jump to navigation

The Ethics of Food: Why not Horse Meat? March 2, 2013

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Current Events, Ethics, Food and Drink, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Food.
Tags: , ,
6 comments

A scandal is shaking up Europe: meat departments in supermarkets have been pulling “beef” from the meat counters, because it has turned out that horse meat DNA has been present in what was sold as beef. And lately the Swedish furniture giant Ikea has been pulling their meatballs (oh no, not that!) and sausages from stores in 21 European countries. According to an AP report,

“Monday’s move comes after authorities in the Czech Republic said they had detected horse DNA in tests of 1-kilogram (2.2-pound) packs of frozen meatballs labeled as beef and pork.”

 According to Ikea their stores in the US are not affected, because they use meat from suppliers in the U.S. However, Burger King recently severed ties with an Irish supplier because of horse flesh contamination, and Taco Bell has has similar issues.

 So this is now an expanding scandal–but what exactly is the problem? First of all, it is of course a matter of consumer confidence: You buy something believing it is beef, so you don’t want something that’s not beef. (If you were actually shopping for a horse burger in France, you would not appreciate if the meat had been mixed with pork, or ostrich. It is a matter of consumer expectations.) But second of all, there’s the horse thing.

 In some places of the world they eat horse, and like it. Growing up in Europe, I’ve been served horse burgers myself, and I didn’t much care for them; they tasted too sweet for me, like a hamburger with honey. In certain cultures in Southeast Asia dog and cat meat is on the menu. In some villages in Africa they have, at least until recently, eaten gorilla. In some remote locations in the South Pacific “long pig” was considered an acceptable food item (at least according to legends and Hollywood movies) until well into the 20th century. And we all come from distant ancestors who ate just about anything that would keep them alive. In some places they have even eaten dirt, but that’s not digestible. Meat is. Food can be many things to many people, and just because something can be digested doesn’t mean we accept it as food. Food taboos are known all over the world, and some are founded in the culture’s religion (such as the ban on consuming pork in Judaism as well as in Islam, and the ban on eating beef in Hinduism), while others reflect memories of past contaminations (and historians speculate that perhaps most food taboos have such contamination fears as their point of origin).

 But some of the food taboos in a modern, largely secular culture such as ours are neither founded in religion nor based on past memories of contaminants. It isn’t inherently any more unhealthy to eat horse, dog, or cat that it is to eat beef, but most of us wouldn’t dream of serving or eating those animals, because we regard them as pets, and even as family members. So there is the familiarity factor, and the cuteness factor, but of course the food taboo can also include a “Yuck” factor such as in our reluctance to eat rats. (And how about snails? Oysters? Prairie oysters? Depends on what we’re used to. When the eponimous hero in the movie Tom Horn is served lobster for the first time, he quips, “I’ve never eaten a bug that big.”)

Our legislation doesn’t always reflect such taboos, or is even clear about the prohibitions, and the reasoning behind them. We can’t slaughter, serve or eat dogs and cats. Up until 2011 a horse could not be slaughtered (for human consumption) in the US, but Congress did not extend the ban which then expired.

  In Nov. 2011, Congress decided not to extend a ban on USDA horse meat inspections. Over the five years prior to that, Congress banned the USDA from using any taxpayer funds for horse slaughter inspections through its annual budget appropriations for the department. And since the Federal Meat Inspection Act requires the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to inspect animals for slaughter, carcass by carcass, there was no way for horses to make it to American dinner tables.

 But since the ban has been lifted, there still are no protocols for the USDA to conduct equine inspections.

 “Despite a November 2011 decision by Congress not to extend the ban on horse slaughter, the USDA says there are no establishments in the United States that slaughter horses.

“It is a hugely political issue – it has to do with the slaughter of horses and whether that’s acceptable to U.S. society or not – and so there are two sides to the argument,” said William Hallman, director of the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

 Opponents of horse slaughter essentially say eating horses is not part of American culture, equating it to the slaughter of other pets.

