“The Pleasures of Eating” is a powerful, poetic essay by Wendell Berry. Published in 1990, – 23 years ago! – it is more relevant than ever in today’s society, and so well written that I would just encourage everybody to head on over and read it. Since it’s a little long, I’ll sketch out some of the main topics, but really – bookmark it if you have to and come back to it later, at the end of your day, over a steaming mug of tea. It’s that good.
It opens with the question “what can city people do?” when confronted with the current food system and the decline of diversified small-scale farming – a question often posed, and usually answered with “eat responsibly” (by Berry as well as by many other food system specialists). But Berry here makes a much deeper argument – rediscover the pleasures of eating.
Rediscovering the pleasures of eating means to rediscover that eating is, in essence, an agricultural act, and that all food is grown, and thereby linked to the agricultural system, one way or another. This might seem trivial to people interested in food policy, but according to Berry, this connection to food has been lost for the great majority of consumers, who think of food as something originating in their supermarket. If that was the case in 1990, I would venture that it is even worse in 2013.
Understanding this fundamental fact – as an eater, I am linked to agriculture – empowers consumers to become active participants in the system instead of passive recipients, and as active participants, they will acquire more knowledge – where their food is from, how it is produced, how fresh, clean, safe, fair, etc it is. This knowledge equals both power and freedom – since, as Berry argues, passive consumers have relinquished some of their freedom by letting others control their food and its sources. Only in participating in the system can they reclaim their democratic rights to shape the system as equally important agricultural actors – and assume their responsibility.
And once you start eating responsibly, consciously, you start appreciating food more – the appreciation of a once living thing, which has now ceased to live, but continues to nurture you. When you consciously eat meat, you appreciate the animal that is behind the steak, the fact that this animal had a life, enjoyable or not, and that it died before it could become a steak. When you consciously eat a vegetable, you appreciate how that vegetable was grown, how the local ecosystem was affected – positively or negatively – by that act, and that it basically stemmed from a seed, some soil, water and sunshine. You will come to appreciate the everyday wonder and beautiful complexity of sun energy captured in plant cells, transformed into biomass and provided as sustenance for us to survive – and thrive.
And then you will really know the pleasures of eating.
Note: I was very tempted to quote some of Berry’s original work because it’s so beautiful, but I didn’t want to infringe on any copyright so please take my word for it and check it out. Here is an article he wrote in 2002 about being an agrarian writer in our times and today’s contest between industrialism and agrarianism. It is equally powerful. And here is a charming short story about a mouse – maybe less topical, but just as poetic. Happy reading!