Thursday 15 November 2018

REVIEW: I Think, Therefore I Eat (2018)

Liebig Meat Extract collectible card. The philosopher, Nietzsche, experimented with many different diets, including one unwisely based on drinking this, at the time ‘very modern’, beef broth.
I Think, Therefore I Eat

 Review article by Keith Tidman
I Think, Therefore I Eat: The World’s Greatest Minds Tackle the Food Question
By Martin Cohen
Turner Publishing Company, 2018
$19.99 (paperback)
ISBN 9781684421985 (paperback)
You could be excused if it hadn’t already dawned on you to make the connection between history’s deep thinkers of philosophy and food and nutrition. Yet, that is precisely what philosopher and writer Martin Cohen* does—in ways unforeseen and strikingly effective—in this book, entitled: I Think, Therefore I Eat: The World’s Greatest Minds Tackle the Food Question. The main title being, of course, a play on Renée Descartes’s best-known aphorism, ‘I think, therefore I am’—which if any maxim is familiar and handily summoned from philosophy’s archives, it’s typically this one. Martin Cohen draws from his own vast knowledge of philosophy and food—itself an uncommon combination of specialty areas—to explain that nexus between philosophers’ ruminations about food (from the Ancients to the Moderns), as well as what scientists say and what the rest of us unassuming mortals presume to know about food and nutrition.

To be sure, however, just because there’s philosophy aplenty, this is not some impenetrable tome. To the contrary, the style is highly approachable throughout, and even breezy on occasion. And, I should underscore, an enjoyable read. Readers in no way need, therefore, formal prior knowledge about either philosophy or the science of nutrition. Rather, he spins a tight and engaging narrative that tells us what we need to know, in plain English—at the right time, and in just the right way. And when a topic might prove a little knottier than others, he deftly untangles it for us. It's a book that proves highly informative, while throughout maintaining a conversational, entertaining tone—at times engaging in insightful yarns to make key points all the more palpable. Often providing practical tips (like ‘Know Your Yogurt’) that one might fold into daily routines. Seeding the book with ponderable observations, such as ‘nowadays it is acknowledged that microscopic organisms are the hidden puppet masters of human health’. And suggesting the importance of Taoist-like balance and harmony in all things—including, of course, in eating.

The author suggests that ‘you can read I Think, Therefore I Eat in one sitting’. However, he’s being modest; my own suggestion would be to read the book less hurriedly, perhaps over a few days at your leisure, to properly savor what he dishes up—contextualised by his ‘holistic’ view of human health. A level of leisure that’s in the spirit of that giant of philosophy Immanuel Kant—Kant perhaps being inspired by ‘suffer[ing] from poor digestion’and whose ‘most useful bit of food-related advice’, as Cohen describes it, ‘is the recommendation—no matter how busy you are!—to have a proper lunch, ideally in company, and to eat it very slowly’. Consuming this book ‘slowly’ might likewise be more gainful as to useful takeaways.

Martin Cohen shares with us insights into the indulgences—and not uncommonly head-scratching idiosyncrasies—of the philosophers, from two millennia ago to the present, using a storytelling literary device. If you remember to keep the philosophers’ indulgences squarely in the context of history, they’ll make all the more sense—and, if I may opine, appear all the more forgivable. Both the philosophers’ eye-catching eating practices and off-the-cuff beliefs about food come to light. A case in point:
‘Friedrich Nietzsche was always obsessed with meat—his charcuterie—and drew inspiration and strength from an assortment of hams and sausages. The infamous philosophical architect of the ‘Superman,’ or Übermensch . . . also dabbled in vegetarianism but decided pleasure should come before health in such things.’
As Nietzsche himself professed, as an undisguised sideswipe, ‘anyone who is ripe for vegetarianism is generally also ripe for “socialist stew”.’

And another:
‘In a letter to a friend in 1769, [Hume] jokes of his “great talent for cookery, the science to which I intend to addict the remaining years of my life”. . . . But judging from his famous girth, he had left this interest in cooking science rather late. “Ye ken I’m no epicure, only a glutton”, he once admitted. . . . Hume seems not to have known what was good for him, since his forays into the kitchen produced mainly . . . “sheep’s-head broth”.’
A mouth-watering dish, I’m sure, to share on any occasion with family and friends. Meanwhile, Martin Cohen doesn’t let the Ancients off the hook:
‘“Oh, my fellow man!’ exclaimed [the lacto-vegetarian] Pythagoras, a philosopher so ancient that he is even older than Plato and Socrates. . . . “The earth affords you a lavish supply of riches, of innocent foods, and offers you banquets that involve no bloodshed or slaughter”.’
Depending on how the scene is pictured, the last part—the bit about ‘bloodshed’ and ‘slaughter’ that is—might strike one as an appetite suppressor, no?

