Feeding, Feasting and the human animal

What does eating, feasting and dining tell us about what it is to be human.

As a creator and lover of fine food, it was almost too much for my wife when my mate, who was over the other night, started regaling her with detailed descriptions of the salted caramel macarons he’d made for his sister’s wedding. Saddled as she is with a kitchen klutz for a husband, it was hard to avoid the feeling that her salivations weren’t limited to the thought of the food alone. When talk turned to why he uses Swiss meringue butter cream—“the egg whites make the icing more stable”—it was clear he’d stepped over the line. “Hold it right there Dave,” she laughed. “You’re talking dirty to me now. This has to stop.”

Master chefs are all around us, on TV, in large and colourful books, on the web, and in our midst. These days gourmet is the norm. Nigella, Jamie and Gordon are ‘rock stars’—instantly recognisable. We love not only eating, but talking about eating, reading about eating, and as the number of cooking shows indicates, it’s clear we like to watch.

What does this tell us about ourselves? Is this mostly the self-indulgent West looking for distraction and lacking sources of deeper satisfaction? Or more positively could it represent a growing appreciation for the aesthetic dimension of life to which eating can introduce us?

It turns out that an investigation of eating can tell us much about what it is to be human. Philosopher Leon Kass writes in The Hungry Soul, that eating reveals something about our innermost desires, appetites and longings shedding light on what is “universally, permanently and profoundly true about the human animal and its deepest hungerings”.

Kass argues that humans certainly feed as animals do—this feeding being the first and most urgent matter of survival for a human being. Think Maccas drive-through on the way home from a trip up the coast.

But through customs, traditions, and social interaction, we also eat, in a manner that’s different from other species. The progression towards something more sophisticated means we can dine and even feast, activities that at their best involve beauty, art, knowledge, wit, friendship, conversation and community. They incorporate grace, generosity, good taste and refined hospitality. And sometimes we are drawn to consider the mystery of where all this comes from and to give thanks for the source of such goodness.

Kass notes that we are alone among all living creatures in that we can speak, plan and create, while reflecting on the whole, marvelling at the splendour of life and existence and sensing its awe, mystery and wonder.

When eating progresses past feeding into higher realms it suggests something of the transcendent, the mysterious, that we are animal but more than that; that we are physical beings but are also in touch with something beyond the material.

There will be plenty who won’t agree with me, but imagine for a moment a dinner party of old friends getting together after some time apart. Several courses appear over hours of dining, drinking and conversing. There’s a scientific way of analysing all that transpires at this dinner—plenty that the biochemists, anatomists, physiologists and neuroscientists could accurately describe regarding chemical processes in various parts of the body and brain that are astonishing in their complexity and intricate detail.

But of course, such a description wouldn’t even come close to telling us what’s going on. One guest can’t quite manage to lose the acidic feeling in his stomach as he tries and fails to forget the precarious state of his business. Another diner, perennially proud of her successes, feels an even warmer glow of satisfaction than those drinking the bottle of Grange she came armed with. The host, enlivened by the wine, smiles at his wife across the table and thinks how much he still loves her after all these years. That wife, seemingly buoyed by the laughter and wit surrounding her, in truth is nagged by the guilt left after last week’s late return home from a work party. And another, at the first mouthful of her favourite dessert, lost in thought as she nostalgically recalls her childhood family kitchen.

Is all this interaction of memory and emotion to be thought of as singularly physical and material in nature? Writing in The Australian Book of Atheism Rosslyn Ives, President of the Council of Australian Humanist Societies would have us believe so. She confidently states that, “ … science has determined that living bodies are animated by nothing more than all the complex living processes working within them.” Science has of course done nothing of the sort, and most of us resist being spoken of in such reductionist terms. We have good reason to be wary of a view of life that regards humans as only animals, (albeit extremely complex ones), and every aspect of existence in purely material terms.

Kass suggests there is a huge gap between the ethically sterile nature as it is studied by science and the morally freighted, passionate life lived by all human beings

Atheist philosopher A.C. Grayling acknowledges that ‘the hard problem’ of conscience is yet to be solved and yet he allows no ‘wiggle room’ for those who see life in more than material terms. While Grayling has no fear this difficulty will one day be solved by the scientific method, his view of the world leaves many unanswered questions. Where does conscience come from if we are only the sum of our physical selves? What about love or heartbreak or our anger at injustice? How do we account for evil and goodness?

Leon Kass suggests there is a huge gap between the ethically sterile nature as it is studied by science and the morally freighted, passionate life lived by all human beings. When we start talking about meaning, and what’s good, true and beautiful, our science comes to an abrupt end. Kass doubts that life can be adequately understood on the premise that only lifeless body truly is, or that the manner in which we experience inwardness, self-consciousness, emotion or spirituality can be fully understood by analysis of matter and its purposeless motions.

Kass rightly sees feeding, eating and dining as but one good way of plumbing the vast depths of what it is to be human.

My 9-year-old daughter recently came home after two weeks in hospital following a burst appendix, blocked intestine and three operations. She suffered terribly and at times we feared for her future. When we got her home she was frail and pale, and we immediately set about building her strength. Her first substantial meal was a breakfast; her favourite, Eggs Benedict. It was a celebration. As a family we ate together, cheered her recovery, took photos and gave thanks for doctors and nurses, and supportive friends. It was a special moment, a coming back to life. A true homecoming. It felt almost sacred. Or was that, as some would have it, just my brain chemistry messing with my head?

Simon Smart is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity.

Follow Simon on Twitter @SimonJonSmart

This article originally appeared at The Sydney Morning Herald.