Enlightenment: It's What's For Dinner

By Steven ShapinMarch 10, 2013

Eating the Enlightenment by E. C. Spary

AFTER SAN FRANCISCO POLITICIANS Harvey Milk and George Moscone were gunned down in City Hall by their colleague Dan White in 1978, the murder trial launched a pre-Internet meme about moral accountability. White’s lawyers claimed that his capacity for judgment was diminished at the time of the killings. A sign of White’s mental impairment was his abnormal diet, especially an increased consumption of Coca-Cola and the sickly sweet, cream-filled cakes known as Twinkies: an American edible icon, concocted of not much more than sugar, calories and commercial ingenuity. The precise legal claims were, first, that Twinkie-eating was an indication of the defendant’s pathological mental state, not its cause, and second, that “there is a minority opinion in psychiatric fields that sugar-rich diets might exacerbate existing mood-swings.” But excitable journalists preferred a simpler version: Twinkies were the snack that drove men mad. “The Twinkie defense” entered American pop culture — and eventually the Oxford English Dictionary — as a tag for any number of obviously ridiculous but expert-endorsed claims about dietary causes of disturbed psychic states.

The Twinkie defense is just tenable enough to be offered up as an accountability waiver — a seriously pathological version of its more benign kin, the “sugar rush” or “sugar high” — but also ludicrous enough to be officially disallowed. It’s a modern absurdity, but one that has a long and sinuous cultural history. Go back several hundred years and one finds that the general form of the Twinkie defense was central to medical thought and practice. The idea that diet might shape mental states was commonly accepted; the open question concerned what foods had what effects on the mind. 

The medical-physiological system handed down from Antiquity took what we now call psychosomaticism as a matter of course. Everything in the world was marked by its characteristic possession of the four “qualities” of heat, cold, moistness and dryness, and this included the human body and its aliment. According to which bodily “humor” was naturally dominant in you, your “temperament” — of mind as well as body — was sanguine (blood dominant; warm and moist), choleric (warm and dry), melancholic (cold and dry), or phlegmatic (cold and moist). That temperament dictated what sorts of foods tended to “agree with” you — on the general grounds that you should consume aliment whose qualities matched your own — and what you should eat when your humors became unbalanced (that is, when you were ill.) Then, you should “correct” imbalance by eating things whose opposing qualities might restore you to your own normal state. 

There was another traditional vocabulary for framing the food-body-mind nexus and this involved the notion of spirits. The animating principles of the human body were considered to be three types of almost, but not quite, immaterial spirit — natural, animal and vital — the last of which was elaborated in the brain and diffused throughout the body by the nerves, where it was the proximate cause of volitional action. Different items of aliment were made up of different proportions of “earthy residues” and of “spirituous matter,” which could be transferred to the blood and, from the blood, carried to the spirit-elaborating organs of heart, liver and brain. Foods containing much spirituous matter made their effects known by imparting animation and energy to body and mind. “Gross” foods encouraged the elaboration of “crudities” in the gut and were responsible for poor digestion. The resulting fumes and vapors rose up from the stomach, literally clouding judgment and breeding dark and brooding thoughts. Those living a life of the mind were medically advised to avoid such things. By the 18th century, such advice was well established, famously in Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), and also in writings by Marsilio Ficino (in the 1480s), Thomas Elyot (in 1541), and Bernardino Ramazzini, whose 1700 treatise on occupational diseases counseled “learned men” specially to observe a light and pure diet, since the animal spirits needed to power deep thinking were often diverted from the task of digestion. 

When, in the past, people said that “you are what you eat,” they often thought about how the qualities of things ingested worked to constitute, maintain or modify the qualities of bodies and minds: hot stuff made for hot people, and so on. We still occasionally help ourselves to that ancient tag, but we tend now to refer to the effect of chemical constituents whose properties arise from the specific configurations and powers of the matter of which they’re made. We understand that these chemicals, for the most part, affect what we call “bodily function” — fueling the body’s work and replenishing its fabric — and only a few of them (mainly substances recognized as drugs) are presumed to have specific effects on mental function.

