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 summarises some main themes of Meals Matter: A Radical Economics through Gastronomy, and 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.

“Mesmerising” descriptions of food

Weekend Australian 2
Weekend Australian, Books, 8-9 August 2020

YOU MIGHT NOT expect to read a scholarly tome about economics for pleasure. But this is gastronomic economics. As the Weekend Australian reviewer announces:

Revelling in the history, preparation and philosophy of food, he weaves its poetry into the text. Along with mesmerising descriptions of food …

For gastronomic works, such as Meals Matter, hedonism is not only a topic, but also a method, which is one reason why, unlike standard economics texts, I open each chapter not with a graph or financial table, but with a meal description.

Weekend Australian 1

Another reason is that the book challenges orthodoxies across economic theory, legal theory, political philosophy, food studies, and more. In the face of such transgressions, the hope is that the opening meals start out from a shared need to eat.

Hearteningly, academic readers for successive publishers gave strong support. The back-cover endorsements come from professors in disciplines as varied as politics, economics, anthropology, and European history.

In the 1980s, the “gastronomy” label put off academics, but this has plainly changed.

Eating and drinking brings in everyone, or almost everyone, and so what about the general or “trade” audience? At least in the book’s first extended review, Antonella Gambotto-Burke finds it enjoyable, with “mesmerising descriptions” (Weekend Australian Review, 8-9 August 2020, pp. 14-15).

 

Unlike the usual, more scholarly review, Gambotto-Burke does not attempt to set out the argument. Rather, she picks out key points, and joins the radical celebration, recommending:

Meals Matter is a passionate and inspiring proposal for change.

Upskirting shows how porn culture has caused a breakdown in ...
Antonella Gambotto-Burke

Antonella @gambottoburke is a seasoned reviewer and author (her next book is Apple: Sex, Motherhood and the Recovery of the Feminine). Inevitably, in close to 1300 words, she gets a couple of things wrong. I’m no “naive” idealist (that’s the self-proclaimed economists); I have thought of myself as a restaurateur but never as a chef – that was Jennifer Hillier at the Uraidla Aristologist (maybe I should?); and life generally improved after Dickensian England, because that was an exceptional low point, whose miserable conditions and food adulterations were brought on by laissez-faire capitalism.

For the full review, try clicking on Gambotto-Burke’s twitter link.

But since the Murdochs keep their gems behind a paywall, I’d better give some more, fairly random snippets, firstly, about present disasters:

Meals are now dismissed as “privileged leisure, self-indulgence, refueling, women’s work, or fattening”.

He is disturbed by how the stock market and money (“bread, dough, bacon, gravy, lettuce, or lolly”) have replaced organic food and its markets in human consciousness. Value, he observes, is now equated with finance.

He accuses mainstream economists of belittling “life-giving systems” and supporting “a Midas fantasy”, in which the “sounds, sights, and smells of actual markets” is ignored in favour of an arbitrary pricing system.

Neoliberalism, he writes, corrupted liberalism. Nineteenth-century economists reframed healthy impulses as greed.

And, secondly, about doing better:

He sees it as a “radical restoration of political philosophy and economics”, and he puts his case with the fervor of an idealist who addresses life as a pleasure founded on love and respect for his fellow man and, in that, for the planet itself.

This resplendent vision features a wealth that “might consist of forests, streams, farms, clever artisans, feasting townsfolk, wise elders, and grand city dining halls”: a utopia that makes no allowance for human fallibility or life-saving corporate homogenisation.

Meals Matter is a passionate and inspiring proposal for change. Symons’s suggestion that the “festal core” of democracy needs to be resurrected is certainly correct. Pleasure, in our culture, has come to be synonymous with stress relief rather than passion or joy.

Similarly, there is no question that sustainability and compensatory materialism must be addressed on a global level. We desperately need more love and idealism, if tempered by the recognition that the future cannot be found in the past.

 

Murals matter

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Diego Rivera, “Wall St Banquet”

VISUALLY, MY BOOK OPENS and closes with murals. The cover borrows the “Wall Street Banquet” of Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, and the back flap author photo was taken in a restaurant in Germany. I suppose it’s a coincidence that the book is walled-in, so to speak, although there’s something about murals …

Rivera’s “Banquet” is part of a huge set in Mexico City, covering three floors and staircase of the Ministry of Public Education building, taking Diego and his team six years to finish. That was in 1928-29, as Wall Street crashed.

In this panel, eight diners share champagne, while being served ticker-tape streaming the latest stock market prices from the golden machine under a glass dome. Behind that is a bank vault with megaphones. A Statue of Liberty lamp balances on the table in the foreground.

Rivera, “Dinner of the capitalists”

At least some of the well-dressed guests are historical figures, including a Rockefeller, whose family would commission Rivera, who was an on-and-off-again communist, to work in the U.S. Inevitably, in 1934, the family instructed labourers to scrub out his most ambitious American piece, a huge mural in the foyer of The Rockefeller Centre, New York.

Meals Matter might almost equally have been illustrated by a nearby  mural in the Mexico series – “The dinner of the capitalists”, which shows a ruling family served coins, with revolutionaries with abundant food in the background.

