“Delicious” joins the great foodie movies

Words are the aspect of meals that helps their planning, description and acclamation.

Likewise, movies are additions – before, after, or with a glass of wine or popcorn –  that can also proclaim dining’s centrality to human existence.

Any good movie is bound to include meals. Charlie Chaplin shares his boiled boot in Gold Rush (1925). Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy play battling barristers in Adam’s Rib (1949), so that George Kukor establishes their happy domestic relationship by them working comfortably together in the kitchen.

It’s not enough just to show pretty food to make a foodie movie – that’s like bringing in stars like Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal without actually establishing their love.

Foodie movies (initial list below) have to bring the whole world together, however fleetingly. As Italian cook Primo reveals in Big Night (1996): “To eat good food is to be close to God.”

Délicieux (Delicious) (2021)

Where does Eric Besnard’s new movie, Delicious, rate on the foodie scale?

Not up with Babette’s Feast, but what is? But it sits alongside, say, The Truffle Hunters (2020) and Pig (2021).

Some movie reviewers mustn’t be blessed with the “sacred fire” that Brillat-Savarin described, so that they “regard meals as hours of enforced labour, put on the same level everything that might nourish them, and sit at table like an oyster on its bed”. Accordingly, critics who found Pig merely a trite satire revealed they had missed the central, dramatic point.

In Delicious, another big, obsessive chef has also retreated to the woods, but, whereas Nicolas Cage’s recluse produces one overpowering meal, Grégory Gadeboi’s character ostensibly opens the first restaurant a few days before the French Revolution.

Not that Delicious even tries to be accurate in its details. By 1789, a new kind of dining had already emerged based on restoring broths or “restaurants”, served in private booths. Even more to the point, Antoine Beauvilliers had already brought aristocratic dining to the streets of Paris.

I talk about these developments, and explain why true restaurants are “open domestic households”, in Meals Matter.

Overall, nonetheless, through unashamedly fictional means, Delicious makes bigger statements about the fundamental importance of gastronomic pleasure, and its relationship to French foundation myths.

It is, for example, entirely believable that the French Church decried underground produce as further from God – chef Manceron combines potatoes and truffles in his little pastries that give the movie its title.

In anticipation of you catching Delicious, I won’t give more of the plot, except to disclose that Isabelle Carré, although not so well known outside France, is mesmerising.

Initial list of foodie movies:

Tampopo (1985); Babette’s Feast (1987); Chicken and Duck Talk (1988); Au Petit Marguery (1991); Like Water for Chocolate (1992); Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (1994); Big Night (1996); Chocolat (2000); Mostly Martha (2002); Sideways (2004); Ratatouille (2007); The Trip (2010); The Lunchbox (2013); The Truffle Hunters (2020); Pig (2021); Délicieux (Delicious) (2021).

Add your favourite foodie movies in the comments.

Is the movie “Pig” for or against foodies?

(Perhaps it’s post-foodie)

The movie Pig, starring Nicolas Cage, tells of a recluse who leaves the woods in search of his stolen truffle-hunting pig in Portland, Oregon, where he was once an influential chef.

It mightn’t be everyone’s cup-of-tea; it’s filmed grimly almost entirely in the dark; Cage speaks somewhere between a growl and a mumble;  but I thought it great.

It’s a counterpoint to both the Truffle Hunters, about Italian men and their dogs, and SBS’s The Beach, showing Warwick Thornton cooking, and looking, for himself.

An even closer (although less successful) comparison would have to be the recent ABC-TV series, Aftertaste, about an authoritarian chef seeking to redeem himself back in the Adelaide Hills.

Mind you, Pig starts out deceptively as if about a brutal guy – with only a pig to share his meals – fighting the world. But it soon heads elsewhere, although exactly where, as in any decent artwork, can withstand endless interpretation. I won’t reveal too much, in case you intend taking the journey.

While the orthodox movie critics, with few exceptions, praise the movie highly, and especially the performances, the rest of the internet helps answer the big question, which is whether it’s pro- or anti-foodie.

Take this from the New Republic:

Pig cuts straight through foodie hypocrisy

The overwrought film from Michael Sarnoski contains a fundamental truth about a very sick industry.

It’s about time America became disenchanted with foodies. Pig, Michael Sarnoski’s foodie noir about loss, love, and labor in Portland, Oregon’s restaurant scene, doesn’t leave them much room for redemption…

This critic, Jan Dutkiewicz, disapproves of “obnoxious” restaurants and “foodie writing—think Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman and their literary progeny”. He opposes “elitist” fetishizing. And he congratulates the movie, which he didn’t seem to like much, for also exposing the industry’s abuse of workers and animals. (As a scholar, Dutkiewicz works on “improving the treatment of animals through the legal system”.)

The scathing, non-comprehending reviewer in the New Yorker declares the movie’s key moment to be when our martyr apparently learns “the awful truth of the restaurant world and of the world at large”.

