The French philosopher Michel Onfray is best known in Australia for his lively polemic The Atheist Manifesto and his visit to the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2007. A self-styled hedonist, Onfray likes to tell the story of the heart attack he suffered at the age of 28 and how he rejected medical advice on the grounds that he’d prefer to die eating butter than to “economise my existence with margarine”. Onfray’s response to this premature health crisis was to write a book on the eating habits of philosophers, published in French in 1989 and translated at last into English. It’s an accessible and amusing read that demonstrates above all that the modern fad for competitive cuisine and utopian diets is nothing new.
Rousseau was the first of the moderns to write extensively on natural foods and the importance of eating seasonal produce. Sumptuous meals, he wrote, led to pauperisation of the other, and meat to aggression and war. Milk, eggs, salad, cheese, brown bread and table wine should be enough for any man. Greenhouses were an abomination and eating fruit out of season neither pleasurable nor nutritious. The utopian socialist Charles Fourier went a systematising step further, inventing the term “gastropher” to describe a secular priesthood that would advise on food as a source both of health and sensual satisfaction. Gastronomy, Fourier claimed, should be taught from an early age as a “pivotal science”, encouraged by competitions where teams create dishes and juries taste them to choose a winner. Cooking well becomes democratised as a path to perfection, a kind of early version of My Kitchen Rules.
Onfray’s book is larded with amusing anecdotes. Immanuel Kant believed it was essential for good digestion to dine with others, and is reputed to have sent his valet out to procure a companion from the street if friends were unable to make it to lunch. The Italian futurist Marinetti raged against pasta, an attachment to the past that made men sluggish and pessimistic. Cuisine could be revitalised by the use of technology to develop bizarre new dishes like “The Excited Pig”, which is a whole salami “served upright in a dish containing some very hot black coffee mixed with a good deal of eau de cologne”. (Heston Blumenthal, eat your heart out.)
Nietzsche wondered if the whole of philosophy had not been merely a misunderstanding of the body and the need for an adequate theory of nutrition, more important than any “theologian’s curio”. Onfray concurs. A “science of the mouth”, he argues, only half tongue-in-cheek, is an essential component of a humanist “dietetics”, understood not just as a knowledge of nutrition but of “tastes”, an experience of food that contributes to an aesthetics of “sculpting” an enhanced self. This is “practical atheism”, wherein “food and sustenance became materialist principles for an art of living without God or gods”.
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