On Eating Alone, or Engagement and the Social Valuation of Food Consumption

I noticed after returning from Montreal that I was finding eating much less enjoyable than I did while I was there. Trying to find a reason for this, I went over several possibilities. One is that in Montreal I was free to purchase dairy products to consume at home – I certainly do value soft french cheeses, and they certainly work well in Montreal. But, upon further reflection, I think the larger difference is that while I was in Montreal, I was always cooking for two, or being cooked for by another. Eating with others is really a completely different experience to eating alone – cooking isn’t a chore, but a party when done not only with others but even in the presence of others. Drinking wine with dinner is a bit introspective when alone, but convivial when with others. With others, there is no rush to get things done, the preparation, even washing up, is itself a joy. Even more than this, I found shopping for food more enjoyable in Montreal. Here, I take shopping to be a necessary evil – I don’t like parting with money, and I only buy what I consider the cheapest, which rarely leads to a balanced pantry.

These realizations have made me seriously reconsider my relationship with the food I purchase, cook, and eat. Actually – that’s the wrong way of parsing the question, the relationship is not one only between me and the food and the cooking and the eating – the relationship is also with others, whether present or absent. This is the old question of the location of consciousness – we tend to think of it as if its in the head, but actually its not in the head but in the relation between myself and others. Perhaps not only human others, “I” am literally in my engagement with physical things, never radically abstracted from them. But, this has become far too philosophical – what do I mean?

Basically this – that food is not an object of measure, like an atom or a plant in a museum. It is more like a car or a hammer – a “tool”, not in the sense that it has a purpose (although that is true also), but in the sense that I am engaged with it as something which becomes part of my body. Not only in eating it, we all know that, what I am trying to say that food, in my concerned preparation of it, is already part of me in the same way a hammer or a car becomes part of my body when I am using or driving it. This might sound ridiculous, but this hundred year old phenomenological insight has been confirmed by neuroscience when it was discovered that my brain literally treats the hammer as if it were part of my hand. And, for those of us who drive, we all know that we say “ouch” when we hit an unexpectant bump not only because the we might be surprised, but because we intuitively empathize with the machine as an extension of our own arms and legs. When I brake – my foot is not on the pedal but on the road, right up to the point when I lose control (then my foot is most certainly on a pedal).

But, enough about neuroscience and phenomenological interpretations of driving – I am trying to talk about my engagement with food. Food enjoyed in the presence of others somethings has a magical quality. Think vegetables at thanksgiving – they manifest “plenty”, and the meat manifests “sacrifice”. Wine is magical as well, spirit, blood, spice. These manifestations are not simply illusions but are properties of the engagement of myself with the food – or, since “I” am nothing but that engagement, they are aspects of myself (although not as an individual). The key then is perhaps that the manifestations of myself, self-understanding of my engagement towards food, only shows up in social circumstances. The “lack” felt in eating alone is the inability to manifest something present, but not manifestly so.

The question – is it because we don’t value eating alone as much as eating together that we eat more carelessly, and thus the peculiar engagement we have with food fails to show up? Or, is it because eating alone conceals our engagement with it that we do not value it?

Certainly, my experience of different valuations of eating whether alone or together is not universal. If anyone reading this prefers eating alone, or does not prefer one over the either, please comment.

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