Or we could take this:

‘Pig’ Review: A truly brilliant foodie movie

Not wanting not to spill the beans, Nick Johnston writes:

What I will say is that this is one of the great modern Food movies, and I would not be surprised to see allusions to it pop up in culinary culture over the next few years … It’s about our authentic relationships to the food we eat and the emotions and memories that come along with any given meal.

Other commentators remain enticingly ambiguous, like Sydney Morning Herald’s Jake Wilson, who says:

Moody, foodie drama with a menacing side serve of parody

… But he’s a foodie not a fighter, and the kind of reverential treatment that might be given to a samurai sword in a Tarantino movie is here more likely to go to a salted baguette.

Hillary Dixler Canavan organised a roundtable for the foodie website, Eater.com, where she’s a restaurant writer, familiar with Portland, and “obsessed” about the movie.

A Heated Discussion About ‘Pig,’ the Movie of the Summer

Eight Eater editors debate and dissect the new Nicolas Cage film about a man’s search for his beloved truffle pig

The foodies’ reactions turn out to be mixed, including Canavan’s:

It would have annoyed me much less if the film’s most important women weren’t dead or in a coma.

Needless to say, the theme of women gone missing is central to the movie. When a sympathetic baker recalls former times, and she finally hugs the grizzled hero, the camera pointedly retains its distance. A woman suddenly revealed in close-up is an intense movie high point.

So, is Pig foodie or anti-foodie? One answer could be that it’s anti-bad-foodie and pro-good-foodie, but I hesitate to divide foodies into, say, “deep” and “shallow”, even when I suspect fetishising.

I’d rather think of Pig as post-foodie in that it treats restaurant dining – and transcendent meals, in particular – with the utmost seriousness, while at the same time satirising ridiculous hype.

It’s not just about sublime tastes either, but very much also about the pleasure of sharing with a loved-one. At the climax, the tragedy turns out to be dining in the absence of not just a pig, but treasured human companions.

Loving taste

Don’t underestimate the human sense of smell!

The New York Times illlustrates smell

MARION AND I SHARED three mandarins yesterday, and were struck by the differences in taste. We declared the first the winner, the second relatively lacking, and the third must have been older.

But are we interested in taste? The evidence is that we moderns are alienated.

English speakers only added umami (savoury) to the standard four tastes of sweet, salty, sour and bitter towards the end of last century, and there’re more, seemingly, including fattiness.

We separately detect texture, temperature and “cool” menthol, “hot” chilli, “stinging” carbonation, etc, as well as the crunchy sound of those mandarins. On top, flavour relies on aroma, detected in the nose, and far too neglected.

Scientifically, Linda Buck and Richard Axel only discovered something as crucial as the human olfactory receptors as recently as 1991, sharing a Nobel Prize in 2004 (see explanatory diagram below).

As well, taste depends on the surrounding aesthetics and social comforts, and mindfulness.

Nonetheless, it’s an ill wind … The the science of smell has looked up these past months, after its loss (called anosmia from Greek an– not + osm­é smell) turned out to be a tell-tale characteristic of covid-19 (less so with the delta variant).

The sense can remain absent with long covid, and, if it returns, become mixed up. Under parosmia, normally pleasant smells can turn nasty, a problem for relationships.

Dogs and bees have now been trained to sniff out the virus in humans, and people presumably could, too, once they removed their masks – you might recall that good, old-fashioned, pre-“telehealth” doctors used smell as a diagnostic tool.

“What can covid-19 teach us about the mysteries of smell?” asked Brooke Jarvis in the New York Times magazine. As she explains, “The virus’s strangest symptom has opened new doors to understanding our most neglected sense…

“Where vision depends on four kinds of receptors — rods and three types of cones — smell uses about 400 receptors, which are together estimated to be able to detect as many as a trillion smells.”

Being anosmic herself, Jarvis already knew how modern people regard smell as the least important sense, the one they would be most willing to lose. Yet its loss devastates them. It’s dangerous not to smell the smoke of a fire, let alone “off” food, but it’s the pleasure that people miss.

Olfaction has tremendous hedonic importance. Smell sensations are now known to run through the olfactory bulb in the brain not to any one site, as with sight, but more widely to the brain, and not just for identification, but also to connect to memory and emotion. Smell is important for life’s enjoyment.

While doggy webpages continue to boast incredible canine abilities, in a breakthrough paper entitled “Poor human olfaction is a 19th-century myth” in 2017, Rutgers University neuroscientist, John McGann, decided:

The human olfactory bulb is actually quite large in absolute terms and contains a similar number of neurons to that of other mammals. Moreover, humans have excellent olfactory abilities. We can detect and discriminate an extraordinary range of odors, we are more sensitive than rodents and dogs for some odors, we are capable of tracking odor trails, and our behavioral and affective states are influenced by our sense of smell.

