Throughout history, scores of anthropologists and philosophers, theologians and poets have taken their turn at examining the human condition. The lenses are legion, but perhaps none reaches through time and transcends cultures as extensively as food does. Celebrated poet and feminist writer Sandra M. Gilbert, who is also a Distinguished Professor of English Emerita at the University of California, Davis noticed the rich proliferation of gastronomic literature throughout the ages and decided to write a book about it. However, The Culinary Imagination: From Myth to Modernity ended up being quite different than the book she set out to write.
“The scope started out to be more specific and particular,” says Gilbert. “It really was going to be mostly about poetry. But then my great teacher, M. H. Abrams, and my own son encouraged me to think about the history of food writing. It goes back to the Bible and to Homer and to Plato. So I started thinking about the philosophy of food, and what it means to us to live on the food chain. We love to eat, but we’re also scared of being eaten.”
Once Gilbert immersed herself in the contemplation of food, she discovered that it serves much like a mirror that reflects cultures, eras and even individuality.
“It’s a way of understanding who we are, how we are, how we’ve colonized the earth, how we feed ourselves, how we deal with poverty, and how we deal with health,” says Gilbert. “What are the politics of those issues? Food is central to all of those.”
According to Gilbert, food is also at the core of a variety of human experiences. Food is art, for example, both to our tongues and our eyes. Chefs become known for creating savory signature comestibles, but the presentation of food has become an art form in and of itself. Food is performance, as evidenced by the glut of cooking shows and celebrity chefs in contemporary culture. Food is identity, as many associate family recipes and ethnic cuisine with a sense of belonging. But Gilbert also touches on the fact that food is power.
“Food corporations have huge power over our access to good food,” reflects Gilbert. “When processed, industrialized food takes hold globally, then there are more problems in which some people might be trying to abuse it or control it. And of course it takes hold of us.”
Whether you’re a foodie or a fast food fan, Gilbert says there’s no denying the enormous momentum that various culinary movements have gained over the last century. Vegetarianism and veganism have become the preferred lifestyle of millions. Organically grown fruits and vegetables have found their way into the mainstream. People swear by regimens like the Paleo Diet, or laud the virtues of eating nothing but raw foods. Authors like Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Cooked) have penned scathing commentaries on the contemporary American diet, and are generally associated with what’s known as the Slow Food Movement. It’s a culinary philosophy that embodies the ideals of farm to table cooking, and preparing food that’s as fresh and unprocessed as possible.
“[Slow food] doesn’t need to be fancy,” says Gilbert, “but it will take you a couple of hours. And there are issues with that. I argue with Michael Pollan that every working mother can’t do that every night. It’s nice to know that they now have community gardens, for example, in Harlem, in a part of New York where there isn’t much access to whole, fresh foods. But there aren’t going to be enough community gardens in Harlem to make sure that everybody has organic food, at least not for a while. So we can’t be puritanical about that. People have to eat what they can, and we have to try and give them access to the best possible food without getting righteous about it.”
Philosophy, politics and practicalities aside, food has been a communal tradition throughout the ages. Though it’s often at the center of festive celebrations, food is commonly offered as a source of comfort and sustenance in the face of unmitigated tragedy. Gilbert has taken several turns on both sides of that spectrum, and believes that there’s a simple, yet profound culinary commonality that transcends the contemplation of nutrition, philosophy, religion, politics and art.
“Gathering together to share food is one of the oldest human impulses,” says Gilbert. “Animals don’t really share and store food in the way we do. Anthropologists have discovered that the impulse to be together, to share, to store, to prepare, to transform—those are all fundamental human impulses, and that’s a way of coping with a crisis. It’s a way of affirming our humanity. We are here. We are together. We stand against this darkness that’s threatening us. We sit around the fire and we light up the darkness. And we cook.”Laura Jenkins is a writer living in Austin.