The transition from the world of qualities to the world of constituents was neither sudden nor complete. The so-called “moderns” of the 17th- and early 18th-century Scientific Revolution formally rejected the vocabulary of qualities, humors and temperaments inherited from Antiquity, but they did not find it easy to talk about aliment, body and mind in totally new terms. Bits and pieces of supposedly discredited past traditions continued to float about on the sea of modernity.

This is the point at which Emma Spary takes up the story. She describes a French Enlightenment culture that knew that food affected thought but which was confronting historically specific questions about how it did so, and about the physiological and moral consequences of new things to eat and drink. What were the effects of the novel things that commerce and innovation were delivering to the French market and table? How was the rational inquiring mind, and how was polite society, affected by consuming the products of human ingenuity? Can enlightened man feed on the fruits of enlightened innovation? Eating the Enlightenment is a tough chew, not easy to digest, but persistence is rewarded: Spary’s materials offer new possibilities for seeing the Enlightenment as a contest over practical virtue, over the texture of quotidian life. How should you live? What should you eat? What’s for dinner? 


Some forms of aliment whose effects were vigorously debated in the late 17th and early 18th century had been around for a long time. The uses, dangers and benefits of spices and sugar had been mulled over for centuries, and Spary recalls the medical context for talking about the effects of these things. It’s not just that sugar, cloves, nutmeg and other spices were medicines before they were routine items in the larder; even when they did become common kitchen ingredients, their role in cuisine was understood in medicinal terms — the “heat” of cinnamon, for example, “correcting for” the “coldness” of apples. The French experience with the late 17th-century introduction of chocolate (from Mesoamerica), tea (from China), and especially coffee (originally from the Ottoman Empire) was not much different from the now better-documented reception of these beverages in England. Did coffee affect the mind and emotions in a radically different way from wine or beer? Was the stimulation of coffee a rational alternative to wine’s inebriation or was it just another type of intoxication? Did coffee enhance wit and encourage conviviality? Was the sociability attending coffee-drinking dangerously Orientalist or was it uniquely fitted to the forms of enlightened rational discourse? Was exotic fare in general fit for French bodies and minds?

Philosophes, physicians, and the honnêtes hommes of 18th-century polite society could claim that coffee was good for the mind. Chemical experts testified that it gave the “brain a new resource of esprits, sustain[ed] the body during great application & long wakefulness,” replacing the animal spirits which were at risk of being used up in intellectual work. Its “oily, saline, [and] volatile principles,” and the particular way in which its “volatile salts” were bound, remedy “all the bad effects of mental labor.” Voltaire endorsed the causal link between coffee’s volatile salts and the replenishment of spirits and was said to take an astounding 40 cups a day. Rousseau adored the stuff, and commentators ascribed the clearness of Buffon’s thought and prose style to his coffee habit. There were experts for the opposition too. Coffee was a powerful drug: its bitterness allied it with nature’s poisons and its blackness with the diabolical. In the 1780s, a Parisian critic condemned “the black water” that is consumed at the café as “more harmful than the generous wine on which our fathers got drunk,” making men depressed and sarcastic. Coffee might cause weight loss and dysentery; what was beneficial wakefulness to some was pathological overstimulation to others, raising the risk of nervous disease. Voltaire’s physician tried in vain to wean him from the 40-cup habit: the spread of hot drinks in general, the doctor claimed, was causing physical and mental degeneracy. Of all people, those living the life of the mind had the most reason to avoid coffee.