Pigs and dogs only seem superior for detecting truffles from their wonderful aroma (as in the beautiful movie, Truffle Hunters), because they have their noses closer to the ground, and are rigorously trained.

We are taught to read good books and admire great art, with few introductions to scent. Wine and perfume lovers undertake their educations as adults.

Ironically, lockdown gave a boost to sight’s dominance, as we concentrate on one continuous screen in hand and on wall, showing visual gags, slick dances, cool lifestyles, emojis, binges, cats, recipes presented by stylists, and cooking game shows (satirised in the kitchenette opera, Chop Chef).

But a wide world of smells or “osmocosm” has its supporters. That derivation from osme, the ancient Greek for ‘smell’ or ‘odor’” comes from food science writer Harold McGee in one of at least three books on the sense of smell that showed up as the virus struck:

  • McGee, Harold (2020), Nose Dive: A field guide to the world’s smells, London: John Murray
  • Barwich, Ann-Sophie (2020), Smellosophy: What the nose tells the mind,Harvard University Press
  • Dunn, Rob, and Monica Sanchez (2021), Delicious: The evolution of flavour and how it made us human, Princeton University Press

Even the human ability to detect a “trillion” separate odours is undoubtedly an underestimate, cognitive researcher Asifa Majid has now just reported in the journal, Trends in Cognitive Sciences. She has located conjectures as high as 1090 potentially detectable smells. “Contrary to the view that we are microsomatic [poor smellers], humans have higher odor sensitivity – that is, lower odor detection thresholds – than animals traditionally considered to be super smellers, including dogs and pigs.”

Majid is waking scholars to enormous cultural differences in the sense of smell. She reports that English has strikingly “few words for smell qualities” and “smell talk is infrequent, and people find it difficult to name odors in the laboratory”. From surveys, English speakers encounter vision words 1768 times more often than smell words.

Not having specific words, requires speakers to improvise, so that wines exhibit “pepper”, “vanilla” or “raspberry” notes. As a Ph.D. candidate at Monash University, Thomas Poulton, puts it, lacking many smell words, Australian English speakers resort to source-based descriptions, saying “like mint”, for example. He has just published a paper in Language and Cognition finding that, by preference, we rate a smell as pleasant or unpleasant, finding it “sweet”, for example.*

Cross-cultural data tell a different story. Many languages “have large smell lexicons (smell can even appear in grammar) in which smell talk is also more frequent and naming odors is easy”.

Majid is a leader in research that is finding hunter-gatherer cultures to be highly attuned. Unlike we moderns, hunter-gatherers give names to, and talk about, numerous smells. The olfactory “codability” is high. Linguists refer to the ease with which speakers find the right word as “codability”.

While the olfactory aspects of Indigenous Australian languages have been little studied, Clair Hill from the University of NSW has contributed pungent evidence from Umpila to an international study.** Umpila is still spoken among elders forcibly removed to Lockhart River, far north Queensland.

Remember that English shows high codability for colour, shape, and sound, and low codability for touch, taste, and smell. Hill’s data show that the Umpila language is precisely the reverse – whereas colour is ineffable (only three specific colour words – for red, white and black), the conversation bursts with smells.

Again, in Malay, shape is the most codable of the senses, on average, and smell the least; whereas, “in Umpila the exact opposite pattern holds—smell is the most codable and shape is the least”.

For pleasure, if no other reason, we’ve got to re-engage with smells.

Yet again, Brillat-Savarin proved ahead of his time with Physiology of Taste (1826). His first two “Meditations” cover scientific aspects of the senses, and taste, in particular. Taste is “the one of our senses which, all things considered, gives us the most pleasures”, he explains (§13). The rest of the book then examines the “moral history” of this most fundamental of senses, making for an Economics of Taste (as I argue in Meals Matter).

Even while carefully analysing the process, Brillat-Savarin tends to use “taste” for the combination of taste, other detection in the mouth, smell in the nose, plus the contributing factors, including physical and social circumstances, and attentiveness.

Next time Marion and I share mandarins, I should perhaps make tasting notes, articulating the finer aspects of the experience. Or maybe just enjoy them.

*Poulton, Thomas (2020), “The smells we know and love: Variation in codability and description strategy”, Language and Cognition, 12(3): 501-525

**Majid, A. et al., “Differential coding of perception in the world’s languages,” Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences USA, 6 November 2018; 115(45): 11369–11376

***Clair Hill has a chapter, “’Language of perception in Umpila”, in the Oxford Handbook of Language of Perception, published next year.

Diagram from Press release, NobelPrize.org, 2004

Why do we cook? It’s all about sharing

IN 1773, JAMES BOSWELL called human-beings the “cooking animal”. Yet, for all the cooking we do, we rarely ask why. And when we do, the most common explanation is far too narrow, and even misleading.

