Those who’ve been coming to Times and Seasons for a few months probably know that I spent four months in London last fall, one of the three faculty members with BYU’s London Study Abroad program. I taught two classes there, one called “What is Europe?” and another on the history of food.
As a philosophy teacher, I’m accustomed to people being baffled by what we talk about in philosophy classes, questions such as “What does it mean to say that I am the same person I was when I was eighteen?” “Is a human being who has no corpus callosum or whose corpus callosum has been completely severed one person or two?” “What does it mean to say that I know something?” “What is the meaning of being?” and “What is Europe?” However, I was surprised by the look on people’s faces when I told them I would be teaching a course on the history of food. Even if they didn’t laughâ€”and most immediately didâ€”it was obvious that they didn’t think I was serious. When it became clear that I was, they usually became silent. It was obvious, however, that inside their heads something like this was being said: “Going to London with Study Abroad is a boondoggle for BYU professors, and this professor’s taking that to an extreme.”
I believe that sexism is one reason for their surprise. Had I announced that I was teaching a history of the automobile or of weapons or of tobacco, I doubt that they would have sniggered. But food comes from the traditional domain of women, a domain that we, women as well as men, have difficulty taking seriously. A history of child care or breast feeding would probably have met with the same incredulity.
Nevertheless, sexism isn’t the only reason for the difficulty that people have when I talk about my interest in the history and philosophy of food. I think that the deeper reason is the fact that food is such a commonplace part of our lives. It is ordinary, inhabiting and informing our daily lives rather than taking us out of them, so we don’t think that it deserves our attention. A course on the history of shaving would have met with similar sniggers. Drawing attention to the everyday, taking it seriously, is laughable.
I rarely did much to change that laughter. Who has the time, and what difference would it have made? I doubt that a response now will make much more difference than it would have then. However, I have a response now because I have the time, a response summed up in several quotations from a writer whom I enjoy, Margaret Visser:
The extent to which we take everyday objects for granted is the precise extent to which they govern and inform our lives.
Food shapes us and expresses us even more definitively than our furniture or houses or utensils do.
[Everyday objects and activities are] ordinary in the earliest and fullest sense of the word also: they embody our mostly unspoken assumptions, and the both order our culture and determine its direction. (Much Depends on Dinner 11-12)
Having said these things, Visser then gives us 322 pages of engaging and well-written prose on a fairly ordinary four-course meal: corn on the cob, chicken with rice, green salad with vinaigrette dressing, and ice cream for dessert. There’s a woman who doesn’t ignore the ordinary!
Of the three remarks I’ve quoted from Visser, the third is the most important: ordinary objects and events embody our being-in-the-world; they order the way we live with each other and with things, and they give direction to that way of living together.
It is tempting to seek something beyond the quotidian, to be dissatisfied with our daily bread and to look for divine brioche instead (though, of course, we want it on a daily basis): some new high, a new partner, a more exciting job, more applause, additional financial conquests, one more adrenalin rush, another overwhelming spiritual experience. Most of us, thank goodness, manage not to fall into that temptation, or at least not to remain in thrall to one of its manifestations long. Most of us manage to avoid extreme instances of this thing we could call “metaphysical desire,” the desire for something beyond the ordinary.
Nevertheless, even when we aren’t so obviously engaged in metaphysical desire, I think that we too understand our lives as a series of more-or-less profound events separated as well as connected by the flow of daily life, figures on a mostly unnoticed ground. When we remember, we most often remember those big events: the day I was baptized, the day I first felt the witness of the Holy Ghost, the day I first saw my wife, the births of my children and grandchildren, the day I finally got a full-time teaching position. These are the things I remember; they stand out from the ordinary and that is why I remember them. As Nietzsche argues in “The Use and Misuse of History for Life,” we must forget if we are not to be like cows, not to be timeless and mute. Memory is what is left when we have finished forgetting.
However, in spite of that necessity to forget, even some ordinary things stand out in the flow of the ordinary: a moment of play with my mother when I was three, sitting under a crab apple tree snapping green beans and listening to my paternal grandfather (lying on a steel cot with his feet propped up on a small, steel barrel) tell tall tales, seeing the sun-filled colors of the Italian countryside from a bus window, hearing my father’s voice in mine for the first time, smelling the upholstery in my maternal grandfather’s new car and continuing to search for that smell every time I go into an auto dealer or a fabric store. These memories contradict themselves, for they stand out as that which does not stand out, as the ground on which the more memorable is figured. But in that contradiction we see the revelation of the otherwise forgotten world that gives meaning to the exceptional, to that which has its meaning by standing out from the ordinary of which it, nevertheless, remains a product and part.
For Christians, Jews, and Muslims, the ordinary is important because it is the world that God created, though it remains hidden in our forgetfulness. For Mormons, the ordinary is, I think even more central. What is embodiment if it isn’t being enmeshed in the ordinary? What is metaphysical desire if it isn’t, ultimately, a denial of the importance of embodiment?