- Food for Thought
As philosophical musings enter the Enlightenment French kitchen with fanfare, books intent on depicting cookery and eating with sociohistorical accuracy are on the rise. Spary rightly states that there can be no meaningful history of food without that of eaters (nor without that of cooks, Davis might add). Its tentacles are far-reaching. Eighteenth-century France, as viewed through Paris by Spary, is a flexible notion, short or long as the case may be, and the above subtitles imply, varying with the Enlightenment’s shifting time frames. The dialectics this period engendered, coupled with the conflicting views of today’s critics regarding the issues raised, have given food studies new depth. Alimentary knowledge has traditionally been ousted from the lofty heights of philosophical speculation, but is of late wedging its way into the inner sanctum, alongside religion, politics, and other heavies. In Eating the Enlightenment (henceforth, EE) the author’s very title implies that food and its concomitants, like the Enlightenment, are to be interpreted in the broadest sense.1 [End Page 137]
Spary informs us from the very start that EE is not meant to be a full-coverage narrative, but that its six chapters, albeit intersecting, are to be understood as modular essays showcasing how certain sciences, in particular those related to medicine, impacted on society’s concerns both material and moral: society’s thoughts, writings, actions and interactions; and its ability to incorporate and digest what is new. This is in keeping with her stated aim to sidestep a sweeping scholarly heartland she sees as dated and turn her attention to lesser-known Enlightenment actors and texts. The chapters’ links with food are multifarious, ranging from the concrete, such as new commodities and their commercialization, to the cultural, in this case a history that examines educated eaters’ attitudes toward sociability and health.2 The first of these chapters, “Intestinal Struggles,” is built around the interface of diet, lifestyle, religion, and politics, and is arguably the most enterprising in its outreach. Focusing on a contemporary medical controversy pitting iatrochemists against iatromechanists (as it were, medicine based on chemistry vs. that based on a mechanistic approach), Spary underscores the weighty character of the digestive model in its literal and figurative dimensions, and as a paradigm of body-mind connections.3 While this medical controversy flared on both sides of the Channel, food historians have done relatively little research on its French protagonists. One of EE’s biggest assets is bringing to light minores that are not all that minor and have been unjustly ignored, such as the physician Philippe Hecquet, a devout Jansenist and proponent of vegetarianism for philosophical as well as dietetic reasons.4 Hecquet (1661–1737) was a significant, if not major, player in the deep religious divide between Jesuits and Jansenists at the turn of the century. He practiced medicine at Port-Royal des Champs, the French heartland of Jansenism.5 The austerity of the Jansenist lifestyle, alongside the ongoing yet slow-paced transition from humoral to “modern” medicine, induced Hecquet, a prolific writer on matters pertaining to digestion, to insist on (and practice) a health diet reduced to its most elemental form. In conflating food and faith, “he portrayed the body as a continuous network of pulsating vessels, a phenomenon termed trituration” (29), in the process, stirring up an ancillary hornet’s nest in which mechanist defenders of trituration and the chemically oriented fermentationists were at each other’s throats. The spin-offs of these food and faith confrontations continued until the politically based suppression of the Society of Jesus and the expulsion of the Jesuits from France in the early seventeen sixties brought them to a stop.
Chapters 2 and 3, titled, respectively, “From Curiosi to Consumers” and “The Place of Coffee,” are related, since the curiosi in question include a new commodity known as coffee, and...