Appreciating cooking’s basis in cooperation flips conventional representations of not only cooking, but the world.

History of Cooks and Cooking, The Food Series by Michael Symons |  9780252071928 | Booktopia

Dictionaries head the disinformation. The Concise Oxford is typical, stating that to “cook” is to “prepare (food) by heating it”. Miriam-Webster suggests “to prepare food for eating especially by means of heat”.

Certainly, the verb “cook” often means using heat. But, as every cook knows, cooks do much more. Not merely standing at the stove, they freeze, pickle, and serve raw. They also weigh, count, estimate, clean, chop, slice, toss, beat, stir….

Before the actual preparation, they go shopping, run to the garden, open cupboards, and organise deliveries. Then they carry to the table, ladle, carve, arrange. Still smiling… wash up, take to the compost bin…

Even that is far from all cooks do, for they have taken formal or informal lessons, learned family recipes, made ethical choices, kept an eye on the budget, followed the festival calendar, and paid some attention to diners’ preferences. All this just to heat food?

While the assumption is often that heating improves taste, scientists such as evolutionary primatologist Richard Wrangham have claimed that such pre-digestion added to human efficiency (Catching Fire: How cooking made us human, 2009).

Paleoethnobotanist Kristen Gremillion explained in Ancestral Appetites: Food in prehistory (2011):

“The overarching benefit of cooking is that it acts as a kind of predigestion that extends the human body’s ability to extract nutrition efficiently, greatly increasing our ability to adapt to changing circumstances.”

As well as heating, Gremillion accepted other transformational techniques, including grinding, soaking and fermenting. Michael Pollan enshrined the idea in the title of Cooked: A natural history of transformation (2013).

All interesting, but none of this goes far enough. A fuller picture emerges with a distributional theory. This is the key argument of my book, A History of Cooks and Cooking, which came out in 1998. (The original publishers called it, The Pudding that Took a Thousand Cooks, and it has always remained for me, Cooks Made Us).

The cooks’ more exemplary instrument is not fire, but the knife. Our ancestors were cutting with flints well before – a million years before – they tended flames. They foraged, sliced and chopped to share food, and that continues to this day.

Heating food might increase its nutritional potential, but distribution is at the heart of society and culture. The archetypical campfire or pot brings people together, so that cooks weave entire ways of life. Cooks create civilisation.

I picked out the three moments of cooking: acquisition, distribution and organisation. That is, cooks gather food, and then divide and share it around. Throughout, they work with cultural patterns.

By dividing up food, cooks divide up labour, central to economies, as I have now explored in Meals Matter: A radical economics through gastronomy (2020).

Being so fundamental to human existence is cooking’s problem. Giving ultimate value to the sharing of meals challenges self-proclaimed authorities, who have championed their great tasks of religion, war, finance, industry and scientific inquiry. “Preparing food by heating” is readily distanced as “women’s work”.

Threatened by grassroots insurgency, ruling ideologues have consistently trivialised cooking. Plato’s philosophical dialogues explicitly put cooks down. Money’s wondrous logic now demands obedience.

With the power preaching from the capitalist clouds, we must, together, restore everyday reality. A good start could be in dictionaries, Wikipedia, science, common understandings…

Subversive political philosopher John Locke explained in a letter from France in November 1678: “We are not born in heaven, but in this world, where our being is to be preserved with meat, drink, and clothing and other necessaries that are not born with us, but must be got.” That’s what cooks lead us in, together.

Stock photo
Cooks Made Us in its original guise, 1998

Chop Chef, kitchen opera

A phantasmagorical opera about internet-charged cooking at the end of capitalism, how could I refuse?

Directors of Blush Opera (top to bottom): Luke Spicer, Jermaine Chau and Paul Smith

INEXPLICABLY, many friends “don’t like opera”. But they should have joined the audience for the final of only four performances of chamber opera Chop Chef at the Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, last Saturday.

Edging in age towards 30, the crowd might not have interspersed earnest applause with the occasional “brava”, but they whooped and stomped. More the Globe idea.

Surely Blush Opera (@blushopera) will arrange a further season of their competitive cooking show in song. I’d go again – this culturally-rich triumph demands more than one viewing.

Described as “clash of a highbrow form with lowbrow reality TV tropes and everyday language”, Chop Chef brings together seven great, mainly young singers and four-piece orchestra (clarinet, flute, cello and piano), conducted by Luke Spicer. 

The music is by Paul Smith, who is a senior lecturer in composition at the University of New England, an expert on anime and manga, and composer for toy piano. The libretto belongs to Julie Koh (@juliekoh), a satirical short-story author. Born in Sydney to Chinese-Malaysian parents, Koh studied politics and law, then quit a corporate law career to pursue writing, luckily for us.

The setting in a cooking competition studio allows extended fun with not just culinary obsession and television “reality”, but also racial and sexual stereotypes, and operatic musical forms with extended arias, satisfying choruses, and women, and the world, dying at the end.

