The Quotidian

February 20, 2006 | 24 comments
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Those who’ve been coming to Times and Seasons for a few months probably know that I spent four months in London last fall, one of the three faculty members with BYU’s London Study Abroad program. I taught two classes there, one called “What is Europe?” and another on the history of food.

As a philosophy teacher, I’m accustomed to people being baffled by what we talk about in philosophy classes, questions such as “What does it mean to say that I am the same person I was when I was eighteen?” “Is a human being who has no corpus callosum or whose corpus callosum has been completely severed one person or two?” “What does it mean to say that I know something?” “What is the meaning of being?” and “What is Europe?” However, I was surprised by the look on people’s faces when I told them I would be teaching a course on the history of food. Even if they didn’t laugh—and most immediately did—it was obvious that they didn’t think I was serious. When it became clear that I was, they usually became silent. It was obvious, however, that inside their heads something like this was being said: “Going to London with Study Abroad is a boondoggle for BYU professors, and this professor’s taking that to an extreme.”

I believe that sexism is one reason for their surprise. Had I announced that I was teaching a history of the automobile or of weapons or of tobacco, I doubt that they would have sniggered. But food comes from the traditional domain of women, a domain that we, women as well as men, have difficulty taking seriously. A history of child care or breast feeding would probably have met with the same incredulity.

Nevertheless, sexism isn’t the only reason for the difficulty that people have when I talk about my interest in the history and philosophy of food. I think that the deeper reason is the fact that food is such a commonplace part of our lives. It is ordinary, inhabiting and informing our daily lives rather than taking us out of them, so we don’t think that it deserves our attention. A course on the history of shaving would have met with similar sniggers. Drawing attention to the everyday, taking it seriously, is laughable.

I rarely did much to change that laughter. Who has the time, and what difference would it have made? I doubt that a response now will make much more difference than it would have then. However, I have a response now because I have the time, a response summed up in several quotations from a writer whom I enjoy, Margaret Visser:

The extent to which we take everyday objects for granted is the precise extent to which they govern and inform our lives.

Food shapes us and expresses us even more definitively than our furniture or houses or utensils do.

[Everyday objects and activities are] ordinary in the earliest and fullest sense of the word also: they embody our mostly unspoken assumptions, and the both order our culture and determine its direction. (Much Depends on Dinner 11-12)

Having said these things, Visser then gives us 322 pages of engaging and well-written prose on a fairly ordinary four-course meal: corn on the cob, chicken with rice, green salad with vinaigrette dressing, and ice cream for dessert. There’s a woman who doesn’t ignore the ordinary!

Of the three remarks I’ve quoted from Visser, the third is the most important: ordinary objects and events embody our being-in-the-world; they order the way we live with each other and with things, and they give direction to that way of living together.

It is tempting to seek something beyond the quotidian, to be dissatisfied with our daily bread and to look for divine brioche instead (though, of course, we want it on a daily basis): some new high, a new partner, a more exciting job, more applause, additional financial conquests, one more adrenalin rush, another overwhelming spiritual experience. Most of us, thank goodness, manage not to fall into that temptation, or at least not to remain in thrall to one of its manifestations long. Most of us manage to avoid extreme instances of this thing we could call “metaphysical desire,” the desire for something beyond the ordinary.

Nevertheless, even when we aren’t so obviously engaged in metaphysical desire, I think that we too understand our lives as a series of more-or-less profound events separated as well as connected by the flow of daily life, figures on a mostly unnoticed ground. When we remember, we most often remember those big events: the day I was baptized, the day I first felt the witness of the Holy Ghost, the day I first saw my wife, the births of my children and grandchildren, the day I finally got a full-time teaching position. These are the things I remember; they stand out from the ordinary and that is why I remember them. As Nietzsche argues in “The Use and Misuse of History for Life,” we must forget if we are not to be like cows, not to be timeless and mute. Memory is what is left when we have finished forgetting.

