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Tuesday at the Wakefield High School library in Virginia, President Obama chose Mahatma Gandhi as the person dead or alive he would like to dine with. Surely the president would bring Mrs. Obama along. Mr. Gandhi would approve. He would have much to share with Mrs. Obama about kitchen gardens and manual work (getting the President to weed the garden would be just what he would prescribe).
I suspect that the Obamas would have been welcome dinner guests at Gandhi's ashram because Gandhi was a public figure who gave considerable thought and attention to food. As do the Obamas, who have publicly chosen a healthy way of eating.
Obama remarked lightly that the dinner would be a really small meal because Gandhi did not eat a lot. Neither indeed Gandhi's visage nor his inclination for fasts give the impression that Gandhi was a gourmand. Brillat Savarin has written that gourmandism is as an act of judgment. Gastronomic judgment is a thoughtful process involving the senses, a harmonizing of the mind and body. Gandhi understood this through practice. By experimenting, tasting and thinking about the effects of foods, he adopted a way of eating that appealed to his palate and meshed with his personal and political beliefs and values.
Gandhi, like Brillat-Savarin's "man of intellect," considered food in all its aspects. In his autobiography titled My Experiments With Truth, Gandhi writes extensively about the role of food in his life. His personal and political growth was reflected in the food choices he made. In his youth he reasoned that a meat diet would enable the Indians to overcome the British. Although he had secretly tasted meat, he honored his Hindu family's strict vegetarian rules but planned to follow a vegetarian diet until such time that he could bring about a food "reform" in the country and eat meat openly. He only became a confirmed vegetarian when as a student in England he became involved with the vegetarian movement. Over the years while he finessed the practice of satyagraha--non-violent, peaceful political action--he worked on a conscious way of eating that built on the strong foundation in vegetarianism.
A true gourmand, Gandhi knew only too well the sensual temptations of taste. He acknowledged that food controls the senses but also knew that the mind was at the root of all sensuality. This struggle found expression in his fasts. He found that abstaining from food in fact whet his appetite for food. It is natural to think acutely about food when one is hungry! He concluded that physical fasting had to be accompanied by "mental fasting."
Gandhi found the practice of self-restraint through food was but one way to bring about a harmony between the mind and body. Throughout his lifetime Gandhi practiced self-restraint in food as he did in his speech and actions. The practice of satyagraha was a form of this restraint. Only an astute politician who was also a gourmand like Gandhi could plan a peaceful campaign like the salt satyagraha--the campaign that marked the end of the British empire. Gandhi understood only too well the power of food and restraint. Salt is the finest test of restraint in food. A few crystals more or less can make or ruin a dish. A few tempting mouthfuls more or less can upset the fine pleasure of taste. Gandhi knew it from experience.
Obama's choice of Gandhi as a dinner companion only confirms that our President too is a gourmand. A small tasty meal with Gandhi would be just right for the Obamas.