Tea, chocolate and coffee appeared in mid-17th-century France as dietary novelties, but the plants from which they came existed in nature. Technical skill was needed to select the right varieties, to see if they could be transplanted and cultivated, to ferment and roast their beans, pods or leaves; the French knew that the beverages were routinely consumed in distant parts of the world — and in that specific sense they were all “natural.” But there were other new things on the Enlightened French table, and these were celebrated or condemned as pure products of human ingenuity. The artificial novelties included such distilled, sweetened and flavored beverages as eaux de vie, ratafias (eaux de vie with spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, long pepper, clove and anise), oils (even more syrupy sweet), and, especially, liqueurs (brandy-fortified concoctions artfully compounded using essential oils of jasmine, violets, lilies, hebe, nutmeg, aniseed, cherries, coffee, cocoa, pineapples and many other herbal and fruit extracts).

Liqueurs were close to the cutting-edge of scientific and technological innovation in 18th-century Paris — Spary grandly calls them “the very stuff of modernity” — and opinions about their benefits and risks were closely identified with their novelty. If you wanted to approve them, they could be celebrated as proof of the French entrepreneurial spirit, and, if you meant to criticize them, they were evidence of the depravity of taste and how far the enlightened French diet had declined from its traditions or its natural state. Liqueurs represented a perversion of the French taste for wine, conceived as a natural product. Those who habitually consumed them were morally and mentally damaged. The atmosphere of Paris was itself becoming a volatilized receptacle of its own innovatory distillates, “compress[ing] the mental fiber” of its inhabitants and rendering them also volatile. Distilled drinks were “so many slow poisons, which erode health: they carry fire into our viscera & our vessels, which desiccates the vital organs, & destroys the springs which make the animal economy work.” But if you thought they were good for body and mind, that was because their spirituous nature was “able to reestablish & maintain [the] movement & the circulation of [the body’s] liquors, in the equilibrium which suits the state of health,” enlivening mental activity. They were considered to be, as we might now say, brain food. Liqueurs stood in a virtuous circle in which the consumption of the fruits of ingenuity produced still more ingenuity.

Spary retrieves the historically specific schemes that causally associated these drinks with their recognized physiological, mental and moral consequences. It was not about alcohol and the intoxicating effects of that particular chemical. Eighteenth-century experts and laity knew about what they called “spirit of wine,” which we have little trouble identifying with ethanol. However, neither alcohol nor spirit of wine was then uniquely linked to bodily or mental effects, and, as Spary points out, “spirits were one manifestation of a larger category of substances troubling the nerves and brain.” The Paris guild of limonadiers was legally entitled to make and market a variety of confections, brewed and distilled drinks, and its business was understood as the manipulation of aromas and flavors. Virtually all of the limonadiers’ products were lumped together — both by those who liked them and those who found them bad and dangerous. That lumping sensibility pointed to the shared “heating” and “inflaming” effects of things like liqueurs, coffee and even highly spiced foods. So too was one of the signature dishes of what became known as the nouvelle cuisine of the 18th century — the ragoût — a family of complex and highly flavored stews whose appetite-stimulating character was signaled by its literal meaning, something that revived the taste. Volatile and heating things might enliven the body and enhance mental function — a good thing —or they might irritate and over-stimulate them — a bad one, leading to fever or frenzy. “Hot” foods could induce unhealthily heated imaginations. In the 1760s, the influential Lausanne physician — and anti-masturbation campaigner — Samuel-Auguste Tissot identified spicy foods, ragoûts and sauces as an exciting cause of onanism. He judged that, for related reasons, they were also particularly dangerous to philosophers: serious thinking and serious digestion didn’t agree.

The power of new foods and drinks over body and mind was one framework for discussion; another was their place in a cultural network encompassing notions of commerce and the market, of taste and connoisseurship, and of enlightened Reason. Critics reckoned that dietary innovations were nothing to be proud of. Liqueurs and other artificial confections were advertised as nourishment, but they were in fact pure commerce and cultural symbolism, not proper food but cultural foam — the Twinkies of the French Enlightenment. The market for luxury goods which spewed them out did not satisfy natural human wants; it made them up and it bred addiction. Repeated use of liqueurs and highly flavored dishes dried out the taste buds, making them demand still stronger things. Inflamed by these synthetic nothings, reason was subjected to the belly, and the gourmet was one meal away from the glutton, digging his grave with his teeth. 