However, in spite of that necessity to forget, even some ordinary things stand out in the flow of the ordinary: a moment of play with my mother when I was three, sitting under a crab apple tree snapping green beans and listening to my paternal grandfather (lying on a steel cot with his feet propped up on a small, steel barrel) tell tall tales, seeing the sun-filled colors of the Italian countryside from a bus window, hearing my father’s voice in mine for the first time, smelling the upholstery in my maternal grandfather’s new car and continuing to search for that smell every time I go into an auto dealer or a fabric store. These memories contradict themselves, for they stand out as that which does not stand out, as the ground on which the more memorable is figured. But in that contradiction we see the revelation of the otherwise forgotten world that gives meaning to the exceptional, to that which has its meaning by standing out from the ordinary of which it, nevertheless, remains a product and part.

For Christians, Jews, and Muslims, the ordinary is important because it is the world that God created, though it remains hidden in our forgetfulness. For Mormons, the ordinary is, I think even more central. What is embodiment if it isn’t being enmeshed in the ordinary? What is metaphysical desire if it isn’t, ultimately, a denial of the importance of embodiment?

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24 Responses to The Quotidian

  1. Bryce I on February 20, 2006 at 10:52 pm

    I’ve often remarked how relatively unremarkable my life has been so far, and have very occasionally struggled to understand why it is that I have not had the types of dramatic experiences that others around me have had which have shaped their outlook on their life in profound ways.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that since I am happy with my rather mundane (as viewed from the outside) life, I must be blessed to have avoided the extraquotidian in my years on earth thus far. I enjoy a few hours of games and reading with my children on a weekend afternoon as much as I imagine I might enjoy a trip to a garish and obscenely overpriced theme park with them.

    A minor point: I disagree with your characterization of food as a traditional part of the woman’s domain. The daily task of putting food on the table for the family may be associated with women’s work, perhaps, but as a trade and a subject of academic study, it seems to be firmly dominated by male voices.

    BTW, I was genuinely disappointed when I found out you were joking about posting your lecture notes from that class here at Times and Seasons.

  2. Gordon Smith on February 20, 2006 at 11:38 pm

    Jim: “food comes from the traditional domain of women, a domain that we, women as well as men, have difficulty taking seriously.”

    Ditto what Bryce wrote, plus an anecdote. When I lived in Louisiana, a Cajun man told me, “cooking is much to important to be entrusted to women.”

    The lesson? Perhaps that men can be sexist, regardless of which side of an issue they take.

  3. Jim F. on February 21, 2006 at 1:14 am

    Bryce, I think your point underscores mine. In order for cooking to be men’s work, it has to be given a special status, removed from the quotidian of the home and made the subject of academic study or made into a trade from which women were excluded because they didn’t have the sensibilities for real cooking, i.e., for cooking that isn’t merely day-to-day.

    Gordon, I don’t think there’s any question that people can be sexist regardless of the side of the issue they take. I don’t think women, for example, have been much better about taking cooking seriously than have men.

  4. Jim F. on February 21, 2006 at 1:24 am

    Bryce, sorry about the notes. But I didn’t have anything that was particularly usable. The students read material that I assigned and we talked about their readings, as well as about their experiences in Europe as they related to those readings. My notes weren’t lecture notes. They were just notes about things I wanted to be sure to get to.

  5. Christian Y. Cardall on February 21, 2006 at 8:24 am

    A lot to appreciate there, Jim. Thanks.

    Sorry to depart now from both the important point of the post and the (for us) quotidian, but given your interest in the history of food, I have a question for you. The only thing that sticks out in my mind about the history of human sustenance is an offhand remark in an article in Scientific American a few years back on the history of alcohol consumption. As I recall it said that because of a lack of potable water in ancient civilizations, most liquid consumption was in the forms of wine, beer, cider, “grog,” whatever—whose alcohol content rendered it “safe”—and that this also constituted a very significant fraction of peoples’ nutritional intake. Accordingly, the author remarked that the normal mental state for most of human history had likely been one of mild inebriation. Perhaps he was half-joking, but is there an element of truth to it?