 “We have a 250 year relationship in the United States with horses and eating them has never been a part of the equation,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States. “It would be quite a turn in the road to view animals who helped us settle the country as an appetizer or main course.” “

 But didn’t oxen also help us settle the country? Those big Conestoga wagons were sometimes pulled by oxen. And oxen have pulled plows. Every time we eat a steak or a burger, we bite into the remains of a steer. Some gratitude! The fact remains that our food taboos are selective, and based on feelings as well as tradition and convenience. Some people won’t eat “anything with a face.” Some won’t eat anything with a cute face. Some will eat anything as long as it no longer has a face. How do you feel about the horse meat issue? Would you eat horse? Why or why not? And is there an inherent moral difference between eating horse, beef, pork, snake, kangaroo, or grubs? Not to mention “long pig”? Let’s assume that none of the species are endangered…So where do we draw the line? At the level of intelligence, a Kantian response? Pigs are far more intelligent than horses, according to the experts. How about according to the amount of suffering, a utilitarian approach? If emotional suffering (=fear) counts, then we all know what “Silence of the lambs” means, and animal behaviorist Temple Grandin has taught us that the fear factor is very high in animals being led to the slaughter. How about another utilitarian angle, a distinction between the suffering of one animal feeding many people vs. the suffering of one animal feeding just a few? (A steer vs. a chicken, for example). (Or how about the choice of ethical egoism: satisfy your own needs in pursuit of your own happiness?) Regardless of our underlying moral theory we make choices, and they are grounded partly in our traditions, and partly in our feelings, rarely in dispassionate logic. So granted that our cultural choices of food are more driven by emotion than other considerations (unless we’re starving), then at what point does your food ethic kick in?

Intoxication September 27, 2012

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Food and Drink, Philosophy of Food.
Tags: , ,
2 comments

Seilenos-Dionysus

Cross-Posted at Edible Arts

A bottle of Jack Daniels is intoxicating if you drink enough of it. The ambient music of Steve Roach is intoxicating as well. Clearly, they are not intoxicating in the same way.

The Jack Daniels will cause drunkenness; but the experience of drinking plays no role in the intoxication just as the experience of taking a sleeping pill has nothing to do with its effects. The effect is all that matters, and you will be just as intoxicated if you drink absentmindedly. Drunkenness is an experience, but it is an experience in which our attention is not directed at anything in particular.

By contrast, with music, the listening itself is crucial to the intoxication. The intoxication is not just an effect of the music; the experience itself, and the attention we give to it, is a necessary component. The hearing is itself intoxicating, and the experience is about something—namely the music.

Happily, wine is intoxicating in both respects. In sufficient quantities it causes the intoxication of drunkenness but the experience of tasting wine is itself intoxicating. The smells, flavors, and textures of wine can be moving and exhilarating just as the sounds of music can be when we direct our attention to them.

As Roger Scruton writes in his article “The Philosophy of Wine” (available in this anthology)

“The intoxication that I feel is not just caused by the wine: it is, to some extent at least, directed at the wine, and not just a cause of my relishing the wine, but in some sense a form of it. The intoxicating quality and the relishing are internally related, in that the one cannot be properly described without reference to the other….I have not swallowed the wine as I would a tasteless drug; I have taken it into myself, so that its flavour and my mood are inextricably bound together.”

Scruton’s analysis seems right up to a point but I doubt that aesthetic intoxication is wholly unrelated to the mild, alcoholic buzz induced by wine. The flush of exhilaration caused by the alcohol (in small quantities) seems to sharpen one’s anticipation, and lends itself to feelings of enchantment that may influence our perceptions and judgments. Even in contexts where I taste and evaluate many wines, and must spit and dump to remain sharp, enough alcohol is absorbed through mouth tissue and accidental swallowing to influence my mood. The attentional focus of relishing and savoring are important but I doubt that they are the whole story.

The intoxication of music may also depend on effects that go beyond savoring. Music influences our moods and expectations in ways that are likely to profoundly influence our judgments about the music.

Recent research has demonstrated the role of neruotransmitters in our enjoyment of music:

Our experience of the music we love stimulates the pleasure chemical dopamine in our brain, concludes a new study produced by a slew of scholars at McGill University. The researchers followed the brain patterns of test subjects with MRI imaging, and identified dopamine streaming into the striatum region of their forebrains “at peak emotional arousal during music listening.”

Not only that, but the scientists noticed that various parts of the striatum responded to the dopamine rush differently. The caudate was more involved during the expectation of some really nice musical excerpt, and the nucleus accumbens took the lead during “the experience of peak emotional responses to music.”

In other words, just the anticipation our favorite passage stimulates the production of dopamine.

I doubt that this kind of influence necessarily involves critical reflection, although the study does not explicitly address this point. It is also not  surprising that increased levels of dopamine are implicated in drunkenness.

