Moving on from the already full morning, on Saturday afternoon I went to a talk by Rachel Laudan, on how food makes us moral agents – more or less virtuous. She presented two trays of foods representing opposing value systems: in one, we gain altitude on the moral scale through refinement, through mixing and perfecting through cooking and treating our foods. Proponents of the refined side of the equation believe that cooking separates humans from the animals and barbarians who eat raw, unrefined food. Examples include refined flours and sugars (sugar, she observed, is an immortal food: you can remain pure by eating foods that never perish — might be said of a lot that we find on supermarket shelves these days) and wine.
On the other side, where we find wholemeal breads, water or milk, we gain moral value through the belief that foods are naturally good, and that cooking or refining them disguises their benefits. In this value system, cooking stimulates unnatural appetites and leads to sins like gluttony. So, I guess the bottom line would be that once again, you judge others according to what you’re used to.
Then on to Steven Kramer, a philosopher-foodie, who invited us in How Clean Is Your Plate? to think about morality and change, the entrenchment of habit when it comes to our food choices. The talk’s title referred to the admonishment by parents to clean your plate because children (always elsewhere) are starving. Quoting from Plato, Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, his recommended starting point was actually a book about animal welfare by Peter Singer, a utilitarian philosopher, called The Way We Eat: Why our food choices matter. He spoke about our willed ignorance when it comes to food production, particularly the raising of animals for meat: we don’t want to ask the questions about what’s on our plate. But when we introduce ethical issues to our eating, are we creating a fear of food? He concluded with a discussion of the moral issues demonstrated in Babette’s Feast, with its opposition of dull but virtuous cuisine versus extravagant gourmet foods, and the less than simple value systems attached to each.
There was then a discussion of food and environmental challenges, in which student Brian Melican asked how one brings people round to actually make choices and change their eating patterns without imposing on them a kind of consumer dictatorship. He questioned the difference between marketing and propaganda and balancing food preferences – like, say, mangoes – against their wider issues, such as the environmental cost of transporting them to your table and the need for their producers to make a living. It was, he said, a ‘different pocket’ reality: when ultimately we pay for the real and hidden costs of cheap food under different names, there’s a disconnect.
Saturday night’s Ethical Dinner, prepared by chef Tim Kelsey in consultation with Caroline Conran and Anissa Helou, was based entirely on ingredients sourced within 25 miles of Oxford. The evening’s entertainment was edible hat-making, led by Alicia Rios, to which end we gathered what was left on the tables after supper, and added it to the groaning board of ingredients.
And meanwhile, it was the Last Night of the Proms, which was celebrated remotely and appropriately even in Oxford.