As Martin Cohen makes clear, however, Pythagoras has today, some 2,600 years later, plenty of company when it comes to food choices and awareness of nutrition: the growing numbers of vegetarians and vegans in all corners of the world—while we avoid what Pythagoras rather judgmentally blasted as ‘sinful foods’. To the larger point about food choices, the author devotes a chapter to what he dubs the ‘ethics of the dinner plate’. There, he delves into such sensitive—and perhaps for some people, stomach-turning—food choices as elephant trunks, horsemeat, grasshoppers, snakes, and dog burgers. And the unsavory list goes on—though ‘unsavory’ is a decidedly culturally subjective matter potentially fraught with preconceptions based on one’s upbringing and custom.

Such food choices should not surprise anyone, given archeological findings that revealed that the ancient Romans harvested and ate snails a couple of thousand years ago. Seemingly inspired by such consumption of sentient beings, Martin Cohen turns to a laconic aphorism by the German playwright Bertolt Brecht: First comes the food, then comes the moralizing (a line in his The Threepenny Opera, Cohen reminds us). However, in light of many people’s deep conviction in the rightness of, say, meals based on halal, low-calorie, vegetarian, organic, sacred-cow, fasting, kosher, and other moral (religious and secular) principles, the author fittingly turns Brecht’s words around: ‘first come the morals, then comes the eating’. In many cases, that seems about right. Though there are exceptions, of course, as told to us by the anecdote about how money shortages in Karl Marx’s family led to a stark diet of just potatoes and bread—here, poverty trumping the luxury of considerations of morality.

The catalyst for Cohen’s reflections on philosophy’s intersections with food is his three guiding principles: Detail matters; everything connects; and don’t mess with the ‘crystal vase’. He weaves these into the discussion, rendering each more concrete and comprehensible through example after example; you quickly get his point, and it makes sense. The first two principles seem less in need of explanation here, so I’ll leave it to the book’s readers to discover them in further detail on their own. However, ‘don’t mess with the crystal vase’ surely begs for brief explanation. Besides, as the author declares this particular guideline as the ‘most important’ of the three, let’s try to clarify it.

As Cohen explains regarding the ‘crystal’, ‘The point is that the human body is a very delicate arrangement of intricate parts’, and that it therefore ‘defies logic that people—not least experts—seek to reduce to simple rules and linear “cause and effect” explanations’. This is a central, guiding theme in this book: acknowledge complexity, and don’t ‘take a hammer to the crystal . . . by, for example, drastically restricting your diet . . . or, conversely, by indulging in just one or two favorite (or convenient) foods’.

A notable instance of ‘messing with the crystal vase’ and consuming one favorite food is Ludwig Wittgenstein, who for dinner—every dinner!—feasted on just one thing: a pork pie. That is, until he discovered and switched to dining on just rye bread and Swiss cheese. With who knows, again, what health consequences. I’m not sure what the father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, would have said to the likes of Wittgenstein about this kind of single-mindedness, with Hippocrates equating food and health, much as we often do today: his averring, deceptively simply, let ‘your medications be your food and let your food be your medicine’. A nice idea, but ‘detail matters’, so how, exactly can food be our medicine and what’s the proof?

Cohen does a credible job of deconstructing the research claims and pointing out what’s spurious and what’s credible—and what’s simply not yet known, which seems to be vast.

Martin Cohen has a preternaturally sharp eye for ferreting out myths—bogus or unsupported, questionable (even absurd) ideas—advanced by researchers of food and nutrition, as well as by government regulators and (not to be too jaundiced) biased influencers within the food industry itself. That is, when claims and the science don’t pass the smell test—important in order not to be misled, either intentionally or accidentally, as ideas take on a life of their own in the public sphere, in some cases to circulate (social media enters from left stage) as modern-day memes. Tailored messaging that convinces even some well-intentioned, perfectly scrupulous physicians, who may nonetheless rely on unreliable tests for safety or other guidance such as efficacy. As a result, the public has long since become tired of the whipsawing effects of researchers’ advice about food and nutrition being put on the table one moment, only to be yanked off later. The public’s not-infrequent suspicion being that the science is ill-informed and unhelpfully in constant flux, made worse by influencers in the food industry sometimes with their thumbs on the scale.

