Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Stoicism: On avoiding luxurious food

When I lived and worked in Lyon, France, I often endured gourmet cuisine. A cuisine meal usually consisted of a large cracker floating in a wide plate of yellow sauce with a side dish of a biscuit camouflaged on a bed of leaves. The taste is unexciting; the food is fattening, unsatisfying and serves only as an appetizer to a kebab.  Gourmet eaters would probably describe me as unsophisticated because I lack their refined taste and sensitive palate.

And indeed, training your palate according to Dine Dining Lovers "is serious business and requires study and dedication. And, of course, practice" :
Tasting something is, basically, a little like studying it: it takes a lot of concentration to recognize the flavors, decompose the recipe and its principal ingredients; to pick out that hint of nutmeg while savoring some croquet potatoes, or to recognize from the aroma spreading through the house what it is that’s being cooked in the oven. And just as in the academic world, one learns by studying hard (and making a lot of mistakes).
[Experimental psychology] results give a picture of the world’s palates and abilities: 25% of people can be labeled as ‘super-tasters’, while an equal amount can’t even recognize what went in to the dish they’re eating. The majority of the population however (50%) is made up of those who have the ability to break down the barricades and discover what’s really hiding within that Greek moussaka, a lasagna, or a Kerala crab curry from India. For them, all it takes is a little thought and education.

But why would anyone want to train their palate to enjoy expensive food that takes so much time to prepare? Do those who 'educate' their palates experience more pleasure than those whose diets are simple?

And should I manage obtain a discriminating palate and consequently become hard to please, a curious thing might happen:  Rather than mourning the loss of my ability to enjoy simple things, I would take pride in my newly gained inability to enjoy anything but 'the best'. This is both irrational and unwise.

It is irrational to train your pallet to enjoy expensive and complex food because you undermine your ability to enjoy simple easily obtainable things in favour of becoming enslaved to food that may not always be available. Instead of enslaving ourselves, we should train ourselves to enjoy simple, healthy food that need little preparation.

The Stoic philosopher Gaius Musonius Rufus advised us to follow the example set by Socrates : Rather than living to eat - rather than spending our life pursuing the pleasure derived from food - we should eat to live. Moreover Musonius says "that the pleasure connected with food is undoubtedly the most difficult of all pleasures to combat" because although we go months or even years between our encounters with other sources of pleasure, we must eat daily and so endure daily temptation.

So keep it simple say the Stoics. Eat your greens and pity the food snobs. And be careful of those cupcakes !.

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