True to both opera and tv formats, the six competitors reveal their back stories and dreams, and are “eliminated” in turn, each with a farewell aria. You might get a bit of the feel from “Studio 10”.

As to the characters, a successful, slim, Lean In corporate feminist with single-minded mottoes, Victoria (coloratura soprano Ayako Ohtake) returns as last year’s winner of Chop Chef. The “kawaii” Kitty (mezzo-soprano Jermaine Chau) has arrived in Chatswood via Happy Valley (a well-to-do suburb of Hong Kong, and racecourse). Her sob story is being born colour-blind, but now saved by her guide dog, a labradoodle. Kitty specialises in Hello Kitty milkshakes, refers to others as “babes”, and is doing it all for her labradoodle.

Kale (baritone Nick Geddes) is a Byron Bay influencer, whose form of address is “bruh”, and whose kale smoothies will put him in the league of other great inventors, such as Elon Musk. Andy (tenor Gavin Brown) is the “Asian fetishist”, who falls immediately in love with Kitty, and whose ambition is to take Asian fusion to the East. From Finland, Tom (bass-baritone Benjamin Caulkwell) is a gay, misogynistic lumbersexual into meat. Behind his deli door, the music will be pumping. Renée (soprano Lisa Cooper) is into vintage dresses and baking to make others happy, and sadly a loser, whose soufflé fails to rise (she does return glamorously in fascinator for the final bows, when we could have kept stomping and applauding).

The three stern judges, projected like Big Brother onto screens, are sung by the one baritone (David Hidden) in three different facial-hair disguises, and delightful accents.

The libretto carries far too many cultural references for any single audience member to pick up. It’d mean knowing cookery terms, millennial identities and their jargon, Puccini, Adam Smith, the tribulations of late capitalism, hedonistic philosophy, and no doubt stuff I didn’t even recognise. I did appreciate the transformation of Madama Butterfly into the “Asian fetishist”, who has discovered Nagasaki, and awaits his thankless lover’s return.

Rather than repeat lines, as usual in opera, the libretto keeps moving, constantly throwing off allusions and jokes. One extended aria concerns turducken, with animals swallowing animals, until the fly has to find its way out of the whale. The judges set a challenge to cook an authentically authentic dish – declared to be authentically authentic Italian. This is the occasion for a long operatic burlesque, hilariously stringing together every Italian word you’ve ever heard.

That verbal intensity could have left the music merely as backing, with little chance for a tune, but Smith has the confidence to more than hold his own, surely thrilled at the commitment and skill of all musicians and singers.

The wonderful singers can even act without hamming it up, presumably because they so readily related to the show’s content, and also to the credit of the directors of the seemingly flawless whole, Kenneth Moraleda and Nicole Pingon, and team.

I’ve possibly laughed more at the theatre, been moved by operas more, found topical revue more telling, but for up-to-the-minute laughs, sentiment, and satire… Chop Chef cries out for a new season.

Ayako Ohtake (soprano)

The Truffle Hunters – movie as portraiture

BEFORE WE GET any further: Italian white truffles are more marvelously aromatic than the French black, and have resisted cultivation, unlike the latter.

Many years before white truffles fetched several thousand dollars per kilogram, I found “the truffle man”, as promised, hanging around the square in Castellina in Chianti. He pulled the fungi from his overcoat pockets, and we negotiated.

Being winter with the car windows closed, for a few kilometers the stink made me fear I had been conned. But that suddenly swapped to triumph, and the scent wafted through our ancient mill for days.

Admittedly, I treated them too skimpily, compared to a subsequent restaurant bowl of tagliatelle completely covered by better-quality truffle shavings, so that the warmth lifted the vapours.

Perhaps people who catch the new movie, The Truffle Hunters, filmed around Alba in northern Italy, will divide in two – those who do not appreciate what the fuss is about, and those who do. But I am being too precious – black truffles can be good (Lièvre à la royale is sublime), even artificial “truffle oil” gives the idea, and the new movie certainly communicates their desirability.

The Truffle Hunters (2020)
The Truffle Hunters

Admitting to not having appreciated truffles when treated to them at a restaurant, and declaring The Truffle Hunters more about old men and their dogs than old men and their truffles, the Guardian reviewer Peter Bradshaw nevertheless sums it up: “A strange, funny, mysterious and rather beautiful film”.

It is no documentary, more a work of art. In place of voice-overs, interviews and facts, the movie poses one or another truffle hunter in a carefully-chosen setting for a single, beautifully-lit shot. The hunter talks with another hunter, or with his dog, his dealer, his broken-down typewriter or, in one case, his wife.

