Posted On 02 Sep 2009
How should we approach being a cook? What is a good cook, anyway?
Beginning with Julia Child on PBS some forty years ago, I’ve enjoyed watching many celebrity chiefs on television. I own lots of cookbooks. I occasionally bestir myself to cook or bake something delicious. I’ve created some of my own recipes and even received my share of compliments.
Eating is one of our few genuine needs. If we don’t do it for a few weeks, we die. Suppose that I am to prepare a meal for a friend. How should I do it?
I may think that if I want to be a good cook I should prepare a meal that is delicious, a meal that flatters my friend’s taste buds. I should do my best to practice being an excellent chef. I should aim to treat my guest so well that he or she asks me exactly how I prepared such a delicious meal. That’s what being a good cook is all about!
That seems to be nearly everyone’s approach. What it really is is an undisciplined, irrational, unloving approach to being a good cook. Everyone who practices it is wrong. I don’t think any serious philosopher would disagree. Here’s why.
Plato distinguishes two different kinds of cooks in his dialogue “Gorgias.” Let’s say that a cook of the first type is what I’ve described, in other words, someone interested in preparing delicious meals that flatter the taste buds. Such a cook may honestly believe that what he or she is doing is moral. Following Plato, I think not.
What is the purpose of eating? Rationally, everything should follow from the answer to that question. The purpose of eating is to flourish physically so that we can live as well as possible. The first and chief criterion for whether or not a meal is good is whether or not it is nutritious, physically beneficial. Taste is less important than good nutrition. If I am to love my friend, if I am to serve my guest well, I should not primarily value appearances and concern myself with flattering my guest’s taste buds; instead, I should understand what really benefits my friend and provide it as skillfully as possible.
So a cook of the second type starts with a good understanding of nutrition and prepares a meal that really is good for those who eat it (as opposed to preparing a meal that only appears to be good for those who eat it). A cook of the second type is primarily concerned with preparing a nutritionally beneficial meal and is only secondarily concerned with preparing one that flatters those who eat it by focusing on the taste and presentation of the meal.
Which kind of cook are you? Do you seriously try to benefit or love your guests or family when you prepare a meal or do you, in effect, try to undermine their physical well-being?