Arts & Culture

Unsettling the table

Feb 15, 2017 Alex Lepianka

I was recently gifted Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher’s 1937 Serve It Forth. This book is a meditation on culinary history that begins by announcing its intention to break with earlier traditions of gastronomic writing.

In impeccable prose, Fisher traces the history of culinary excesses in Greek antiquity, offers a literary account of the potato and maps the pleasures of dining alone. Her writing, reminiscent of past ages, welcomes us to the table of Roman and Rhenish nobility alike. Unlike most of her culinary contemporaries, Fisher invites us to relate to the feasting monks of medieval Europe and balk at the “barbaric accumulations” of food displayed on the tables of the French bourgeoisie.

Serve It Forth recalls the earliest works of the gastronomic essay. Its founding authors were French noblemen writing in post-Napoleonic France with a nostalgia for the Ancien Régime into which they were born. The works were magisterial treatises on the importance of food for the human condition, and their writers, Grimod and Brillat-Savarin especially, set the style for food writing that still runs through critiques today. As Brillat-Savarin wrote, “the pleasure of the table belongs to all ages, to all conditions, to all countries, and to all eras; it mingles with all other pleasures, and remains at last to console us for their departure.”

However, Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste (freely available online) makes strong claims to an authoritative knowledge on what it means to be “an eating man.” He establishes the fact that “animals fill themselves; man eats” as an “eternal basis” of his reflections.  A scientific treatment of gourmandise, the philosophy of high taste, The Physiology organizes a series of meditations on the pleasures of cuisine in 19th-century France. As Fisher points out, she cannot fully break from the precedent, even a century later.

This is because gourmandise is part of an imperial project in which we, like Fisher, are still invested. The tables, described not only by Brillat-Savarin and Fisher, but also by contemporary critics and reviewers, are the tables of those at the helm of systems of colonial and neo-colonial rule. Between his aphorisms on fish and fowl, Brillat-Savarin reveals that good taste, as he understood it, could not exist without the systems of expropriative trade between France and her colonies. All men eat, but eating tastefully distinguishes the beneficiaries of imperial dominion.

From its beginning in imperial France, gastronomic writing differentiated the gourmand and his society from the oppressed Other – the unsavoury memory of whose suffering cannot be allowed to spoil dinner. In flowing prose, Fisher also accounts for pleasures in their historical contexts—webs of gendered, class-based and racialized systems of benefit and oppression.

Of course, we still eat in a historical context. Our cuisine continues to depend on global flows of bodies and, with them, food cultures. News outlets speak of Syrian bakeries opened by refugees; bánh mì was a 2016 staple; boutique restaurants proliferate, gentrifying low-income neighbourhoods and extending the domain of whiteness and capital. As they did two centuries ago, the pleasures of the table remain invested in problems that extend well beyond the dining room.