I’m trying to work out what kind of dinner guest Julian Baggini would make. The philosopher has just told me that he routinely quizzes waiting staff on the provenance of their meat – but would he do the same to a friend?
He hesitates, weighing up the obligations of hospitality against the responsibilities of the consumer, and then moves the conversation on to his pescetarian past, leaving the question hanging between us. I’m fairly sure that he wouldn’t refuse your roast chicken if you were a bit hazy about its origins (as he observes, such a gesture is of little benefit to the animal concerned) but I’m not guaranteeing it.
Questions of this sort come up a lot in his latest book, The Virtues of the Table, a rare foray into the philosophy of food. I wonder why the subject has received so little attention in the past, given that even Aristotle had to eat.
We decide to pin the blame on a historical tendency to privilege the intellectual life over the mere “plumbing” of our physical existence (though, as Baggini wryly observes, the fact that it’s “very hard” to be pretentious about “nutrition and excretion” may have something to do with it, too).
But in an age when even petrol station pasties proclaim their artisan credentials, it’s amazing how incurious we are about the food we eat; even those of us who think of ourselves as conscientious consumers rarely look beyond the particular buzzwords that we have decided fit our world-view. Such labels – “local”, “Fairtrade”, “sustainable” – undoubtedly save time at the supermarket, but matters are rarely so simple. There is no algorithm to help you make the right choices every time.
For example, I drink organic milk on welfare grounds, yet I have farmer friends who, like the cheese-maker quoted in Baggini’s book, would never switch to organic for the same reason: “If I get sick, I’ll go to the bloody doctor and get antibiotics and I’d expect to do the same thing with my animals.”
Baggini would like us all to ask a few more questions about our milk, our coffee and even our Egg McMuffin (free-range, he notes approvingly), and not to beat ourselves up over every slip. “If you accept you can only ever do your best, you won’t get disillusioned,” he says, when, for instance, someone publishes an exposé of exploitation in Fairtrade co-operatives or the environmental cost of British tomatoes. And though the Auguste Escoffier quotation that serves as the book’s epigraph (“To know how to eat is to know how to live”) may sound rather grandiose if you’re opening a tin of beans, Baggini thinks that eating well is one of the most important ways in which we live our values.
“You don’t become a good person by performing occasional acts of great heroism,” he points out. It’s the quotidian things that make a difference – the decision to spend a little more on our morning cuppa to ensure that growers in Malawi are paid fairly for their crop, or just taking a moment to appreciate and be thankful for that tea.
Baggini believes that if we embrace ideals such as compassion, justice and generosity in the choices we make three times a day, the food we eat will have the power to make us better people. As becoming a better person is an ongoing project of mine, it’s a relief to discover that the coffee shop I have chosen for our rendezvous boasts impeccably sourced beans and has hidden its rather less carefully sourced milk behind the counter, away from my companion’s eagle eye. I don’t think he’d have refused that flat white if he’d known . . . but then again, I’m not 100 per cent sure.
Next week: Nina Caplan on drink