The acute shortage of food finds its mirror image on the tables of the affluent. And I do not only refer to the family table, with the paterfamilias presiding over a dinner of curry and pilau. Our fixation on food finds its epic expression at the union of man and wife – the wedding. There was a time when the author would attempt to strike up a conversation with his neighbour at one of these dietary sprints, only to find that his plate was being taken away before he had been half way through the meal. He would be roused from his sense of wonder by the soft burp emanating from his neighbour. He soon learned to imitate his neighbour (minus the burp, he hopes).
Conversation and food appear to exclude each other. A hush descends on the commensal gathering of friends and relatives the moment the steaming dishes are laid down. We are perpetually haunted by the images of hunger that we witness perennially. We thus bring to the dinner table all the solemnity of a funeral. And at public feasts, the competition for scarce resources manifests itself in visible economic choices. The laissez-faire attitude has become a permanent part of the menu. It is now par for the course.
Against this solemn background must be observed the plethora of restaurants and fast-food outlets. These are no sanctuary of monastic silence. Quite the contrary. Children scream and mothers even louder to stop the screaming, to no avail. The din of cutlery reminds one of the superb onomatopoeia of Tennyson’s famous line in the Arthurian chronicles describing battle:
‘Deep smitten with the dint of armed steel’
Familiarity begets forgetfulness of the famine in which we find ourselves. It is like the primeval cacophony of the hunter-gatherers who were one large extended family celebrating the carcass of some Pleistocene creature that the group had just clubbed to death. The family feast in public places seems to make the most noise out of that same principle of competition and that same mentality of scarcity: to warn others off. It is only when the individual is faced with the individual that they both find it prudent and politic to limit the noise level to no more than the gentle decibels of that aforementioned contented burp. The individual, public burp is, therefore, a trumpeting of truce. After this signal of the armistice, negotiations begin. There is the polite, if otiose, query as to whether one has finished eating. There follows the equally otiose inquiry if one was alone or not. And so on....
If anything could be worse than the description rendered above of our eating habits, it is conversation regarding food. It is needless to explain why food dominates so much of our conversation. Food is a national obsession, as has been observed. But the conversation of the bourgeoisie concerns itself with the minutiae of food, not the topic of food per se. It is not that food is considered in the mass, as so many kilos of this or so many maunds of that; no, the centre of attention is something like the quality of pizza in particular places – the sourness of this joint, the sweetness of the other one. This gastronomic dissection somehow reminds me of the vivisection we had to perform in biology laboratories. This monomania has a kind of clinical precision which the subject does not seem to merit. It is like the conversation of butchers. One can imagine how such a conversation would run. And one would not like to be present.
As our ‘food for thought’ diminishes in importance, so food looms ever larger. Schopenhauer observed that the capacity to endure noise was a hallmark of the feeble mind. Similarly, the capacity to talk about food seems to be another hallmark. The battle between the belly and the brain is being won by the former. We need just enough intellectual capacity to lift ourselves up, earn a living, and then expend that living on the numerous menus on offer in town. And after such a meal, the intellect goes all mushy and soft, and we nod off.
The cult of food augurs the downfall of civilisation. When Rome was on the ascendant, the people were simple and consumed simple fare; during their decline, the elaborate banquet became the norm. The hungry barbarians at the gate subsequently stormed the tables. Food is now enjoying a sort of universal renaissance; let us hope it is not a portent of dire consequences. For the world is in a parlous shape: there are today roughly 6 billion mouths to feed. 2 billion reside in poor India and China alone. Meanwhile, Europe dumps its surplus food into the Atlantic Ocean, no doubt to the gratitude of whales and sharks. The question of feeding the Chinese alone is said to be causing insomnia among some western thinkers. Of course, we’ve been there before. Thomas Malthus warned against universal famine 200 years ago. We haven’t had universal famine, though we have had universal war. Today, surely, instead of feeding North Atlantic sharks, the food can be diverted to human mouths.
And yet, and yet.... Whenever culinary considerations come to dominate our intellectual palate, there is danger of being wrong-footed. For food is apt to serve as a symbol. A preoccupation with the basic stuff necessitates postponement of more urgent matters. And while we’re tucking in at Balthazar’s, some hungry southern regime might just pop a warhead into our soup. The splash – all that shrimp and garlic over our faces! –would surely wake us. But by then it would be too late.
Sherlock Holmes used to starve himself when he had a difficult case. Personally, I find it difficult to think on an empty stomach. And scientists have researched that a near-starvation diet can prolong our lives by decades – at the cost of the loss of all our other appetites! No, nobody’s advocating a Gandhian diet of salt and water (if that was the case); at any rate, it cost a lot to keep him in poverty. No, poverty is just as expensive as plenty. Wisdom does not lie at the extremes, but in the middle. And a moderate helping of this Aristotelian adage would be the best of all possible desserts.