  6. J. Stapley on February 21, 2006 at 9:47 am

    Splendid post, Jim. This is obviously an area that is important to me. I find something similar to what some have characterized in farming in food preparation. Connection. Art. History. Something as simple as corn and its effect on Africa. Imagine Italy without Tomato or asia without chili.

    While there have been fermented products for quite some time, stating that human history has been purpetually and mildly drunk is a mischaracterization.

  7. J. Stapley on February 21, 2006 at 9:49 am

    …I would also just add that my family comes together around food and consequently much of my self identy is catagorized by the flavors of my history and present.

  8. Ben S. on February 21, 2006 at 10:33 am

    “I would also just add that my family comes together around food and consequently much of my self identy is catagorized by the flavors of my history and present.”

    That goes for my family as well, as enumerated by my sister in this post

  9. Jim F. on February 21, 2006 at 10:36 am

    Christian, I think that J. Stapley nailed it: people have been drinking fermented drinks for a very long time, usually more fermented drinks than otherwise, but there’s no reason to believe that people were usually drunk, even mildly.

    J. Stapley, thanks. You’re right. For us farming isn’t a “woman’s occupation” (in spite of the fact that women have done and do a great deal of the farming in history and in the world today), but it is something that people have difficulty taking seriously.

    For me one of the most frightening things about contemporary American culture (and its heirs, willing or otherwise) is that we are slowly beginning to lose the identity associated with food, which I think is a loss of identity associated with family and place. I wonder, however, if this is less true among Mormons and other religious people? Are we more likely to sit down to a meal together and to have foods that are “ours”?

  10. Jim F. on February 21, 2006 at 10:41 am

    Christian: One thing to add about alcohol, though about cooking rather than drinking. Alcohol does things in cooking that water cannot do because there are flavor compounds that are alcohol soluble but not water soluble. So, it isn’t that the beer in the chili is merely a flavoring agent. Rather, it brings out flavors that otherwise wouild be more difficult to taste.

  11. BrianJ on February 21, 2006 at 11:42 am

    Jim F: you’ve made me incredibly jealous of the study abroad students. I wonder if people were not laughing becase a man was studying food but rather that anyone was studying food in–of all places–England (just a joke)

    My family is often kindly ridiculed by our friends because of the way we talk about and remember food. For instance, when trying to jar my brother’s memory of a time when our grandma said something particularly funny, I might say, “It was the Thanksgiving when our sister made the mapled acorn squash”–and that would get him to remember the whole night. There are many foods I cannot eat without them conjuring vivid memories of a particular family member.

  12. Jim F. on February 21, 2006 at 11:54 am

    BrianJ: Good thing that’s a joke. It might have been appropriate a few years ago, but I suspect that Britain, and it seems to me that, particularly England, has more foodies per square mile than anywhere on earth. It can certainly compete with France, though it it is less a fad in France and more a cultural tradition. I haven’t counted, but there are a lot of 3 and 4 star Michelin-rated restaurants in London, enough to give Paris a run for its money.

  13. greenfrog on February 21, 2006 at 12:22 pm

    Very nice, Jim F.

    An observation…

    For Christians, Jews, and Muslims, the ordinary is important because it is the world that God created, though it remains hidden in our forgetfulness. For Mormons, the ordinary is, I think even more central. What is embodiment if it isn’t being enmeshed in the ordinary? What is metaphysical desire if it isn’t, ultimately, a denial of the importance of embodiment?

    One of my favorite stories from outside the monotheistic framework you reference is what happened after Vishnu’s conquest over Hiranyaksha. I won’t belabor this thread with the entire story, but the core of it is that Vishnu had to take the avatar of a sow to battle the demon Hiranyaksha, and after winning the battle, Vishnu discovered that he so enjoyed the embodiment — even in a sow’s body — that he stayed in it, living its experience. Finally, Shiva, the destroyer, had to come down to earth and kill the sow. The story ends with Vishnu leaving the sow’s body, laughing.