In place of any fly-on-the-wall pretence (as in Honeyland), the movie employs the studied gaze of the portrait painter. Breaking up the sequence of canvasses, the camera occasionally follows a hunter and his dog(s) searching the woods, and digging up the prize. Once or twice, the static approach gives way even more frenetically to a camera strapped to a dog racing through the undergrowth.

By way of another contrast with cagey old men with their loyal dogs and hard-won, nobbly finds, dealers are shown attracting much fancier prices than they pass on. A cushion is carried past the pews and placed between two large bottles of wine on a secular altar, where a massive truffle is later displayed for photographers. In one glorious vignette, supported by Puccini, a dealer eats a truffled egg dish.

The portraitist’s art is more than finding a good likeness, and the “more” makes for Bradshaw’s strangeness, mystery and beauty. This self-possessed movie acknowledges independent cinema luminary Caroline Libresco as “spiritual advisor”.

Talking meals

CHECK OUT my online chat with senior Economist journalist Dominic Ziegler, organised by Brisbane bookshop @avidreader4101 here.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-1.png

I had a writerly go – extending beyond 100,000 words – to demonstrate that Meals Matter, but here I try to persuade you that the book’s not just a pretty cover.

Yes, meals matter, as you might accept. But do you really appreciate how much meals shape our politics, economics, and social analyses?

Two centuries of laissez-faire, then free enterprise ideology, and, lately, neoliberalism belittled meals. Our lives were meant to centre on money instead.

But read the book, and catch up with the conversation.

Online event!

Talking Meals Matter

CHECK OUT my online chat with senior Economist journalist Dominic Ziegler, organised by Brisbane’s Avid Reader Bookshop here.

Leading Brisbane bookshop @avidreader4101 hosts a conversation between senior journalist for the Economist magazine DOMINIC ZIEGLER, and Meals Matter author MICHAEL SYMONS

I’ve had a writerly go – extending beyond 100,000 words – to demonstrate that Meals Matter, but now I persuade you on Zoom that the book’s not just a pretty cover.

It’s one thing to agree, yes, meals matter, but another to recognise just how much that shapes our politics, economics, and social analyses.

Two centuries of laissez-faire, then free enterprise ideology, and, lately, neoliberalism belittled meals. Our lives had to centre on money instead.

The book demonstrates the upending of economics – once the management of households, with meals at their heart, it became the mathematical depiction of competitive money-making. Once associated with wellness and well-being, “wealth” became financial. Concern for appetite became glorified greed. And so on.

But read the book, and catch up with the conversation from 18 January.

Not just a pretty cover

The magic of money

Human need vs capitalist greed: A gastronomic rebuttal of mainstream economics

By Michael Symons

[This essay, summarising some main themes of Meals Matter: A Radical Economics through Gastronomy, was published in Economic Sociology & Political Economy, 10 November 2020, now with minor corrections]

“A TAP OF MY MAGIC WAND … and all you see is money!” With this, the conjurer distracts attention from healthy bodies, happy households, wise governments, and nature. Even the actual market of bread, apples and beer disappears behind the price mechanism.

For more than two centuries, capitalism has rewritten economics.

The ancient Greek oikonomia – “household management” – concerned the satisfaction of basic human needs. Economics remained that way until the rise of for-profit corporations in the late-eighteenth/early-nineteenth century. To suit capitalism, modern economists concentrated everyone’s attention on the powerful tool, money.

PIG TODAY-Dollar gains further traction on Trump tax talk

Mainstream economists celebrated financial rule, and relegated human needs to, at best, incidental beneficiaries. Instead of appetite, the motive became greed. Instead of well-being, wealth meant bullion. Instead of natural growth, it became money’s eternal expansion. Instead of every individual counting, it became each for himself.

Success was measured by market indices, inflation, deficits, GDP, bottom lines, and tax cuts.  Money gained such a hold that it shrank a person to a buyer-seller, merging human-beings with for-profit corporations. The relentless push for profit culminated in crises in health, equity, democracy and nature.

My latest book, Meals Matter: A Radical Economics Through Gastronomy, explores how actual economies put food on the table, and how capitalism up-ended that, neglecting human needs, with unhappy results.

Dedicated to gastronomy as the “diner’s sense of the world”, the book rereads Epicurus, Hobbes, Locke, Quesnay, Brillat-Savarin, Marx, Jevons, Weber, Mises, Polanyi, Fisher, and Friedman, among the mix. Taking meals seriously upsets political and economic orthodoxies, as I sketch here.

By “radical” economics, I don’t mean extreme, just getting back to basics – true to the word’s derivation from the Latin radix for “root” (as in “radish”).

Such grounded activities as gardening, cooking, drinking, and talking politics might seem “trivial” from some superior vantage-point. However, the “little things” are highly significant at the grass roots, and multiply across humanity. The deterioration of trade relations with China or some militant action might claim “importance”, but only from its links to everyday experience.

