The Virtues of the Table is sub-titled How to Eat and Think. It was the secondary title that attracted me to the book. It’s a book about food and philosophy, applying a philosophical approach to what we eat and how we eat it. It’s not a book that prescribes how to think about food, necessarily, simply one that asks us to think. As foodies, we think about food and eating a lot and The Virtues of the Table can help us think a little more clearly. If you are interested in food, our relationship to it, I think you might enjoy this.
The book is divided into four parts and each deals with an important aspect of food, from who we get it and how we decide what values are important to us when we source our food, to how we make and consume food. Each chapter deals with a particular issue and the virtue associated with it. Each chapter has a coda, often a recipe, that illustrates a point from the chapter. This makes the table of contents interesting reading in its own: chapter 5, for example, is Kill with Care, the virtue is compassion and the recipe lamb burgers. True to his own philosophy (explained in chapter 8 – Tear up the Recipes – Judgement – Hummus) the recipes are inexact. They encourage us to create foods that fit our palate and circumstances, to exercise judgement and learn what we like.
Baggini is a compelling and entertaining writer. He also manages to talk about ethics without pointing fingers. Food is an emotional issue and no one enjoys being lectured. Part of my personal food philosophy is that home-cooked (within reason – I’ll probably never make my own hot sauce) is good and cooking is a virtue. At one point, he suggests that one of the reasons people don’t cook isn’t that they don’t have recipes to follow, but that they have too many. All you need to be able to cook is a handful of dishes. Cooking doesn’t have to be scary or very exacting. I learned to cook with my mother, watching and emulating her so most of the dishes I cook don’t have recipes they are, in Baggini’s vernacular, simple and infinitely variable: pasta and tomato sauce, stir fry, bean stew, chilli, risotto, noodles in broth, vegetable soup, salad. They can be made quickly or slowly, fancy or plain and I could probably eat little else all year and never have two identical plates.
Baggini points out that we live in a time of plenty, in the West, and have access to a huge range of ingredients and cuisines. Trying to learn to cook from a book would be intimidating – where do you start? But cooking is something that we can share, or something that offers a bit of peace at the end of a busy day.
“What has been missing from the food renaissance is a rigorous thinking-through of why food matters and what our relationship to it should be. Without such a philosophy of food, our practices just become a contradictory mishmash of fashion, common sense, received opinion, prejudice and rationalised desire, and, indeed, the new food culture is patchy and incoherent: takeway on Friday night, farmer’s market on Saturday morning; local chard for dinner, premium imported orange juice and coffee for breakfast next day; low-GI spelt bread with high-fat artisan cheese.”
Baggini tries to define a philosophy of food, based on virtues, that helps clear some of the confusion. The virtues are attitudes, not rules, ways of approaching food. The very first virtue won my heart: dare to know. You can’t know everything about every item you eat, but read labels, ask questions and question news stories. Understand what terms mean and whether they are sensible. Is local, seasonal or organic most important to you? I was surprised to find that a PDO stamp on a product simply means that it adheres to a classification – sometimes quite a rigid classification – of production region and process. For some reason, I thought it meant more, that it was a stamp of superior quality. I now know it isn’t and that’s taught me to research labels and not blithely assume that they mean what want them to mean.
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
The above is a quote from Michael Pollan and advice I’ve found myself parroting a lot since I read it in The virtues of the Table. We watched a program about whether eating meat was safe or not and I asked C. if he thought the answer would be: “Yes, in moderation.” He did. And it was. Pollan sums up what we know for sure is good for us and the environment in seven words.
Foods are heralded as the next panacea or branded dangerous all the time. Advice changes (although mostly in detail – the overall distribution of what you should eat hasn’t changed much since I was a kid) and new super-foods are introduced regularly. Nutrition is complex so eating a wide and varied diet makes sense. Not too much of anything, but a bit of everything.
The Virtues of the Table has strengthened my resolve to think before I bite. I want to enjoy food and I want to enjoy good food. One of the way I can do that is by being more selective. Take cheese for example. I love cheese but I’m also quite fussy about it: I love good cheese. To me, good cheese is cheese with great flavour, interesting texture and an artisanal feel. I like a small-batch, unpasturised goats cheese with green, black or white mould on the outside. Cheese should be special, have a flavour that stands out and should be interesting when you smell it. Yes, I want whafts of barnyard, straw and feet.
There isn’t a good cheese monger near me so I used to settle for supermarket cheese. No more. Cheese isn’t a staple food, it’s a treat, so I’m going to have the best cheese I can source. That decision ticks a whole number of boxes for me: I maximise my enjoyment of a wonderful food stuff and my ‘cheese pound’ goes to people in an industry I want to support.
It’s impossible to be fully virtuous but thinking about what we eat and how we source it helps us make good decisions. The Virtues of the Table suggests virtues that we can aspire to, and how to think about our relationship to food, its place in our lives.
Eat, think and then eat again. (Mostly plants.)
Julian Baggini, 2014
Granta Publications, London.
ISBN: 978 1 84708 714 0
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