Both murals belong to the building’s third level, which illustrates the “Ballad of the proletarian revolution”. Over the Wall St banquet, the banner translates as: “the rich man keeps thinking how to double his money.” The words over the capitalists’ dinner say: “Gold is worth nothing if there is no food”.

I came across Rivera’s murals when idly searching for an illustration of banquets, whose interpretation is important in Meals Matter. (I ended up with a photo of an electric chandelier in Glasgow!) The Wall St version is not strictly a banquet; in this case, “banquet” connotes privilege.

Symons portrait Max 7

The back flap author photo was taken in mid-2019 by my wife, Marion Maddox, in Hannover, Germany. She took out the phone at the Max Walloschke restaurant, where we went several times. Our revisits explain the two versions (shown here) in different clothes in front of different still lives.

Max Walloschke, who was a weightlifter, professional wrestler and German bowls champion, opened the Kneipe (“pub”) on 19 June, 1952.

IMG_20200323_124344735_HDRIn Berlin, I suspected that smart locals crowded old-time Austrian restaurants, because they could not admit to enthusing about what some might call “heavy German kitsch”.

However, Max Walloschke remains unapologetic, calling itself “Das Kultrestaurant am Steintor” – the “cult restaurant at the Steintor”, that is, the place with a dedicated following at the city’s old “stone gate”.

Another of their claims is “Hier gibt es das wahrscheinlich beste Eisbein der Stadt” –  “probably the best pork knuckle in town”.

The restaurant’s official slogan, “Gutbürgerliche Küche und gemütliches Ambiente seit 1952“, uses two words that are allegedly untranslatable. “Gutbürgerliche” suggests “homely” in the sense of lots of sausages, potatoes, and beer. And “gemütlich” hints at a “cosy” atmosphere, and more, because: “Cosy captures an element of it but crucially lacks those of friendliness and belonging.”

Max postcard
Max Walloschke postcard

The restaurant also boasts “authenticity” and “tradition”, which we can believe, and “Herzlichkeit” (“warmth”), which we can confirm. (I plan to say more on this.)

As immoveable artworks, genuine murals (rather than wallpapers) have tended to be sponsored for public places, including cafes and restaurants, where they often employ faux architectural elements to give the illusion of grandeur, space or being in the homeland – sometimes all at once, such as a panorama of the Bay of Naples through trompe-l’oeil pillars. The more Gutbürgerlich murals of beer, pork and vegetables encourage Gemütlichkeit.

I must find out the name of the painter, whose food murals contribute so warmly to Max Walloschke’s welcome.

“Wall St Banquet” on left

The economy isn’t about money. It’s about putting food on the table

Our Enlightenment predecessors recognized not one but five economies – and the pandemic has reinvigorated our taste for them.

By Michael Symons

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(Op-ed published under ourEconomy in openDemocracy, 19 June 2020)

POLITICAL LEADERS AND ECONOMIC commentators pronounced the coronavirus crisis a balancing act between “lives” (on one hand) and “the economy” (on the other). To save lives, “the economy” would have to contract, until it, too, needed saving – when we might have to sacrifice lives.

But what is this singular “economy”?

Economists model “the economy” through the price mechanism, and evaluate it through such measures as Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Even many economists have grown restive, warning, for example, that the GDP is misleading, and recommend such non-financial indicators as “well-being”.

The deception goes much deeper. Broadly, “the economy” puts money in command. Under the guise of the old “laissez-faire”, then “free enterprise”, and more recently neoliberal “greed is good”, money funded its own self-aggrandizement. The resulting ideology handed enormous power to finance and business chiefs – and governments, often on money’s behalf.

As I set out in my new book, Meals Matter: A Radical Economics through Gastronomy, for two centuries, modern economists misappropriated Enlightenment ideas on behalf of money. Their distorted “economy” might have boosted productivity, but worsened inequality, demoralized democracy, and tipped the natural world towards disaster. Please, no more “business as usual”.

What is an economy? As those political leaders hobnobbing less with CEOs might readily accept, every economy centres on the distribution of nourishment.

What is an economy? As those political leaders hobnobbing less with CEOs might readily accept, every economy centres on the distribution of nourishment. An actual economy puts food on the table. It’s life-giving, which is why care, health and food workers never stopped being “essential”.

Back when Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations launched modern economics in 1776, many writers well understood the gastronomic basis of economies. Even Smith argued that, through the “co-operation and assistance of great multitudes”, including the butcher, brewer, and baker, “we expect our dinner”.

More than that, Enlightenment philosophers recognized five, interconnected economies. Each type of economy supplies sustenance in a distinct way, with money surprisingly inessential. While side-lined by economists, these five are everyday realities for eaters. The lockdown renewed attention to all five, and dramatized the need to rebalance them.

First comes the domestic economy. Society’s “building-block” was the original oikonomia. Such ancient Greek writers as Xenophon instructed on the management of the family home (or oikos). Economics advised on housework, indoors and out. The family’s method of sharing food and its labour among themselves was defined by sociologist Max Weber a century ago as communist. Given the history of paternalism, Weber referred to what he called the “ideal-type”, but, most certainly, no money required.