Meals Matter shows how such Enlightenment thinkers as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau still based their arguments on the fundamental need to eat and drink. For them, the natural law of “self-preservation” called for “subsistence”, “comforts” and “conveniencies”.

Locke’s core right to “life” meant to a living or livelihood, that is, to “food and raiment, and other conveniencies”. Locke quoted Richard Hooker’s statement that, to obtain necessities, “we are naturally induced to seek communion and fellowship with others… in politic societies”.

For Locke, in the Second Treatise chapter, “On property”, the plain fact was that people, “once born, have a right to their preservation, and consequently to meat and drink, and such other things as nature affords for their subsistence”. He raised questions about when an apple becomes “one’s own” (that is, property) – is it when digested, chewed, cooked, brought home or picked? The individual also had to be permitted to labour on their self-preservation, within bodily, social and natural limits.

Enlightenment theorists knew several types of household or economy, each based on a different mode of distribution. Only two types used money, and even then it was not essential.

The original oikos or family economy circulates nutriments through communism. Although sometimes distorted through paternalism, the family follows the guideline, “from each according to ability, to each according to need”.

Finding parallels with the domestic household, Enlightenment thinkers knew the human body as the “animal economy”, employing digestive and circulatory systems.

In like manner, the “political economy” was a “body politic”. Depicting the head, heart and arms in the frontispiece to his Leviathan, Hobbes saw money coursing around the body politic as preserved food, kept for another time or place.

In Chapter 24 of Leviathan, Hobbes explained:

By Concoction, I understand the reducing of all commodities, which are not presently consumed, but reserved for Nourishment in time to come, to some thing of equall value, and withall so portable, as not to hinder the motion of men from place to place; to the end a man maye have in what place soever, such Nourishment as the place affordeth. And this is nothing else but Gold, and Silver, and Mony.

The body politic’s “head” – in charge of collecting and redistributing food (or its substitute) – could be an autocrat or group of people. (My book discusses the political banquet in more detail.)

Thinkers back then spoke of the confining, “natural economy”. Charles Darwin still used the Linnean phrases, “economy of nature” and “polity of nature”, in Origin of Species in 1959; Ernst Haeckel coined “ecology” in 1866.

As well as these economies, a separate market economy, based on exchange, became more visible in the mid-eighteenth century. The French économistes, led by Madame de Pompadour’s physician François Quesnay, found parallels of the œconomie animale in the distribution of grain, hampered by the interventions of the “baker-king”.

Visiting France through 1764-1766, during an experiment in grain-trade liberalization, Adam Smith picked up économiste ideas about leaving the market to its own devices. Nonetheless, Smith still introduced Wealth of Nations in 1776, with the recognition that, through the “co-operation and assistance of great multitudes”, such as the butcher, brewer, and baker, “we expect our dinner”.

Radical ideas supported American, French, and subsequent republics. However, just when the people were successfully contesting autocracy, corporate capitalism muscled in.

Jean-Baptiste Say’s interpretation of Smith as a free marketeer influenced a new generation of business-linked political economists (no longer physicians and philosophers), among them David Ricardo, who found importance in the arithmetical relationships between workers’ wages, business operators’ profits and property-owners’ rents.

Along with that, capitalist authority relentlessly undercut and also, where convenient, appropriated Lockean guidelines. In particular, the confusingly-named “classical” liberalism handed the human right of self-preserving liberty to money, thereby backing “laissez-faire”, then “free enterprise” and eventually “neoliberal” campaigns.

With capitalism picking up pace, radical arguments from below returned with Karl Marx, for whom the “first premise” of society remained “eating and drinking, housing, clothing and various other things”. He found importance in the class struggle over the ownership of the means of production.

With the “marginal revolution” of the 1860s, Stanley Jevons, Carl Menger and other economic theorists elevated market exchanges of actual meat, beer and bread into differential equations.

“Political economists” dropped the modifier through the nineteenth century, becoming, imperialistically, “economists”. Self-styled “economists” presented “the economy” as little more than profits and prices, and so tasteless, colourless, unequal, and not alive. For decades, the financial superstructure suppressed radical insights.

The Sixties brought some relief, when the technological sophistication of capitalist industry required a more highly educated workforce, and slicker marketing formed desirous consumers. The counterculture gained gastronomic appetites, with concerns for unprocessed foods, co-ops, communes, “dropping out”, the environment, and, in 1969, the Black Panther free breakfast program for school children.

The now abstract notions of “liberty” and “equality before the law” were employed to free up aspects of society and culture, among the most notable being women’s liberation. Centre-left governments of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Paul Keating and others found common cause with neoliberalism’s libertarian tendencies, while remaining ensnared in money’s insistent logic.

With a resurgence of conservative reaction, money resorted again to culture wars, with liberals now the dangerous “other”.

