Talking about the nutritional content of food has never been as popular as it is today. We live in a world dominated by "nutrition nuts" of one form or another: people who swear by paleo diets or raw food or vegan food or the mediterranean diet or what have you. Talking about sugar and fat and protein has become a daily affair, even though humans had been eating and cooking for centuries without apparently ever needing these categories. The intellectual dissection of what we eat has, I suspect, become mainstream today as a result of these factors: unprecedented levels of scientific research (and its mass dissemination) on how the chemistry of food impacts the body; growing suspicion regarding how the food industry simplifies and manipulates the content of basic foods in order to maximize profits; cosmopolitanism's effect of severing us from any default cuisine; and an increasing obsession in the twenty-first century with staying healthy and being and looking young.
It's hard to argue with the pursuit of health. But, as someone who has spent several years out of my thirties fretting and obsessing about the nutritional profile of what I was eating (an effort motivated by fear of aging as well as by the experience of chronic burnout and weakness), I think it is right to ask, at some point, whether this intense focus on the "benefits" of what we are consuming is itself spiritually and philosophically healthy. Might it, instead, be another form of greediness? Isn't the ethic of maximizing nutrition similar to the ethic of maximizing gain, i.e. might there even be something strangely capitalistic about it? And could this greedy attitude actually be causing us inadvertent mental and physical distress because of the way of being that it cultivates in us? Yet my point here is not indict the capitalist ethic, exactly. Nor is it to argue that it would be better for us to return to our traditional approaches to enjoying food. My point is to ask, in a more radical way, what might be missing in our apparently scientifically "enlightened" approach to eating today. And, for this, we have merely to pose the question, "what is the wisest or most fulfilling way to eat?" Or, even, "what does eating add as a possibility to the world?"
And then, I believe, it becomes clear what eating is and always has been in the world: a way of communing with the rest of nature. Whenever we eat, we are consuming natural life-forms. To eat is to understand, in an even invasive way, what the innermost being of some other life-form is, as it is reflected in its completely unique texture and taste. While people who eat the "paleo diet" (i.e. avoiding any food products that date from the agricultural revolution and onwards) today believe they have returned to a primitive form of eating, they have most likely not returned to primitive human being's interest in understanding the thing that she or he eats through the act of eating it. To primitive humans, who lacked a more intellectual and abstract way of knowing the world, one can only suppose that this taste-based and tactile approach to discovering it was one of their most meaningful activities. And eating as a way of understanding life-forms will always have an immediacy and significance that scientific accounts of life-forms will lack. If we wish to even begin to approach this primitive way of knowing and communing with nature, we have merely to start with one basic rule: not to mix different life-forms together as we eat. The basic rule is to know each of nature's creations on its own terms. Human-made cuisines actually interfere with our ability to know and commune with nature by mixing different life-forms together, thereby reduces life-forms to being mere flavors. These cuisines suffer from the hubris that a human creation can be more interesting than the original life-forms themselves. But these cuisines fail, because they not only reduce life-forms to flavors, but also human beings to mere enjoyment-seekers rather than knowledge-seekers. They cement human disconnection from the natural world. The disconnection is indeed evident even from the moment that we speak of "chicken" rather than chickens, of "pork" rather than pigs, of "beef" rather than cows.
If we were freely roaming in nature, under the bright sun and upon a wild landscape, every form of life would strike us as interesting and as putting forth its own bid to beauty and creativity: the cabbage with its many layers; the pumpkin with its bright orange interior; the cactus with its prickly outside, thickened leaves, and milky interior. We would eat these things never solely out of hunger and always with an alive interest in the thing whose inner secrets we were penetrating. We would be eating not as banks to store things in, but as free explorers of nature. But we would also get more out of the food because we would be more concentrated on it – our whole bodies would interact with it in a different and more engaged way. We would be less likely to be malnourished because we would more meaningfully incorporate the things we ate into our bodies. And we would be unlikely to over-eat, as we would not, as often happens today, eat while thinking and paying attention to other things.