The Virtues of the Table

The Virtues of the Table: How to Eat and Think, by Julian Baggini, Granta, RRP£14.99, 320 pages

Surely it’s not quite healthy, surely it’s not quite right, this obsession we have with – let’s be frank – stuffing our faces. Look, there’s The Great British Bake Off’s Paul Hollywood casting a scathing eye over a tottering croquembouche; there’s Nigella Lawson, gazing adoringly into the cornucopia of her fridge; and here you are, standing at the grocery store checkout with goat’s cheese and a goose egg in your basket and wondering, how did it come to this?

Who better than philosopher Julian Baggini to bring balm for our first-world souls? A serious thinker and a fluent writer with just enough of the common touch, Baggini is perfectly well aware that the questions he addresses in The Virtues of the Table are ones his readers are privileged to ask. You can only be a “conscientious eater” if you are not worried about where your next meal is coming from, which for most people, for most of human history – and of course into this day – is how life is. But those are not the folks at whom this book is aimed, and we mustn’t come down hard on its author for that.

So let’s allow that you are a conscientious eater. You are probably a worried one. Are you allowed to pop into McDonald’s for a cup of coffee and an Egg McMuffin, or will that scorch your soul forever? You buy locally sourced strawberries, but they’re grown in hideous polytunnels that blight the countryside – how to weigh that equation? And then there’s the eating of meat: is it always wrong to kill our fellow creatures just because we want a bacon sandwich? If these are the questions you ask yourself, this book is for you.

In 23 short, easily digestible chapters, Baggini addresses issues of sourcing, stewardship and compassion in food production, moving on to the traditions and beliefs that we – and other cultures – have attached to sitting down to eat; he considers restaurants, tasting menus, and what it means to blow a few hundred pounds on a single meal. Along the way he talks to monks and chefs, restaurant critics and sheep farmers. This is a fresh, farm-to-table volume that considers its subject in the round, and attempts to put, as its author has it, “the quotidian at the heart of ethics”.

What Baggini is best at is picking apart the casual (and sometimes not-so-casual) assumptions we make about the food that’s in front of us. Worried about “food miles”? You’re probably not buying New Zealand butter, then. Think again. Kiwi butter, it turns out, is produced by methods that emit less than half the carbon dioxide of butter produced in the UK – and that includes the transport to get it here. Or let’s say you’re eating a meal in Kent, southeast England: why is rhubarb from Lincolnshire in the East Midlands “seasonal” when tomatoes from France – which is actually closer – are not considered to be?

Or perhaps it’s being a carnivore that’s on your conscience; it was on Baggini’s too. So on our behalf he heads to an abattoir and describes in clear but not gruesome detail just what happens when a pig goes to slaughter. The conclusions he draws are rather more forgiving than those of Jonathan Safran Foer in his largely excoriating Eating Animals – but Baggini is not talking about factory farming here, rather about animals that have been raised humanely. But then, what does “humanely” mean, when it comes to animals? How much consciousness or awareness do they have? It’s a question Baggini considers too – though admitting that it’s impossible to know the answer. He decides, however, “that treating animals with respect is not incompatible with eating them”.

This book might cause you to look again at some of the choices you make about what to eat, and how you go about eating it. There are some very relaxed recipes at the end of each chapter; they are the work’s least convincing aspect. Not even the greatest philosopher could persuade me that there could ever be any joy in a rice salad. And it’s curious to write, in a book about food, of Nando Parrado, one of the survivors of a 1972 aeroplane crash in the Andes, without referring to the fact that Parrado and his companions resorted to cannibalism to survive. But then Baggini wants us to be able to “get on with the business of enjoying ourselves” – so perhaps that was a wise choice.