Studiousness and the Foodie Culture

After World War II, with years of rationing experienced in many countries, in western society there was a need for people to recognize that food could be more than sustenance.¹ Elizabeth David, with her book A Book of Mediterranean Food, published in 1950 in London, is the inspiration for food culture in America.² MFK Fisher and James Beard, trained in French cuisine, took the concept of David’s work and tried to change the American perception of food: the Kennedy family hired a French chef in the White House; French dining became the quintessential indicator of culture. This would develop through Julia Child’s work in the 1960s in trying to teach the average American how to cook French cuisine. The 1970s brought the concept of fresh and local ingredients and the influx of Italian cuisine into the American repertoire, and shortly this expanse broadened with the influence of more cultures. The term “foodie” was first used in print in 1980 in the New Yorker magazine, the same year Whole Foods Market opened their first store.³ The foodie culture was now a proper aspect of life in America. Cooking was no longer a chore of necessity and efficiency, but it became an aspect of leisure and enjoyment, a cultural hobby. 

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Emeril, and the myriad of future chefs on the Food Channel up to this day, would teach Americans how to “kick it up a notch,” adding a little bit of creativity into the kitchen of the average family. But how has this foodie trend developed? The gourmand culture, this passionate discovery of good food, can easily become a decadent gluttony or can miss its end by becoming a curious scavenge for acclaimed restaurants and international hotspots. This trend seems to be about the desire for the consumption of things, or for a knowledge of things. Men and women can desire to go to this or that restaurant, or travel to this or that vineyard, or small little Italian town or a French village, because they have this cheese or that wine. Saint Augustine says: 

Some there are who forsaking virtue, and ignorant of what God is, and of the majesty of that nature which ever remains the same, imagine they are doing something great, if with surpassing curiosity and keenness they explore the whole mass of this body which we call the world.

ST II-II, Q.167, a. 1, res; cf. Augustine, De Morib. Eccl. 21.

Now, Proverbs urges man to study wisdom [ST II-II, Q. 166, a. 1, sed; cf. Proverbs 27:11]. Study, as a virtue, “denotes keen application of the mind to something,” this is possible through knowledge of that thing [ST II-II, Q. 166, a. 1, res]. In the sense that knowledge precedes its application to something, the virtue of studiousness is properly ascribed to knowledge. Also, studiousness deals with things of the body, because man has a “special affection for those things which foster the flesh,” and seeking to know how to best procure the sustenance of his body [ST II-II, Q. 166, a. 1, ad. 2]. Knowledge regards the good pertaining “to the act of the appetitive power, and consists in man’s appetite being directed aright in applying the cognitive power in this or that way to this or that thing” [ST II-II, Q. 166, a. 2, ad. 2]. It is in this way that studiousness is not just knowledge in itself, concerning intellectual virtue, but the act which flows from such knowledge, and thus among the moral virtues.

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We, however, are forbidden to be curious [ST II-II, Q. 166, a. 2, sed; cf. Augustine, De Morib. Eccl. 21]. It is through moderate (i.e. temperate) studiousness that curiosity is avoided. That is, temperance moderates the movement of the appetite towards its natural desire, preventing it to tend excessively in the appetite [ST II-II, Q. 166, a. 2, res.; cf. II-II, Q. 141, a. 3, 4, 5].  According to man’s nature, corporeally, man desires the pleasures of the body, and spiritually, man desires to know something. This latter desire is moderated by the virtue of studiousness, as a potential part of temperance. It is also comprised under modesty, in that it is the moderation not of touch, a more difficult pleasure to moderate, but of the desire to have sensible knowledge [ST II-II, Q. 160, a. 2, res].

Where does the knowledge of truth go awry? Strictly speaking, it is good, but it may be evil accidentally, in the effect of possessing such knowledge – pride accompanying such knowledge or using such knowledge in order to sin. In addition, study may tend in four ways to sinful curiosity by reason of an inordinate appetite: being drawn from obligatory study to less profitable study, studying to learn from an unlawful source (superstitious curiosity), desiring to know truth about creatures without reference to their end (God), and by studying truth above the capacity of his own intelligence (and, thus, easily falling into error) [ST II-II, Q. 167, a. 1, res]. 

Man, in his natural curiosity (desire to know things), is served by the knowledge of sensible things. First, for the custody of his body, to avoid what is harmful and seek that which sustains it; second, in his intellective knowledge, man is served by sensitive knowledge. But, studying to know sensible things may be sinful in two ways: when this sensitive knowledge is misdirected away from a useful consideration (in light of preserving one’s body), and when this sensitive knowledge is directed to something harmful [ST II-II, Q. 167, a. 2, res].  

The cultural rave of travel and entertainment, as the apex of success in this life, in itself is good, as said above. And certainly it is human to cultivate food in a manner which has a mark of creativity. But we can often fool ourselves in an unlimited curiosity, and thus an unbridled study of sensible things, losing sight of the proper order towards our bodily sustenance and our final end, God.

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¹ Fisher, M.F.K. The Art of Eating. New York: Vintage Books. 1976.
² Gorman, Christopher C. “The Evolution of American Foodie Culture.” We’re Historty. 14 February 2019. Accessed 27 March 2019. http://werehistory.org/the-evolution-of-american-foodie-culture/.
³ Ibid.

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