Why Food Matters by Paul Freedman review – we are what we eat

A magpie tour of human history that takes in gluttony, abstinence and our preoccupation with the choices of the poor

Paul Freedman’s Why Food Matters opens with a lament on the lack of intellectualism – indeed, discourse – around food and drink. They are considered “eminently compatible with conversation, just not worthwhile as its objects”, and he puts this down to three things: “materiality, necessity and repetition contribute to the apparent banality of food”. While repetitiveness might well put off a passing intellectual, the same way housework is such a turn off for economists in the Adam Smith tradition, arguably materiality is the main block.

Appetite, like sex drive, is considered elementally base, bestial, ignominious. Physical desire stands opposed to cerebral or spiritual quest. We don’t describe in intricate detail the process and pleasure of satiation for the same reason we rarely talk in public about what actually happened in bed: yet sex gets a look in, intellectually, being so consequential, launching so many ships, wars, neuroses. It doesn’t have many consequences, does it, food?

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