Scruton wants to distinguish between intoxication I (drunkenness) and intoxication II (aesthetic appreciation) by insisting that relishing or savoring—a kind of critical inspection—is involved in the latter but not in the former. It is that moment of thoughtful reflection, and our ability to form a representation of the music or wine, that enables us to appreciate the finer points of wine or music.

But I doubt that the content of that critical inspection can be sharply distinguished from causal effects of the wine or music that may not be part of our representation of the wine or music.

It may be that the two forms of intoxication are more closely related than Scruton allows.

Dionysus would not be surprised.

Authenticity and Food Rules August 30, 2012

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Food and Drink, Philosophy of Food.
Tags: , , , ,
3 comments

Authentic stampCross-posted at Edible Arts 

Cooking is an art mired in tradition. Each nation has its food rules encrusted with the patina of age and each region within each nation has its way of doing things that seem natural and “right”, and violations are met with moral indignation and contempt.

In Italy, grated cheese is never added to seafood, oil and vinegar is the only proper salad dressing,  and coffee is never consumed during a meal. In France, salad is always eaten after the main dish, never before, ketchup is not a condiment for pommes frites.  Even in the “anything goes” United States, beans are part of a chili recipe only in certain regions of the country; and do not eat Carolina Barbeque in Texas.

But of what value is authenticity? Does it matter if these rules are followed or broken?

Italian chef Sara Jenkins points out that such “food rules” conceal more than they reveal.

Italian food and flavors changed dramatically after 1492 with the influx of the New World fruits and vegetables — tomatoes, corn, beans, peppers, potatoes — that were gradually integrated over four centuries of gardening and cooking and are at the core of today’s version of Italian food. If we wanted to be really authentic with Italian food, shouldn’t we do away with all the invasive species? Doesn’t that make tomato sauce and polenta inauthentic?

“Food rules” ignore the fact that all food traditions have been influenced by outsiders, all are a hybrid hash of influences thrown together by the movement of populations. Whatever “authenticity” means it cannot mean pure or unadulterated.

Authenticity is not about origins but about the commitments people make and what those commitments reveal about their sensibility. There is a reason why tomato sauces marry nicely with pasta and why a tomato served with olive oil and basil is heavenly. Tomatoes may not be originally Italian, but Italians have done wonderful things with tomatoes. They committed themselves to tomatoes, discovered how they resonate with their local ingredient, and now there is a certain way with tomatoes that is uniquely Italian.

So should we just throw out the food rules?  I think not. Food rules must be respected because they set the table for innovation—they define the standards that innovation must meet. Food rules say: “If you want to violate this tradition it better be good.” Without tradition, innovation is just novelty.

However, anyone who is just a slave to tradition and rigidly conforms without entertaining new ideas is violating the very identity of the tradition—its’ ability to be affected. That is, after all, what sensibility is. What makes traditions great—and this is certainly true of Italian food traditions—is their capacity to seamlessly absorb new influences.

Tradition and authenticity are not opposed to innovation–they depend on it. No tradition can remain alive if it does not innovate by accepting and transforming influences from abroad. Jenkins wonders about whether innovations can be authentic:

I have found the combination of soy sauce and extra virgin olive oil to be delicious. Is that a bad thing? It’s certainly inauthentic right now, but will it be considered a standard element in Italian cuisine 50 years from now?

If there is something about Italian cuisine that is enhanced by soy sauce, then soy sauce will become authentically Italian. If I should hazard a guess it will gain entry as an addition to fig puree or the secret ingredient in a meat ragu. Or perhaps if Chef Jenkins is bold she will offer it as a variation on Florentine Steak.

Poetry in Food August 23, 2012

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Food and Drink, Philosophy of Food.
Tags: , ,
4 comments

atelier crenn

Cross-posted at Edible Arts

One of the great obstacles to thinking of food as a form of art is that we are accustomed to thinking of food as a collection of flavors and textures that, although pleasurable, lack meaning. Flavors and textures, so it is argued, are not about anything and thus are not representations of an object, place, or person. In this they differ from painting, linguistic arts, and more controversially music, all of which have meaning and which thus qualifies them as art forms.

Chef Crenn, owner of Atelier Crenn, a restaurant in San Francisco, is pushing against this view and understands the depth of meaning that food can have.

