Nietzsche tells us that the greatest question of philosophy is nutrition: What do you eat? What makes you the healthiest, feeling the best? What do you most desire in your mouth, in your belly? Are your desires and your health well aligned? Or does one undo the other, a malignant, all too human trait? Nietzsche himself doesn’t drink coffee: “Coffee spreads darkness.” “Tea,” he continues, “is wholesome only in the morning. A little, but strong: tea is very unwholesome and sicklies one o’er the whole day if it is too weak by a single degree.” Then again, he warns us, it all depends on the environment, on the weather. And on the size of your own stomach. One’s ideal diet—the only real concern of the philosopher—is a complex configuration of ever changing particularities.
You are your metabolism.
And so I find myself standing in front of my bookshelves as if they were an enormous refrigerator. Hmn, what’ll I have? What am I in the mood for? What will sate me? Ew, Heidegger’s Being and Time. Have you ever tried to read it? It’s bereft of humor, joy, wit, elegance and eloquence. It’s like eating sand. And so it remains on the shelf the same way that ancient bottle of mustard remains in the fridge —it’s too big to just toss in the garbage and I’m too lazy to figure out what else to do with it. And who knows? It might come in handy one day. (I can feel all the Heideggerians bristling, as they are wont to do.)
Look, there’s Moby Dick. I’ve probably read the first 100 pages five or six times and each time I am absolutely mesmerized by the baroque prose, the wit and erudition, the unabashed joy. But I’m not going to finish it; it’s too rich for my blood, a gustatory leviathan. Hmn, perhaps a sampling of A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari’s prolific buffet: a stimulant, it infuses my body with giddiness. Or a dram of ee cummings’ delicate confections—nah, not filling enough. Maybe a fix of William Burroughs’ complex body of work?
Oh, Berryman’s Dream Songs it’ll be: light yet resonant, fast but lasting, tasty and easy to eat. Perfect.
If books nourish us, food teaches us. I’ve always considered Uni — raw sea urchin gonads — one of my great teachers. With its oceanic pith, Uni questions the nature of knowledge itself. Murky yet vaguely coherent, skanky yet delectable, always subtly different, Uni is a way of knowing in and of itself. Uni teaches me, with the most intimate whispers, that something can be supremely confident without being the least bit rigid, that something can be at once self-possessed and flexible, that something can flirt with the fetid and retain its elegance.
Uni teaches me, through its steady insistence on itself as an experience—an experience that belies ready description, an experience that dissolves the ready distinction between solid and liquid, teeth and tongue, between ocean and food, between the delicious and the repulsive—that to know the world one must eat the world. And vice-versa.
Not all food proffers knowledge worth knowing. The mindless reach for popcorn in a movie theater is not a learning experience—it’s vacuous consumption. Habit impedes learning. Often, it is not until one experiences something radically different, something unfamiliar, that one begins to experience experience, that one begins to know.
To eat is literally to become something other than oneself, to become delighted, joyous, healthy, grumpy, smart. The consumer often thinks that the only thing to change is the thing consumed. But that’s silly. The thing consumed transforms the consumer — words, sushi, tequila, the love of another: they’re all consuming us as we consume them. Power is rarely straightforward.