The gourmet had an enlightened argument too. Taste was, and ought to be, a handmaid to Reason, not its enemy. True, the glutton stuffed himself, but, for the connoisseur, consumption was an occasion for discernment and reflection. The intellectual outcome of connoisseurship — connaissance — was indeed knowledge; not perspectival knowledge secured at a distance, but the powerful knowledge that came from engaging with things, sometimes taking them in and assimilating them into oneself. In the 1694 Dictionnaire de l’Académie Française, the definition of the gourmet was “He who knows [sçait] how to know [connoître] & taste wine well” — and Spary notes that “sçavoir” and “science” come from the same root. “The gourmet’s tongue and palate,” she says, “were precision instruments, capable of generating the connaissances, or experiential knowledge, on which sçavoir, or true knowledge, was founded.” In this sensibility, the palate and the nose could count as philosophical organs.

The gourmet’s defense might take a materialist form. In 1769, the physician Antoine Le Camus wrote about the diet of delicate men: “It is in such bodies that reason and judgment, never obscured by the vapors of coarse and indigestible juices, and never extinguished by exhausting their strength, exhibit themselves in their full vigor & exercise all their rights.” The innovative foods and drinks of nouvelle cuisine stimulated the mind: the palate was closer to the brain than the stomach. Le Camus permitted men of letters a “moderate use of ragoûts and some succulent and spiced meats [...] to volatilize their nervous juice.” More than that, the new foods had been compounded to concentrate essences and get rid of those vapor-generating “crudities.” A midcentury writer noted that:

Cookery subtilizes the coarse parts of foods, [and] strips the compounds it uses of the earthy juices that they contain: it perfects, purifies, and spiritualizes them in some degree. The dishes it prepares must therefore bring a greater abundance of spirits into the blood, which will be purer and freer. Hence, more agility in bodies, more liveliness and fire in the imagination, more breadth and strength in the genius, more delicacy and fineness in our tastes. 

Thoughts were only as refined and delicate as the aliment that powered them, and there were materialist 18th-century medical and physiological frameworks for taking that causal connection neat. Essentially everyone agreed that mental function was conditioned by the state of the body and the discussable questions concerned exactly how that conditioning worked. Montesquieu traced the varying virtues, customs, and temperaments of nations to their different climates and cuisines, and La Mettrie wrote that the English preference for red and bloody meat — “not as well done as ours” — was the cause of their “pride, hatred, and scorn of other nations.” 

Spary says that by the middle of the 18th century, cultural currents were running against the gourmet. The meaning of the word was itself in play over the course of the 18th century; the relationship between the gourmet and the gourmand was contested; it was more and more assumed that caring about your food was a mark of gluttony. (There were other words — like friand — that might be used if you wanted to nonpejoratively designate someone who attended to and reveled in the tastes of food and wine.) The condemnation of Old Regime order and the growing role of the market proceeded increasingly through criticism of alimentary luxury and artificiality. Rousseau’s Émile counseled a natural diet: as children, our first food is milk and we have to overcome our instinctive distaste to become accustomed to strongly flavored dishes. In primitive ages, the diet of natural man was “fruits, pulse, herbs, and a little broiled meat, without seasoning or salt,” and the first time a “savage drinks wine, he makes faces at it, and spits it out […] Was there ever an instance of a man, that had a dislike to bread and water? This is nature’s path, and this we shall follow.” In the primitive state of humankind, taste was a reliable guide to wholesomeness, as it no longer was when taste became depraved. Rousseau knew that the French were proud of their culinary arts, boasting that “none but the French know how to eat.” But they could not be more wrong: “The French are the only nation, who know not how to eat, since they must use such a vast deal of art, to render their victuals agreeable to the palate.” Voltaire said that he couldn’t abide such complicated dishes as “sweetbreads swimming in a spicy sauce” and commended the simpler fare on which the wise men of Antiquity supposedly fed. “Formal dinners are killing me,” he wrote: “One must be a philosophe in mind and in stomach.” Enlightened doctors struggled to cure the diseases of body and mind that were caused by the innovations of enlightened cooks and distillers.

