Monday 8 October 2018

BOOK REVIEW: I Think, Therefore I Eat

Reviewed by Colin Kirk
‘Felling rain forests to free up land for growing animals and vegetables, pulverized into so called foods, nightmarish..’ PICTURE: Lowland rainforest in Sulawesi's Tangkoko Reserve, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

Martin Cohen is well known to generations of budding philosophers for his ‘101’ books. Amongst many other productions Political Philosophy from Plato to Mao stands out for critical analysis presented with lucidity and humor. I Think Therefore I Eat is a worthy successor to these seminal texts.

In an age when most journalism is no more than regurgitation of the PR blurb of commercial and political interests, philosophy regains its rightful place as investigator. This account, not simply of food its production and marketing but of the constituents of the human body that result, is unique and unlikely to be surpassed.

These days experts contribute to the human horror story. It requires philosophy to correct their ever changing sound bites with straightforward examination of the facts. Witty and readable, I Think Therefore I Eat will shock food experts of all kinds but the rest of us will think carefully before we eat. We’ll improve our life styles and extend our life expectancy as a result.

This book is almost impossible to classify. The philosophy is certainly in evidence but unobtrusively, amongst careful description of the grotesque constituents of junk food and their effects on the human body and mind, interspersed with unusual recipes that rush one into the kitchen.

There is structure to this bizarre conglomeration that meanders through the food fashions of the past hundred years with reference back to the eating habits of philosophers over the previous two and a half millennia.

Not all the foodies referred to are generally regarded as philosophers nor are their eating habits necessarily sound, quite the reverse. Hitler exemplifies these peculiarities of some of the thinkers selected. Mein Kampf is a work of philosophy but a diet of macerated boiled vegetables was not a healthy choice, nor were the concomitant medical interventions designed to ease the Fuhrer’s resultant flatulence.

One great strength of this book is the exposure of the appalling practices of free market exploiters of the environment both around us and inside us. Felling rain forests to free up land for growing animals and vegetables, pulverized into so called foods, contaminated with all manner of chemical contrivances to extract the last fast buck, is nightmarish reading.

These are not scenes in a horror movie from some way-out, backward, banana republic but day by day activities of world brand agricultural, chemical, pharmaceutical, food and drinks manufacturing industries that fuel economic growth for the few and ill health for the many.

Even when there were active Food and Drug Administrations in Western Democracies, well healed lawyers, scientists and medics ensured they had little actual clout against conglomerate industries with turnovers measured in billions of dollars or euros. The quality of expertise applied to such matters is low and the price charged by such experts extremely high. These are business models of the worse kind applied to the basic essentials of life.

Every page of this book contains good advice but it leads to no overall conclusion of the one-size-fits-all variety, with the possible exception of the seal of approval given to real chocolate. Most of what’s sold unfortunately isn’t.

At heart this is a work of philosophy and its conclusion is the usual one. Be yourself, it’s up to you. Examine all facts directly yourself, not the conclusions of characters who claim to be experts. Interpret the facts as best as you can and decide a course of action that suits you.

We all know that we are what we eat but we apply that knowledge as our appetite dictates. However, we now know that our appetites are massively influenced by advertisements, chemicals, manufactured flavors and plasticized finishes that do us no good and a great deal of harm. The golden delicious chips at McDonald’s are a prime example.

Western Democracy, the political model we live in, is designed by and for multibillionaires and their bureaucratic and expert camp- followers, who are paid handsomely to betray us into horrid eating habits as they transfer our money into their pockets.

Fidel Castro, another philosopher not usually thought of as such, was forced, by the collapse of Russian Communism in 1989 and the total American blockade of Cuba that ensued, to cultivate every square meter of land capable of growing food. The city of Havana and every other city, town and village became fruit and vegetable gardens. The Cubans did not starve to death as intended but became more healthy and versatile.

The problem with doing the right thing by growing your own food, should that be your conclusion, is that it requires a great deal of thought and planning. Further, success follows a series of disheartening failures as one learns by experience. For good health, fitness and longevity it’s worth it.

This is not a reference book as such but you’ll refer to it time and again in your pursuit of good eating habits. You’ll more likely find it on the shelf of recipe books in the kitchen than along with Kant and Kierkegaard.

Colin Kirk is the author of Life in Poetry.


Keith said...

One of the takeaways from the book, for me, was that ‘I Think, Therefore I Eat’ has done the unexpected: Melding a deep dive into the great philosophers’ (sometimes idiosyncratic, sometimes enlightened, always entertaining) musings on food, with an equally deep dive into food and nutrition — including the roles played by scientists, nutritionists, government regulators, special-interest groups, and the food industry. Martin helps to clear the fog, I believe, arguably left by these dueling influencers. The book offers research-based insights into food and nutrition, the author popping myths along the way. The book’s subtitle, ‘The Greatest Minds Tackle the Food Question’, importantly sets the stage for the philosophy — both serious and whimsical — woven throughout. For me, the unanticipated link between philosophy and nutrition worked.

Tessa den Uyl said...

To me ‘I think therefore I eat’ is like a map where philosophers trace movements, back and forth in time, that flow into an organic-and inorganic geography. It is this cross cross tracing that allows the food question to take place. The book can be read departing from food issues directly, but underneath this surface the structure of the book moves on a wider plane.

docmartincohen said...

Thank you both, Keith and Tessa, for your comments here - and indeeed elsewhere 'on the food question'!

And many thanks to Colin for this piece, which I shall always count very highly because I count his opinion very highly.

I've several of his books and I think this line actually applies to his own work too:

"journalism is no more than regurgitation of the PR blurb of commercial and political interests, philosophy regains its rightful place as investigator."

And on food issues, though the review itself does not indicate this, I know Colin as a skilled cook with a distinctly Pythagorean style - his meals consists of simple things like carrots transformed into exotic delicacies. Plato, one could say, would be proud of him.

But to today, and it is indeed an alarming thought that yes, we are what we eat but (pace that other great food iconoclast, Michael Moss) "our appetites are massively influenced by advertisements, chemicals, manufactured flavors and plasticized finishes that do us no good" - and may do us a great deal of harm.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

It appears to me that a lot goes wrong when we lose direct contact with our world — and so it is, too, with food. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, ‘Our immediate environment is not nature as before, but organisation. Yet this immunity from nature produces a new crop of dangers, which is the very organisation.’ To this, it seems, there is no ultimate solution.

docmartincohen said...

"Organisation"?! That's a strange choice of word. (Makes me think of the mafia) What did he have in mind?

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Bonhoeffer sketched this thought for a book he was contemplating, shortly before he was executed. He was surely distinguishing between the natural and the built environments -- built environments typically including agriculture. Through a built environment, we remove many of the uncertainties of the natural environment, yet at the same time we introduce 'a new crop of dangers'. One of those dangers would be the fact that we lose a direct relationship with our food. All kinds of things can happen, then, between the production of raw food and the time that we eat it.

docmartincohen said...

Is there a flavoring here of the "Naturalistic Fallacy"?

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