Eating: The Not So Simple Pleasure

by Dwight Furrow

ChiliPlunging into a bowl of chili differs from a dog's dinner only by degrees. Slobbering, slurping, and gnashing, the dense but yielding meat mingles with the earthiness of dried peppers. The gathering heat pleads to be chased with a swallow of cold, bitter beer that cuts the tension with a flood of endorphin-induced satisfaction.

Well, it's not all that special—just a bowl of chili. But the simple act of consumption is undeniably rewarding. Food and drink provide us with an immediate hedonic reaction—no thinking, no analysis, no bothersome complexity. Our own likes and dislikes rule without judgment. You either like it or you don't and no one can tell you you're wrong (if you put away the calorie counter).

Such unreflective feasting is not exactly information-rich, but it is not utterly blind either. Dominant flavors and textures are familiar and thus instantly recognizable. But each forkful is more or less like the other and any evolution on the palate is buried by the next rapidly following mouthful. The satisfactions of this sort of eating can be had while thinking about more important matters like world peace or getting your nails done.

We all eat like this sometimes. Our nature dictates it. Evolution designed us, under conditions of scarcity, to crave such brute pleasure as a hedge against tomorrow when food might be unavailable. Life would be diminished if we could not enjoy this kind of eating.

But another kind of eating is possible and ultimately more important. With some focused attention, even a simple bowl of chili has interesting imensions: a slight smokiness from the bacon and charred chunks of beef, an unexpected fruity note from an abundance of aji panca chiles, and multiple savory layers from hours of slow cooking that we can appreciate only by attending to the shifting balance of flavors as they evolve on the palate. In a bowl of chili, there is food for thought as well as for consumption.

In fact, there is more complexity than can be grasped in one sitting. Thoughtful eating requires sustained cognitive attention over many meals if one aspires to understand the subtle significance of the variety of pepper or cut of meat used. Chili is one of those dishes about which families feud and geographical regions remonstrate, and the search for just the right secret ingredient to distinguish one's recipe can become a life-long quest. We engage all of our mental faculties when we notice how flavors interact, attend to the chef's expression of particular aspects of the ingredients, and imagine the cultural heritage behind what we are eating when we recall the regional origins displayed in the dish.

This interplay of understanding, memory, and imagination is inherently pleasurable. But this pleasure results from contemplation, concentration, training, and the satisfactions of discovery. It is work. Intellectual labor.

Is it worth it?

The virtue of a thoughtful approach to pleasure is that it multiplies pleasure-and in the realm of pleasure more is usually better. We too often think of pleasure as a mere sensation that passively afflicts us and then disappears once the source of the pleasure has been consumed. But this limited understanding leaves too much pleasure on the table. In fact, pleasure invites thought. Pleasure intensifies perception, makes it stand out from the course of day-to-day experience. It thus intensifies our interest in the source of pleasure, and the whys and wherefores that make the pleasure intelligible. Pleasure, having become a mystery, is no less pleasurable and when the mystery is solved the pleasure of discovery is a bonus that ramifies into the future. Subsequent experiences of that pleasure thus become more meaningful and more rewarding because we notice things we could not have discerned before. The discovery that aji panca chiles have a fruity flavor encourages us to focus on those fruity notes in the chili that we might pass over if we lacked that expectation, which enables us to draw precise contrasts with recipes using different combinations of chiles. Furthermore knowing that aji panca chiles originate in Peru reminds us of the migration patterns of populations, the inherent instability of cultural boundaries, or the effects of climate on ingredients.

There is a lot to think about in that bowl.

Reflective eating wrests differences from homogeneity and relationships from isolated instances. It identifies the source of an ingredient, the variety of its uses, and the way different people perceive it. It traces the way dishes, ingredients, and their cultures provoke our imagination, enable us to speculate, hypothesize, plan, or dream. All of these benefits are generated from what at first seems a simple hedonic response.

Thoughtful eating can change the self as well. When pleasure becomes thought, we manage, at least to some degree, to overcome the limitations of personal preference. We come to see the dimensions and value of something even if at first we don't like it. It has meaning beyond personal interest or a simple yea or nay. But more importantly, when pleasure becomes thought, it also becomes discourse. We mistakenly think of pleasure as something purely subjective and private-of course we experience pleasure with our own mind and senses. But pleasure is heightened when we are able to share it, and the more we can think and talk about pleasure, the more sharable it becomes.

Ultimately, this question about the value of thoughtful eating is a question about what kind of life to lead. That is too big a topic for this humble blog post. But surely a life devoted to squeezing every ounce of value from each experience is intrinsically valuable and a worthy candidate for a good life. This cannot be accomplished without thought. The problem with simple (unreflective) pleasures is that they leave too much value on the table, too much beauty not experienced, too much potential unfulfilled.

As Mark Twain wrote “Intellectual 'work' is misnamed; it is a pleasure, a dissipation, and is its own highest reward.” (From A Connecticut Yankee…)

But all this thinking makes me hungry. A bowl of chili and a beer sounds just right.

For more on thoughtful eating see American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution or visit Mindful Eating 2, an Edible Arts blog.