Seeking an Historical Understanding of Eating / by Paula Hardie

Whilst attempting to ground my research project in a theoretical context, I have stumbled upon the recommendation (more than once) to seek an historical understanding of what structures one’s practice before considering moving forward into a state of sustainment.

Design theorist, author, professor and principal of The Studio at the Edge of the World (, Tony Fry advises the redirective practitioner, as the first move toward advancing sustainment, to gain an historical understanding of what has structured their practice and their selves as (in the case of design) a designing subject (Fry 2007, 8). Fry refers to this way of thinking as aimed at productivist practices, especially design. I propose applying this way of thinking to the act of eating, and the hospitality practice that surrounds this act.

Alasdair MacIntyre, Scottish philosopher widely known for his contribution to moral philosophy in After Virtue, similarly indicates the importance of understanding the history of a practice. The hospitality practitioner inherits a past and is the bearer of it’s traditions. Thus to fully understand a practice is to, “notice that practices always have histories and that at any given moment what a practice is depends on a mode of understanding it which has been transmitted often through many generations (MacIntyre 2007, 221).” At what point through our past generations did we begin to disconnect from the origins of our food, and, in doing so fall out of touch with past traditional hospitality provisions. The way in which we eat has drastically changed in such a recent amount of time. How did we so quickly transition from our direct dependence on the land and those who tended it, to eating fast foods handed to us through our car windows? 

I think it’s valid to assume a great portion of our connectedness to food was degraded with the onset of the industrial revolution. Michael Pollan confirmed this when he wrote about the industrial food chain in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The industrial food chain is about forgetting, or not knowing in the first place, where our food comes from. It is the “principle reason it is so opaque, for if we could see what lies on the far side of the increasingly high walls of our industrial agriculture, we would surely change the way we eat (Pollan 2006, 10-11).”

Not knowing, or seeing, what has really become of our food is exactly what the industrial food chain relies on. Wendell Berry calls it a “perfect ignorance” of the history of food in the chapter The Pleasure of Eating in his book What Are People For? Essays. In losing our connection to the origins of food, we have, ourselves, become industrial eaters. Berry wrote,

“The industrial eater is, in fact, one who does not know that eating is an agricultural act, who no longer knows or imagines the connections between eating and the land, and who is therefore necessarily passive and uncritical — in short, a victim. When food, in the minds of eaters, is no longer associated with farming and with the land, then the eaters are suffering a kind of cultural amnesia that is misleading and dangerous (Berry 1990, 146).”

Not only is it a cultural amnesia that we are suffering from, it is an historical amnesia. It is important, I feel, to acquaint yourself with knowing your food. In fact, Berry says there is much pleasure in knowing your food. He even goes as far to say that for anyone who does know something of the modern history of food, “...eating away from home can be a chore (Berry 1990, 151).”

A chore! If we were to solely rely on ourselves for true and good food, we would surely lose the art of hospitality. For some would even lose their livelihoods as well as the absolute pleasure in dining out. The true meaning of hospitality originates in entertaining, comforting and ensuring the safety of the stranger. Thus, I beg to ask one question: How might we fully accomplish the act of hospitality if we do not truly know the history and origins of the food we are serving?

In gaining an historical understanding of our food and the tradition of hospitality, the hospitality practitioner will begin to understand and find purpose in themselves as a designing subject. In identifying oneself as a designing subject, and an agent of change, the hospitality practitioner understands how their practice acts upon itself as well as what the practice acts upon (Fry 2007, 9). That is, how does your hospitality practice act upon farming and agriculture (and the livelihoods that exist within those industries), and the health and wellbeing for consumers? Asking the hard questions might well be the first step in becoming the redirective practitioner.

Wendell Berry’s chapter on The Pleasures of Eating is a really great read, find it here.


Berry, Wendell. 1990. What are people for?: Essays: Counterpoint Press.

Fry, Tony. 2007. "Redirective Practice: An Elaboration." Design Philosophy Papers 5 (1):5-20. 

MacIntyre, Alasdair. 2007. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. 3rd ed. United States: University of Notre Dame Press

Pollan, Michael. 2006. The omnivore's dilemma: A natural history of four meals. United States of America: The Penguin Press.