Recommending a considerably more intricate, life-centred economics, Meals Matter looks to the everyday activism of growers, cooks, and meal-lovers through a bewildering array of grassroots movements for urban farms, alternative economies, Slow Food, food justice, food sovereignty, agroecology, and more.

Radical economists must call money’s bluff, and prosecute a full agenda, including the freeing of “free” markets, held hostage to corporations.

Fundamentally, hope lies in the joyful rediscovery of the “little things” for which all individuals have equal rights, pursuing life, liberty, and happiness in harmony with the rest of nature.

What explains economists’ raptures?

supply and demand chart
Economists’ esoteric truth

THE SIMPLE PHILOSOPHICAL distinction between materialism and idealism is a handy way to understand how neoclassical economists came to worship the price mechanism as God. Here is Michael Symons’ essay on the topic, recently published in the online New Economy Journal under the heading, “Capitalism is idealism, perfected”

FOR MANY OF US, the market is an actual gathering of human buyers and sellers, chatting, tasting and sharing produce, which is often fresh and artisanal. At market benches and shop counters, people display and take in a community meal.

Mainstream economists turned that market into differential equations. In so doing, they perfected the idealism of capitalism. That is a big problem.

Idealism puts some high authority in charge of ordinary lives. The ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, claimed to glimpse the “world of forms” that shaped our inferior version.

Market capitalism directs human-beings through numbers, from higher interest rates to a supermarket saving of 60 cents.

Often perversely labelled “materialism”, the financial heights remake the world. Seemingly inevitably, profit and loss impose their rarefied rule. Of indisputable rationality, the price mechanism is God.

The promise is that, strictly obeyed, money will multiply eternally – cynically called “growth”, because it actually destroys growing things, from the heating biosphere to koalas without habitats.

Money is weightless, but a fierce enforcer that accumulates through heartless extraction, most efficiently from those with less.

It’s the most rationalised value system conceivable – valuing something not for being ethical, beautiful or tasty, but purely by price.

Every nonreflex action is taken to obtain or increase value in some sense; otherwise, no action takes place

– Investopedia explains

Many capitalist apologists pretend to being hard-nosed dealers in the grubby arts. Yet they worship an entirely spiritual desire, called “greed”.

The distinction between idealism and materialism is that the former sees the world as run by higher thoughts, and the latter by material fundamentals.

Idealists teach that actual bodies and everyday practices become misleading diversions, and materialists emphasise the provisional nature of ideas.

As a meal-lover, I fear that idealism is far too dangerously easy to adopt, unthinkingly. Proclaimed truths mould our minds.

Open-minded protagonists, on either side, allow that both rational thought and natural forces play big roles. The difference comes from which holds more sway. Do ideas come “from above” or “from below”?

A greater appreciation of the distinction should help to understand, and combat, the dictatorship of money. Does money run us, or do we keep it as an occasionally handy instrument?

I don’t propose some anarchic or hermitic refusal of money. Money is not without its uses, but only when clearly kept as a tool – as a community exchange system, and as a funder of cooperative endeavour.

Nonetheless, in moving towards a radical political economy, the plan is to regenerate care and consideration from below. Great schemes are built from the ground-up. Ordinary, everyday actions generate democratic supervision of political expenditures, programs and safeguards.

This is liberal “radicalism”, which does not mean extremism, but arguing from material basics… it literally gets to the root (Latin, radix) of the matter.

Materialists play close attention to commonplace sensations and activities. These “little things” are slighted as “trivial” from lofty vantage-points. Up-close, they are highly significant, and they multiply across human experience. The deterioration of relations with China, the rise of the FTSE 100, or some militant action might seem “important”, but only from its emergence from, and continuing connection with, everyday realities.

That’s to uphold the benefit of gardening, cooking and eating together. Community gardens and food rescue schemes are acknowledged actions of a “new economy”.

My latest book, Meals Matter: A Radical Economics Through Gastronomy, explores how a cluster of actual economies puts food on the table. There is no single “the economy”, but bodily, domestic, market, political and natural economies.

Capitalism simplified and up-ended that, diminishing basic human needs, with unhappy results. Instead of being guided by appetites, we were instructed to pursue ever-receding gain. Instead of cooperating through meals, we were to compete for dollars, euros, yuan and yen.

Radical arguments “from below” return to “the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, and have shelter and clothing”, to cite Friedrich Engels (at Karl Marx’s graveside, 17 March, 1883). Likewise, in a lengthy introductory section to Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith launched modern economics with the claim that, through the “co-operation and assistance of great multitudes”, such as the butcher, brewer, and baker, “we expect our dinner”.

Too often, higher authorities have exploited, distorted, and suppressed gastronomic knowledge. The historical materialism of Marx and Engels turned into a narrow class war over the ownership of “production”, which split ruler irrevocably from ruled.

Meanwhile, in the service of the mighty financial superstructure, modern economists transformed market exchanges of actual meat, beer and bread into the perfection of the price mechanism.