The Virtues of the Table
Granta Books, 288pp, £14.99
The Great Indoors
Profile Books, 288pp, £15.99
Turn on the television at random and the chances are that you’ll find a programme about cooking or property: our appetite for them seems inexhaustible. Until the middle of the 20th century, the elaboration of the twin essentials of food and shelter into a “lifestyle” was the privilege of the well-to-do. The remarkable shift in less than a hundred years from exclusive luxury to universal preoccupation is the subject of new books by the philosopher Julian Baggini and the cultural historian Ben Highmore.
Baggini’s Virtues of the Table is subtitled How to Eat and Think. “We are supposed to be living in a golden age of food,” he writes. “Cooking, for so long associated with domestic drudgery, has been rediscovered as a creative pleasure.” Baggini argues that, “What has been missing from the food renaissance is a rigorous thinking-through of why food matters and what our relationship to it should be.” His book proposes to fill the gap. He is not the first to undertake such a project, although his predecessors, from Grimod de La Reynière and Brillat-Savarin to M F K Fisher and James Beard, tend to be more preoccupied than Baggini with the menu side of things. His “recipes of a sort” at the end of each chapter seem indicative of a chap more familiar with his computer than his cooker.
“Virtues” rather than rigid rules are the precepts of his philosophy, which addresses the business of eating from production to consumption. The first part, “Gathering”, deals with the ethics of food production. Part two, “Preparing”, deals with the theory of eating, with chapter subheadings such as “Technophronesis” (practical wisdom about technology) and “Hexis” (mindful habit – if nothing else, this book may enrich your vocabulary). The final parts navigate the reader through the spiritual vices and virtues of eating: gluttony, lack of willpower, wastefulness, gratitude, conviviality, fasting, aesthetics and eating in solitude.
It is an intractably vast subject, but Baggini begins with a Pythonesque fusion of cheese and philosophy. “When I first had the idea of talking about the connection between cheese and the philosophy of Immanuel Kant,” he writes, “I thought the conjunction of the two would be unprecedented.” In fact, it turns out that the author of “What is Enlightenment?” expired in 1804 from a surfeit of English Cheddar sandwiches.
Whether or not this is strictly true, it provides Baggini with a picturesque route into the issues that trouble the mindful eater. In the course of his researches, he finds some grounds for revising his thinking on the virtues of organic farming, vegetarianism and fair trade. He discovers good practice at an abattoir run by the University of Bristol’s veterinary school: “For townies like me, listening to people who work at the front line of rearing and killing animals is essential to overcome the sentimentality and ignorance that stand between us and a truly compassionate attitude towards animals.”
Having filled the ethical shopping basket, we proceed to the kitchen, where the problem is that “we no longer have a national or regional core repertoire”. Instead of learning a variety of what Baggini calls Simple but Infinitely Variable recipes (“SIVs”) at Nonna’s knee, people either crave the “novelty and experimentation [that] have become the desiderata” peddled by Nigella, Nigel et al. Or else they give up altogether and shove a ready meal in the microwave.
And so on to the pointy bit of the morality of consumption: what, and how much, we put in our mouths. Søren Kierkegaard’s Diary of a Seducer has some helpful insights in this area: “The heights of aesthetic experience are not gained simply by always acting immediately on the desire we feel.” Baggini is an atheist but he finds spiritual grace in some of the practices of religion, even to the point of devising a secular grace for mealtimes.
As to the question of whether food can ever be a transcendent experience, along the lines of “watching Cecilia Bartoli sing the title role of La Cenerentola”, he visits the Michelin-starred Frantzén/Lindeberg restaurant in Sweden, where a 12-course tasting menu costs £200-odd without wine, and concludes that it was “an aesthetic experience comparable in value to that of high art”.
“We are,” Baggini concludes, “animals who can eat, think and be merry, and the table is the one place where we can do all three at the same time.” This is true, if not altogether revelatory – indeed, Baggini’s philosophy of food often specialises in statements of what a layperson might call the bleeding obvious. The problem with this book is that it doesn’t quite seem to know what it wants to do. There is undoubtedly a crisis over eating in the first world, where we are alarmingly disconnected from the production of food, catastrophically prone to unhealthy eating and shamefully wasteful. Yet the rigour with which he promises to address these issues never really materialises. Nor does he seem entirely at ease with his subject: to take a lone example, he states that “only one major volume has been targeted at the single cook, Delia Smith’s One Is Fun”, when the briefest flirtation with a search engine will bring up a modest plethora of books and blogs on that subject.
If you’re after a mildly entertaining mishmash of anecdote and opinion, Baggini’s book will not disappoint. If not, Elizabeth David, Nigel Slater, Alice Thomas Ellis, Alice B Toklas, Patience Gray, Édouard de Pomiane and a host of others have written elegantly and intelligently on the theory of eating. And with better recipes.
In The Great Indoors, Ben Highmore imagines taking a Martian anthropologist on a journey through domestic life since the Second World War, observing with a fresh eye the eloquent clutter of stuff with which we surround ourselves.
Highmore’s interest is in two contrasting kinds of house: the “idealised house” and the houses that people live in. “It might seem that the idealised house is simply a fiction and that it is only the actual house that is real,” he suggests. “But the idealised house not only shapes our imagination; it also shapes our real homes.”
Beginning in the liminal space of the front hall, Highmore takes a captivatingly nosy look around the British home, exploring the roles played by such revolutionary instruments of social change as the duvet and the serving hatch. His range of reference is invigoratingly eclectic: W H Auden’s lines on the lavatory, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, The Likely Lads, Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage and The Royle Family, and he has a sharp eye for the wilder predictions of a technology-driven domestic life, noting that the “House of the Future” designed to represent daily life in 1981 for the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition of 1956, was inhabited by actors wearing skintight crocheted onesies.
His book is characterised by a keen eye for detail and a resonant sense of the intimate connection between houses and the memories they contain. He is good on staircases and surrealism, the sexuality of rooms and the banality and bliss of the bedroom (though misguided on dressing tables, of which he remarks, “The only people I know with dressing tables are either in their eighties or else about five and think that they are princesses”).
When it comes to predicting the future of domestic housing, he is circumspect – though he hazards a vision based on a sustainable terraced house in Sydney whose occupants can “sit out the back of an evening, wearing clothes . . . washed in grey ‘toilet water’, sitting on a large wormery that is busy devouring the household faeces”.
Add to this scene a Bagginiesque mindful barbie, where ethically sourced bangers sizzle while the assembled company (dressed, perhaps, in Fairtrade crocheted onsies?) offer his secular expression of gratitude for what they are about to receive, and you have an enticing vision of the Aristotelian good life as it might be lived some time in the not-too-distant future.