I’ve always believed that food–how we think about it, the role it plays in our lives–is the last strain of pure aesthetics left in this country. No one ever asks what food means. Why? because it doesn’t mean anything. It is too trivial. It is just there, on your plate. It is delicious, or it isn’t. You desire to know how it was made, or you don’t. You don’t eat expecting the experience to make you a better person. You’re not better than me if you like this meal over another. The only real question food demands that you answer is the one Walter Pater suggested we ask about all art: What effect does this have on me? and Why? And the answer for me is usually: heartburn, because I eat too fast.
Now, the flip side of this food talk comes when writers like Mallory Ortberg talk about food in books. For example, her article “Every Meal in Wuthering Heights, In Order of Sadness” is just the kind of lovingly meaningless literary chatter I like. Here:
Almost Not Crying Long Enough To Have A Bite Of Goose
“I waited behind her chair, and was pained to behold Catherine, with dry eyes and an indifferent air, commence cutting up the wing of a goose before her. ‘An unfeeling child,’ I thought to myself; ‘how lightly she dismisses her old playmate’s troubles. I could not have imagined her to be so selfish.’ She lifted a mouthful to her lips: then she set it down again: her cheeks flushed, and the tears gushed over them. She slipped her fork to the floor, and hastily dived under the cloth to conceal her emotion.”
Even to use the word “Aesthetic” in casual conversation is a sure way to alienate your audience. It is a foreign, archaic word, like “metaphysics” or “quotidian” or “stoic.” It’s not just that our vocabulary has narrowed. We have become a practical people. Functionality, objectivity, measurability are the words of the day. And really why not? Beauty (it is supposed) will not save the ozone layer, or make the computer faster, or improve your SAT scores. Art is not science. Science got us to the moon. And thus, the virtue in having aesthetic concerns or of being as “aesthete” is lost to us. That is, except in the domain of food. And there it is very much alive.
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