Ms. Crenn’s dishes, which she dubs “poetic culinaria,” are all meant to express artistic ideas, in the same way that a line of poetry is meant to communicate more than the sum of its words. A recent 12-course, $160 grand tasting menu was also written as a poem. On the menu, the line “a shallow pool stirs,” for example, accompanied a dish of radish tea with sea urchin and caviar; “as first buds appear” went with a dish of oysters and egg-white foam decorated with tiny flowers.

The rest of the article describes how Crenn used a bird’s nest spotted on a walk as inspiration for a dish called “Birth” which resembled a bird’s nest and which signified the new beginning she must undertake after the foie gras ban in California goes into effect.

One could argue that Crenn’s cooking gets its meaning and thus its artistry from the stunning visual appearance of the food and the title of the dish. Thus, it is poaching on the visual and linguistic dimension for its claim to be art. In other words, the flavors and textures, the elements related to taste, are not doing much artistic work. Having not tasted Crenn’s intriguing culinaria I cannot say what work flavor is doing to enhance the perception of genuine artistry. But there is nothing in the nature of art that entails that art can employ only a single sensory modality. Film for instance employs many sensory modalities. And the dish did include remnants of her foie gras supply, thus clearly flavor and texture contribute to the meaning of the dish.

Many works of art get some of their meaning from language. We would be hard pressed to grasp the meaning of a work such as  Debussy’s La Mer (The Sea) if he hadn’t given it that title. Yet surely instrumental music is an art form despite the difficulty in locating its meaning.

The exclusion of food (and wine) from the realm of fine art increasingly seems like a mere prejudice (or a matter of historical practice) thanks to chefs such as Ms. Crenn, whose cooking I look forward to sampling the next time I’m in San Francisco.

Ugly Food March 18, 2012

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Art and Music, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy of Food.
Tags: , , , ,
2 comments

ugly pig

Cross-posted at Edible Arts

One persistent, serious argument against the view that food preparation can be an art is that food preparation, unlike the visual arts, lacks deep meaning and the ability to represent the many dimensions of human life. While paintings can represent and comment on the horrors of war, mine the endless permutations of modern alienation, or subtly expose the character flaws of a fatuous nitwit, food is about only flavor and texture. We learn little about ourselves or the world through food regardless of how well-prepared so the argument goes.

Food writer John Mariani recently gave a version of this argument:

There is ugly art (Hieronymus Bosch) and troubling art (Goya’s Disasters of War) and art that is deliberately in your face (Kerouac’s On the Road), disorienting (Kubrick’s 2001), even repulsive (the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen”). Cooking, on the other hand, should be none of these things except, perhaps, beautiful to look at on the plate and delicious on the tongue. Creative cooking might well enlighten a person to new possibilities or ways of thinking about a pea shoot, and that is a good thing in a world of fast, frozen, chemically-enhanced foods. Cooking can be provocative, but it is the rare chef who makes food that is deliberately distasteful or that seeks to outrage people, as great art often does.

Apparently, Mariani missed the “Wicked Meal” episode of Top Chef, where the challenge was to make “evil” food for the Evil Snow Queen fetchingly played by Charlize Theron. And he must have missed the anthropological accounts of women expressing anger and resentment through the inedible dishes they serve to guests and families.  (See “Thick Sauce” by Stoller and Olkes reprinted here). Clearly, chefs and cooks, when they are so inclined, can make food that represents the horrible and ugly. But, nevertheless, Mariani is right that food, in the ordinary contexts in which food is served, must taste good or it will not serve its main functions of nourishment and enjoyment. The food served on Top Chef during the above-referenced episode was tasty despite the grotesque connotations.

However, I think that episode of Top Chef is in fact instructive, not only regarding the nature of food, but the nature of art. The wasted, deformed bodies depicted in Goya’s Disasters of War are indeed grotesque. Yet even the ugly must seduce if it is to be art.

disasters of war

We don’t recoil from viewing these etchings and run screaming from the museum in a fit of rage or fright. We are fascinated by Goya’s extraordinary ability to use line and shadow as a vehicle to highlight atrocity. The spectacle of a artist relishing violence and mayhem is itself seductive and the contrast between the blindness of atrocity and the prurient insight we gain from viewing is part of the seduction. Formally, the rough lines and use of shading focus our attention but the muted colors have a distancing effect on the viewer.  The aim is to spark reflection on atrocity but the vaguely cartoonish characters contain a different message—the slaughter bench of history is so pervasive that one in the end can only laugh.