  14. Jim F. on February 21, 2006 at 2:02 pm

    Good story! Thank you, greenfrog.

  15. Jim F. on February 22, 2006 at 12:16 am

    Here is the longer version of greenfrog’s story: http://inlimine.blogspot.com/2006/02/version-of-favorite-tale.html#comments

  16. Wilfried on February 22, 2006 at 9:36 pm

    Fascinating topic, Jim. Thanks for bringing it up. Two observations in connection with things you mentioned:

    (1) “But food comes from the traditional domain of women, a domain that we, women as well as men, have difficulty taking seriously.”

    I know of course what you meant in your specific perspective, but my first reaction was: “No, food has always been the domain of men!” As a genuine Belgian I thought of the perspective of refined gastronomy which has been, at least since the middle ages and perhaps before, the almost exclusive domain of men. Discrimination for sure: culinary art, as an artform, was to be directed by men. Royalty and nobility normally only appointed men as their chefs de cuisine, “masters of hotel” — the 17th century Francois Vatel being the most famous of all (he committed suicide when one of his major meals for royalty showed a shortcoming).

    When the French revolution put the chefs out of work, many of them started restaurants — opening culinary refinement for the broader public. The 19th century saw major French publications on food, always by men, of which the The Physiology of Taste or Transcendental Gastronomy by Brillat-Savarin is no doubt the most remarkable. But far into the 20th century, gastronomy, and the training to become a chef, was male business. I cannot remember having ever heard or seen on radio or tv, in any culinary program, a woman. Only in recent years have women entered this domain and it attracted the surprised attention of the press: women finally entering this professional domain reserved to men. Of course, all this pertains to a certain level of public gastronomy. The art of daily meals, and of familial feasts, prepared with love and care and skills, has been the domain of women (or: of women too, for I know many Belgian men who are the cooks at home).

    (2) “For me one of the most frightening things about contemporary American culture (and its heirs, willing or otherwise) is that we are slowly beginning to lose the identity associated with food, which I think is a loss of identity associated with family and place. I wonder, however, if this is less true among Mormons and other religious people? Are we more likely to sit down to a meal together and to have foods that are “oursâ€??”

    Amen! Again speaking as a European, it is indeed one of the cultural shocks of living in America. Our little family treats daily dinner time – 6 to 7 PM – as sacred. Time to sit together, talk about the day, about the news, discuss pleasant and serious matters. But especially: time to enjoy the food, skillfully, masterfully prepared, and to talk about it! How disgraceful when then the phone dares to ring! How outrageous when meetings are scheduled at such a time! Ah, culture…

  17. Jim F. on February 22, 2006 at 11:49 pm

    Wlifried, thanks for your point. I have never eaten as well anywhere as when I lived in Belgium, in restaurants and, occasionally, in homes.

    As I pointed out to Bryce, I don’t deny that men have been in charge of cuisine, but I think that underscores the point I wished to make: “In order for cooking to be men’s work, it has to be given a special status, removed from the quotidian of the home and made the subject of academic study or made into a trade from which women were excluded because they didn’t have the sensibilities for real cooking, i.e., for cooking that isn’t merely day-to-day.”

    Janice and I have tried to make sure that our extended family continues to have a big sit-down meal at least twice a month together. We used to do it every Sunday, but it exhausts us to do it so often and it leaves us no time on Sunday for anything else but food preparation. I’m pleased to say that one result has been that our children have also picked up an interest in cooking. What we couldn’t force on them when they were teenagers has becomes an active interest for them as adults.

