there may be more to the way we cook and eat than may appear at surface level.
Zeldin likely hopes for more of the third way of eating. I direct you to this final paragraph from the text, which (with an idealism that appears in most of Zeldin’s work) expresses well his belief that there is much more to learn from how we eat and also his hope for further “exploration on the whole of nature” and “ever-widening horizons of pleasure and understanding.”
Hunger is still being satisfied without full awareness of what it is one is hungry for. Some delicious foods have no nutritional value, others are disagreeable until a taste for them is acquired, others still do not stop one feeling hungry but stimulate one to eat yet more, to prolong the pleasure of eating, like a lover seeking to prolong an embrace. Trying to make sense of such behavior can clarify a lot more than one’s taste in food – for example, how far one is interested by new sorts of pleasure, or innovation and creativity in general, whether one is willing to risk disappointment or failure, whether one wants to be brave and free more than to be applauded, whether one likes to discuss one’s pleasures, whether one enjoys giving pleasure to others. Gastronomy is a branch of knowledge in its infancy, focusing not just on self-indulgence but on exploration, not just on self-exploration but on the exploration of the whole of nature. It can look forward to ever-widening horizons of pleasure and understanding, even though it has its dark side, for it has done little to deal with the obscenities of famine and cruelty, and it will perhaps only receive proper recognition when it does. Nevertheless, forks and spoons have probably done more to reconcile people who cannot agree than guns and bombs ever did.