We might react emotionally and empathically to violent visual art but we do so because we view it from a safe distance—where real fear or real revulsion are inappropriate. Our response to the ugly and horrifying is sublime in Edmund Burke’s sense of that term—art puts us at a safe distance so we can reflect, not merely react. Something similar could be said of the Sex Pistols—they use revulsion in order to depict the sterility and nihilism of modern society. But if we felt revulsion toward the Sex Pistols, we simply would not listen. What they represent is repulsive but their means of representation is not, at least for their fans.

Art like food must “taste good” , give us pleasure, if its representation is to succeed. I do not know and do not wish to know anyone whose aesthetic appreciation is of the ugly as such—who gets pleasure not only in viewing what is ugly but reveling in the ugliness of the presentation. That is surely pathological.

Our reaction to food is quite similar to our response to Goya’s painting. There is nothing in ordinary life more violent than the act of eating. We rend and tear at our food after it has been slaughtered, butchered and burned to a crisp—and then we swallow and assimilate it to our own substance. Yet we are attracted to the act of eating via the pangs of hunger and the charms of flavor and aroma. All eating represents the horrible and the grotesque. That we fail to attend to it is testimony both to our capacity for self-deception and the talents of chefs who induce us to find pleasure in their presentation.

Food may be limited in what it can depict (although I think its limitations are exaggerated) but it is not mute when it comes to representing the ugly.

My comments on other aspects of Mariani’s argument are here.

Real Men Don’t Eat Fiddly Foods! February 15, 2012

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Food and Drink, Philosophy of Food.
Tags:
4 comments

124598_4563

Cross-posted at Edible Arts

 

Esquire’s “Eat Like a Man” blog features John Mariani confidently contending that cooking is a craft, never an art.

Thus, imagination and creativity go into cooking, often at a very high level, at which point it is called haute cuisine. But there is nothing that rises to the level of true art in a craft whose very existence depends on the constant replication of a dish, night after night, week after week.

The occasion for Mariani’s diatribe against culinary art is a new book which consists mainly of pictures of:

…cooks’ hands putting the final touches on dishes — a periwinkle on tapioca, a dot of sauce on octopus, a blow torch used on cactus pads.

Given the venue, I suppose the subtext here is that real men don’t eat fiddly foods topped with periwinkles, when the carcasses of large-boned animals can be slathered with Q-sauce and washed down with a pitcher of Bud Light for a fraction of the price.

Subtext aside, Mariani’s arguments are interesting in much the same way a speech by Newt Gingrich is interesting—one shivers in anticipation of impending collapse when bluster is so perilously perched on non-sequitur. So it is worth unpacking the arguments if only for the spectacle.

With a healthy dose of charity, I can discern 5 arguments in Mariani’s piece:

(1) Cooking requires the constant replication of a dish and is thus inherently a reproduction; works of art are unique.

(2) Cooking is science-based and thus cannot be an art

(3) Art can be ugly, troubling, or repulsive; food by contrast cannot be deliberately distasteful.

(4) In cooking, form must follow function. Thus, cooks must make guests happy and this often requires simplicity and making things “taste like what they are”. In art, (by implication) form is not bound to function, simplicity is not a virtue, and art is essentially about creatively modifying the object being represented, not showing it as it is.

(5) What is typically called culinary art involves extravagant display or adding decorative flourishes to traditional ingredients. This is not art because (by implication) art is not about decoration or extravagance.

There is too much misunderstanding of both cooking and the arts to reply in one blog post. So I will take up these arguments in separate posts over the next week or so.

But his first argument that individual dishes are reproductions and thus cannot be original works is simple nonsense. Copies of paintings are indeed mere reproductions, not original works. A print of the Mona Lisa is not a work of art because painting is an autographic art—only the painter can directly cause the work to exist, and there can be only one legitimate instance of it. But many arts are allographic—copies of an original are genuine instances of the original. My copy of Hamlet is a work of art even though it is a duplication of the original. CD’s by Springsteen or performances of Beethoven are instances of works of art despite the fact they are reproductions.

Cooking is similarly allographic. Individual dishes are instances of a recipe just as a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is an instance of its score. So the fact that line cooks churn out 25 copies of a dish in no way shows that cooking is not an art–unless Mariani is prepared to claim Beethoven and Shakespeare are mere craftsmen.