  18. Jim F. on February 23, 2006 at 12:24 am

    By the way, an excellent chapter on the dominance of men in the gastronomic kitchen is “The Calling of Cooking: Chefs and their Publics since the Revolution” in Stephen Mennell’s All Manners of Food. The book as a whole is one of the better histories of French and English cooking, both domestic and haute.

  19. Jim F. on February 23, 2006 at 1:06 am

    I wonder why the focus of the comments has been on food and cooking when that was only an example in the post. A couple of reasons present themselves: (1) I didn’t make my point clearly, so the examples stood out as if they were the point; (2) we do really like to talk about food. Obviously, I like the second of these better than the first.

  20. Christian Y. Cardall on February 23, 2006 at 7:16 am

    Jim, the real point was clear, at least I think it was, to me: basically, “Get off the speculation train,” applied to life as a whole. ;-> It may have been a case where it was said so well and the conclusion so reasonable that there wasn’t anything obvious to say.

    Perhaps the emphasis of the comments resulted from the fact that the food angle was an easy conversation starter: something eminently concrete, with which everyone has experience, and doesn’t require a lot of intellectual effort or unusual insight to say something that is nevertheless interesting, simply because of the variety of typical but specific experience. Consider the comments an application of the post: celebration of the quotidian, rather than always needing the deep thought.

    Nevertheless I’ll ask something about the main point: How does one tell the difference between contentment and complacency? And at the opposite pole, between valiant achievement and quixotic grasping? As with many things, I don’t know that the fruitful ‘sweet spot’ of such tensions can be compressed into precise rules. Perhaps they are only understood and appreciated through the uncompressed, fine-grained, full-frontal experience of the totality of life. But, depictions like yours here, or in art in its various forms, can convey or at least suggest some of this by proxy.

  21. Jim F. on February 24, 2006 at 3:47 pm

    Christian, don’t get me wrong. I like talking about food. But thanks for returning to the theme.

    Your question is a very good one. I don’t know how to tell the difference between contentment and complacency, but “I know it when I see it” (at least in my own life). For me, however, food (again) may give the best example: it is like the difference between savoring something and just eating it.

    It actually takes quite a bit of work in class to get students to savor food. We have to overcome their embarrassment at doing something that seems so decadent. They’ve just eaten for so long, that they already think they savor their food if they like what they eat. Similarly, I think we are embarrassed by the fact that ordinary experience so much involves our bodies. And I think we are quite unaccustomed to paying attention to our bodily experience for itself. Something like that is, I think, also true for enjoying ordinary things themselves rather than allowing them to disappear into the oblivion of “one more thing like another.” Ordinary life requires that we forget these kinds of things so that we can proceed, so remembering them requires work and practice.

  22. John Mansfield on February 24, 2006 at 4:40 pm

    I feel sympathy for the view expressed here, but some confusion too. Relishing what is has great value to me. The concept here though seems to cross into self-centered indulgence. For an American, European culture is not quotidian. The ordinary in front of us is.

  23. Jim F. on February 24, 2006 at 5:14 pm

    John Mansfield: I don’t understand this: For an American, European culture is not quotidian.
    The ordinary in front of us is.
    I agree that European culture is not quotidian for non-Europeans. Did I say that it is? Perhaps the food discussion suggested that it is, but that, as I noted, was a digression from the topic of the post.

    I also don’t think that relishing what is great and recognizing the ordinary are mutually exclusive. As I said, In focusing on the ordinary “we see the revelation of the otherwise forgotten world that gives meaning to the exceptional, to that which has its meaning by standing out from the ordinary of which it, nevertheless, remains a product and part.”

  24. Robert C. on March 2, 2006 at 9:14 am

    I came upon this BY quote in Sunstone’s Godwrestling article, which I couldn’t help but pass along: “Prayer is great, but warm potatoes and pudding are better.” [From a sermon printed in Deseret News, 10 December 1856. Quoted in Eugene England, “Brigham’s Gospel Kingdom,â€? BYU Studies 18, no. 3 (Spring 1978): 355.]

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