Political Eating

By Daniel Larison

Not enough has been said about John Schwenkler's fine TAC essay on culinary conservatism, and unfortunately too much of what has been said has been ridiculous, so it is gratifying to see my Scene colleague Alan Jacobs taking up the subject in this first of two posts.  Before I say anything more about the essay itself, there is something that needs to be addressed whenever we try to discuss the relationship between food culture and philosophical and political persuasions.  Something that culinary conservatives and their good friends the "crunchy" cons and agrarians generally take for granted, as John notes in his essay, is that eating is a political act.

This scandalizes and terrifies many modern conservatives because they seem to have a limited or debased understanding of what it means to say that something is a political act, and they tend to associate it for the most part with the government and the business of electioneering and passing legislation.  Were you to say that there is so much more to the life of a community, ta politika, than its government, laws and elections, these same conservatives would agree wholeheartedly and would probably make a point of saying admiringly that most people who would call themselves conservatives today are not activists and are concerned mostly with their families and churches.  Their conservative politics derives not from movement boosterism or extensive familiarity with the texts of the postwar American conservative canon, but from their habits and the virtues they try to cultivate in their own lives.  If you pressed these conservatives a bit more, they would acknowledge that it is better for families to eat together for many reasons, and many would recognize the integrative role that shared meals at religious celebrations have.  Some would even allow that it matters that the Eucharist is a re-enactment, or at the very least a commemoration, of the Lord's last meal on earth.  Even so, to then say that it matters in some important way what they eat, where it comes from or how the animals and soil that provide them sustenance are treated is usually to lose much of their interest.  Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, the language of unfettered desire and autonomy crops up: "I want what I want, and who are you to say otherwise?"  At least with many libertarians, this is to be expected, but it is a strange reflex for those who are supposed to prize restraint and wisdom.

To say that eating is a political act worries conservatives because many seem to cling, oddly enough, to an old liberal conception of private, personal life that they wish to preserve free from outside interference, including ultimately the "interference" of neighbors, relatives and local community.  Where social conservatives are often keenly aware of the effects that individual choices concerning marriage, child-bearing and child-rearing have on society as a whole, there often seems to be a strange disconnect when it comes to eating, as if an act that ties us into an elaborate web of economic relationships has no greater significance and no other implications other than providing nourishment.  It is one kind of activity, perhaps the only kind, where many conservatives act as if the consequences of personal choices do not extend beyond the front door.

At the same time, eating as a political act is nonetheless also a question of how we are governed, whom we choose to empower and how we choose to govern ourselves.  As John says:

“Eating is an agricultural act,” writes Wendell Berry. But Slow Food International founder Carlo Petrini argues that it is also a political onea deed no less significant than the ways we cast our votes. Hence even the smallest acts of resistance to the hegemony of the present system, where corporate representatives and industry-funded scientists at public universities collaborate with government officials on regulatory policies and nutritional guidelines, are crucial steps in recovering local culture and reconstituting our “little platoons.” This will nurture the ability to governor resist being governed.

Cross-posted at Eunomia