The Encyclopédistes in general disapproved of people who made a fuss about their food and who liked it complicated and richly flavored. The chevalier Louis de Jaucourt, who wrote several of the entries in the Encyclopédie dealing with food and eating, bluntly condemned the gourmet, the cooks and the commercial systems stimulating the gourmet’s appetites. The historical story told in the article “Cuisine” was in line with Rousseau’s sentiments: the primitive diet of humankind was simple, balanced, and health-giving. Things got complicated through the development of global commerce, through the insatiable demands of decadent princes, and through the corrosive effects of routine. People got into the habit of always eating the same foods, prepared the same way, and, by overdoing dietary routine, they fell victim to curiosity, then to culinary experimentation and finally to sensuality. That’s the sad moral history of how people “came to make an art out of the most natural activity.” Complexity, artificiality, spicing and any other form of jumped-up flavoring was cuisine gone wrong, and, although some Encyclopédistes betrayed fascination with its refinement and seductive tastiness, the ragoût was viewed mainly as malbouffe — bad and bad for you. The gourmet would inevitably swell up into the glutton and gastronomy was one of the black arts. Cuisine historically got “haute” as the moral order of society declined, so you could tell a bad society from the overelaborate stuff on its plates.

Spary doesn’t follow the story on into the Revolution and beyond, but, with the Empire and the Bourbon Restoration, came the restaurant, which had evolved from the name for an ancien régime health-giving food — a medically approved restorative bouillon — to a place where the post-Revolutionary gourmet found a new way of being and a new cultural voice. In the first decades of the 19th century, Grimod de La Reynière’s L’Almanach des Gourmands and Brillat-Savarin’s Physiologie du Goût celebrated gastronomy as a science containing and crowning all the others, promoting reflection, sociability and commerce. “A science which nourishes men is probably worth at least as much as one which teaches them to kill each other,” Brillat-Savarin judged: “The discovery of a new dish is more beneficial to humanity than the discovery of a new star.” He simply rejected the equation of the gourmet and the glutton: “Gourmandise is opposed to excess,” he said, and 30 years later, Thoreau, living and eating simply at Walden Pond, wrote in the same vein: “He who distinguishes the true savor of his food can never be a glutton; he who does not cannot be otherwise.”

The subtitle of Brillat-Savarin’s book was Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy, likely to provoke giggling fits in present-day readers. The idea of dietary epistemology or of metaphysical eating is a stock contemporary joke — as in Woody Allen’s story about the Friedrich Nietzsche Diet Book — but the jokiness is a historical consequence of how the careers of gastronomy, medicine, natural and human science, and philosophy have disentangled and then reentangled themselves since the Enlightenment and even over the past century. Woody Allen wasn’t to know this, but Nietzsche did write about going nuts on a diet of “Christian idealistic” meat and potatoes, and, in Turin, he sought psychic salvation in Italian vegetables.

Keep following the story, and the culture surrounding the way we now eat, and think about eating, dissolves into incoherence. We don’t think any more that some foods breed the madness of melancholy while others enliven the animal spirits, but, in any modern discussion of diet, morality and personal virtue remain very much on the menu. The cavalier-foodies have found their roundhead opposition. A piece in The Atlantic recently announced a “moral crusade against foodies.” Haven’t these people got better things to do, more important things to think about? “Gluttony dressed up as foodie-ism is still gluttony.” In Britain, the novelist Will Self agrees that foodies’ “oleaginous ideology” could not conceivably be about anything but gluttony and self-indulgence, and he can’t think of any defensible reason why people would so “obsess” about what they eat. “Gastronomy has replaced social democracy as the prevailing credo of our era,” and cuisine has, shockingly, become our preferred culture. We’d all be better people, and we’d live in a better society, if we ate a lot less food and talked a lot less about it.