The virus brought the domestic economy roaring back. Home offices, home schooling, and home cooking all expanded, complete with the widespread rediscovery of sourdough baking. Many predict that, having been rediscovered, this economy might not entirely snap back to “the economy”. For 51% of respondents of one U.S. survey (late-May 2020), the “new normal” would include continuing to cook more often at home. Together with more people preferring to work from there, cooking might now not go the way of home sewing – from commonplace to minority hobby.

In Adam Smith’s day, Enlightenment intellectuals were preoccupied with the political economy (from polis, the ancient Greek for “city”). This is a town, nation or similar conceived as a great household. Some central authority accepts responsibility for the distribution of nourishment, acquired through a community-wide division of labor. This method is food redistribution (although the term has come to mean transferring resources from the rich to the poor, or vice versa).

Since their earliest examples, temples and courts coordinated wide gathering and serving of food, centred on often ostentatious-seeming sacrifices and banquets. With increasing sophistication, redistribution seemed less directly nutritional. In a decisive development, authorities adopted money taxation and disbursement as an intermediary. As philosopher Thomas Hobbes pointed out in 1651, money became a more transportable and less perishable food substitute, which circulated like blood around the “body politic”, for conversion back to nourishment, when required.

Dramatized by the storming of the Bastille on 14 July, 1789, the French Revolution was meant to democratize the monarch’s role as “baker-king”, including Versailles banquets. On the Revolution’s first anniversary, General Lafayette supervised “endless tables” under Parisian trees for 22,000 provincial representatives, followed by 5,000 of the poor. However, attempts at literal feasting in the streets demonstrated the sophistication already attained by supply chains.

9780231196024The modern banquet is an intricate affair, almost lost to view. Yet the coronavirus has brought this political economy to the fore, with governments directing social distancing, shifting resources to health, boosting emergency food and survival incomes, and also spending to save “the economy”.

When Hobbes imagined the political economy as a giant Leviathan with a crowned head over an agricultural nation, he saw a “body politic”, drawing an analogy with the human physiology. The terms “physiology” and “economy” were virtually interchangeable at the time. French économistes would gain the nick-name “physiocrats”, for example. Furthermore, Enlightenment intellectuals spoke of the person as an animal economy. Each of us can be viewed as an economy, centred on nutrient flows.

Liberal thinking emerged with Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson arguing every individual’s equal need, enforced by nature, for self-preservation, primarily through nutrition, and best served through a commonwealth of mutual support. They established a near-sacred right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The liberal response to the pandemic has underlined this social contracted care for the individual. By contrast, more authoritarian leaders have downplayed individual health for the sake of “the economy”. With the decline in the neoliberal promotion of liberty, rightwing leaders are increasingly inclined to identify “the economy” with “the nation”.

Typically of Enlightenment economists, François Quesnay was a medical professional – he was Madame de Pompadour’s physician. By 1747, when writing on the animal economy, he found parallels in the social distribution of primary production, notably the buying and selling of grain. Quesnay decided that, like the body, the market economy was preferably left to work “naturally”. Rather than the “baker-king” controlling prices, Quesnay saw benefits in market exchange. French économistes had a huge influence on Adam Smith, when he socialized with them while living in Paris during early free-market experimentation.

With the nineteenth-century rise of corporate capitalism, Smith’s early supporters promoted the market’s “invisible hand” as superior to any other economic coordinator, notably as much more efficient than democracy. They advocated liberty for money, while ignoring equality, life and happiness. Dropping “political” from their name, they imperiously proclaimed themselves “economists”.

Later in the nineteenth century, “marginalist” economists used the mathematical calculus to describe the behaviour of market prices, so mesmerizingly that they thought they studied nothing short of “the economy”. John Maynard Keynes became synonymous with some pushback within the ranks. However, again with the Ronald Reagan/Margaret Thatcher era, neoliberal leaders obeyed economists’ fundamentals to restore supreme freedom to money.

Significantly, the virus exposed the hollowness of demands for “small government”. With budget deficits of lesser concern, given obvious government support for “the economy”, many citizens hope that democratic power might more forcefully save a fifth economy, the most essential of all.

The coronavirus starkly reminded that all economies depend on the intricate web of nutrient flows of the natural economy. Charles Darwin still used that term, “natural economy”, in his Origin of the Species in 1859 (German zoologist Ernst Haeckel introduced “ecology” ten years later). Undeniably, money’s ceaseless push for so-called “growth” has trampled on actual growth.

In summary, the present tumultuous rebalancing has demonstrated the market economy to be poorly-equipped to cope with viral attacks on the animal economy, leading to renewed reliance on the domestic economy, while governments at local, national and global levels have reasserted the political economy. Finally, as players at all levels must surely soon accept, the overall, natural economy must return urgently to prominence, or we’re all shut down.

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This article by Michael Symons was originally published on openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons Licence. If you enjoyed this article, visit openDemocracy.net for more.
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