Cohen does a credible job of deconstructing the research claims and pointing out what’s spurious and what’s credible—and what’s simply not yet known, which seems to be vast. As he encapsulates the meaning, ‘the profound implications for both how knowledge is created and defined and how it is disseminated’. Of note, the author is not at all preachy or polemical in doing so, as he concedes that no single approach to food choices, nutritional needs, and dieting fits everyone’s requirements or desires or proclivities. Among his many cautionary notes regarding myths—and the not-uncommon misdirection by researchers, industry representatives, nutritionists, agriculturists, internet sites, and regulators—relate to overindulgence or under-indulgence, depending on the food in question: fats, sugar, water, carbohydrates, supplements, salt, calories, protein, milk, soy, and on and on. (Not a spoiler: The answers aren’t obvious.) And, of course, often muddying the water are the diets galore that come in and out of favor, often guilty of confusing correlation with causation, and pushed in pursuit of profit.

It seems common wisdom can be heavy on the common and lighter on the wisdom. Take fibre (‘fiber in the US), for example: seemingly wise souls have long touted it as highly desirable—almost an elixir—leading to the false assumption that there can never be too much in one’s daily meals. But, as Cohen tells us, ‘stealth fiber’ (in the form of inulin) is put into many types of processed foods, generally unknown to consumers who have no idea how much (often too much) they’re actually ingesting. The author presses forward: ‘We have to suspect the entire edifice of nutritional advice’—advice that appears to have come down to us through the ages from the most sage of philosophers.

Martin Cohen assigns several agreeable chapters to the history and benefits—and pleasures!—of chocolate: from chocolate ganâche to hot chocolate drink and ‘Plato’s noble cakes’. (With an appendix on how to make a chocolate cake and another on chocolate’s health benefits—giving all the more meaning to the expression ‘death by chocolate’.) Cohen effuses as eloquently about the merits of bread as he does about chocolate—evoking Locke and Rousseau’s passion for bread (well, for authentic bread, anyway) as a gentle excuse and entrée to reveal his own passion. All the while, the author nimbly steers clear of excessive faith in the questionable—sometimes ‘irrational’—examples set by philosophers. That said, Cohen gives credit where credit is due. For instance, he is seemingly partial toward the back-to-nature, vegetarian lifestyle of someone like Henry David Thoreau—‘an anarchist who eked out a living by making pencils while living in a shed by a pond’—who presaged what the author admiringly describes as the ‘ecological renaissance that today’s philosophers (and diet gurus) have only just begun to talk about’.

We’re told, for example, that Jean-Paul Sartre, who himself wrote of dreading becoming ‘a bald little fatty’, nonetheless favored indulging in spicy red pork sausages and sauerkraut, accompanied by quaffs of beer, and convinced that ‘processing food was good—by making it more truly a man-made product, which for him meant therefore better’. Sartre carried this intriguing assumption over to canned fruits and vegetables, his inexplicably believing that fresh ones were somehow too natural. John Locke also didn’t shy away from playing the role of food adviser, going so far as to offer three rules for eating fruit—the rules’ basis surely being little more than intuition and hunches. And Jean-Jacques Rousseau, while forever admiring milk’s nutritional value, would (in arguably a bit of philosophical overreach) refer to milk’s ‘psychological properties and its ability to reconnect people with nature’. Would that it were that simple.

In sum, I Think, Therefore I Eat cleverly navigates between nourishing the mind through philosophy and nourishing the body through food—and importantly, describing their many interesting junctures. Not an easy feat, given both subjects’ vastness, but one that the author accomplishes admirably: his doing the hard work for us in teasing out what matters—the wheat from the chaff. Indeed, detail matters, everything connects, and don’t mess with the crystal vase! Although Cohen (correctly) professes that the book is ‘a course in critical thinking and skeptical science’—and, yes, ‘a bird’s-eye view rather than a narrow, partisan recommendation for this or that approach’—it is also much more than that.

Above all, per the vintage style of writing Martin Cohen is noted for, the book skirts what might otherwise have been off-putting abstractions—instead he offers focus and clarity, and provides concrete insights that readers can choose to act on in their daily lives, should they wish to do so. Also, the story of philosophy and the story of food don’t just run parallel to one another; there’s no requirement for readers to shoulder toggling back and forth between them. Rather, the two threads already cross over each other, back and forth, like a braid, each crossover multiplying the significance, effectiveness, and meaning of the other. I Think, Therefore I Eat would thus fill what is a likely gap in the personal library of anyone interested in social philosophy (in its broadest application), the ‘mindful eating’ of food, and the science of nutrition—a book one is likely to reach for time and again.

*And indeed, an editor of this Journal...

The Philosopher's verdict: The threads cross over each other, back and forth, like a braid, each crossover multiplying the significance, effectiveness, and meaning of the other!


  1. Very good, clear, and focused analysis and presentation of a subject of interest to all.


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