The foodies for the most part don’t fight back, feeling the tide of history still running strongly in their favor, but their sentiments are a jumble too. One characteristic feature of present-day gourmandise is the cohabitation of nostalgic naturalism and avant-garde artificiality. In the States, the enormously influential food writer Michael Pollan offers a historical account of how eating has declined as science has progressed. The problem, he says, is that we think we know what our food is when we can list and tabulate its chemical constituents. But food is not improved by science nor is our knowledge of it better when it is cast in an analytic scientific idiom. Pollan’s dietary advice amounts to unwinding culinary history: “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food” — which is a catchy way of saying no polysorbate-80, carrageenan, mono-, di- and tri-glycerides, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, or high-fructose corn syrup. The foods we eat should be familiar and their producers should be people with whom we have relations of familiarity. We should reject The Market but embrace the farmer’s market. The Slow Food movement equates modernism with the flattening of the global diet. What’s wrong with the Big Mac is partly its threat to the cornucopia of authentic indigenous products that it is displacing and partly its status as a commercial innovation. Like the Twinkie, the Big Mac is artificial, not natural, not part of Nature’s Plan for our sustenance, not embedded within dietary tradition. It is scientifically fabricated and marketed to stoke our depraved appetites, an object of consumption but not of nourishment. In the 2004 film Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock documented a long list of physical symptoms brought on by his Month of Big Macs, but also claimed that the all-McDonald’s diet caused depression, lethargy and a severely reduced sex drive. Rousseau and the Encyclopédistes wouldn’t have approved of the Big Mac — not even with a side of french fries.

Other forms of present-day food frenzy are purest modernism. Molecular gastronomy’s hydrocolloid-fabricated foams and liquid nitrogen-enabled illusions help themselves to the best science and technology available — the movement was, after all, founded by a physicist and a chemist — and its New Testament is the wonderfully named and defiantly anti-traditionalist Modernist Cuisine by the venture capitalist, and former Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft, Nathan Myhrvold. You think you know how to boil an egg or fry a burger, but you really need the most rigorous science and most advanced kitchen technology to get it right. Granny doesn’t actually know how to suck eggs very well; the scientist can teach her how to do it much better. If you want your food to taste really good, you need both the scientist’s expertise and the commercial system that bankrolls and legally protects dietary innovation. The limonadiers and distillers of 18th-century Paris would have recognized a kindred spirit.



LARB Contributor

Steven Shapin is Franklin L. Ford Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University. He joined Harvard in 2004 after previous appointments as Professor of Sociology at the University of California, San Diego, and at the Science Studies Unit, Edinburgh University. His books include Leviathan and the Air- Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton University Press, 1985 [new ed. 2011]; with Simon Schaffer), A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England (University of Chicago Press, 1994), The Scientific Revolution (University of Chicago Press, 1996; now translated into 16 languages), Wetenschap is cultuur (Science is Culture) (Amsterdam: Balans, 2005; with Simon Schaffer), The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation (University of Chicago Press, 2008), Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if It Was Produced by People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), and several edited books.

He has published widely in the historical sociology of scientific knowledge, and his current research interests include historical and contemporary studies of dietetics, the changing languages and practices of taste, the nature of entrepreneurial science, and modern relations between academia and industry. He writes regularly for the London Review of Books and has written for The New Yorker. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and his awards include the J. D. Bernal Prize of the Society for Social Studies of Science (for career contributions to the field), the Ludwik Fleck Prize of 4S and the Robert K. Merton Prize of the American Sociological Association (for A Social History of Truth), the Herbert Dingle Prize of the British Society for the History of Science (for The Scientific Revolution), a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. With Simon Schaffer, he was the 2005 winner of the Erasmus Prize, conferred by HRH the Prince of Orange of the Netherlands, for contributions to European culture, society, or social science.  


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