“The flesh receives as unlimited the limits of pleasure; and to provide it requires unlimited time. But the mind, intellectually grasping what the end and limit of the flesh is, and banishing the terrors of the future, procures a complete and perfect life, and we have no longer any need of unlimited time. Nevertheless the mind does not shun pleasure, and even when circumstances make death imminent, the mind does not lack enjoyment of the best life.”
— Epicurus, Principle Doctrines—
I was confused when I first heard the term “epicurean” used to describe someone who pursues sensual pleasures (especially with respect to food). There is the common misconcenption that the ancient Epicureans, since they believed that pleasure is the chief Good, advocated pursuing pleasure without limitation. Epicurus actually considered freedom from fear and pain as the optimum state. This required the individual to exercise prudence and restraint, because enjoying too much of a good thing can decrease satisfaction and increase desire. So how come the name of a philosophical doctrine that preaches moderation and condemns excess is used to describe those who love gourmet food? But before I offer my thoughts on this, I’ll first talk about my new hobby.
I’ve always been curious about cooking from a distance; on cooking shows, I would admire chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Ming Tsai artfully construct a dish whose appearance would be enough to make my mouth water. And naturally, I’m fan of good food, everything from those perfectly cooked Five Guys burgers to the amazingly authentic food of Sichuan Gourmet.
Only recently though, have I resolved to learn how to cook, how to really cook, adding it to my lifelong TODO list. Why now? I think partly it’s because during the semester I very quickly get bored of eating college food. It’s not that the food tastes bad (Yale serves great college food except for that nasty cauliflower overcooked to a paste that Berkeley sometimes makes), but that it tastes boring. After a few weeks everything tastes familiar, and not in the good homey way. It tastes familiar in the I’m-tired-of-this-same-old-shit sort of way.
Another reason is my lifelong obsession with Sichuan gourmet. Sichuan is a region in China famous for it’s ridiculously spicy-hot, flavor-packed dishes. I haven’t experienced any other type of food that matches Sichuan cuisine in terms of sheer flavor and uniqueness of taste. No other food can make me down so much rice in one meal.
Also, in the past year I’ve been going out to restaurants more often, sometimes to upscale places. I find myself having stronger, more polarized opinions about the food. Sometimes I will be so impressed with the food that I won’t be able to stop thinking about it, like having a song get stuck in your head. Sometimes I’ll be so severely disappointed with the food that I’ll publicly swear never to go to that restaurant again.
This summer I will try my inexperienced hand at the world’s various cuisines, starting with the dishes that I love. Every so often I’ll write about my successes, my failures, and what I’ve learned about the nature of taste. I’m determined to learn all the basic cooking techniques (sauteing, baking, boiling, etc), how to wield a knife, and how to use different ingredients. Hopefully I will also learn a thing or two about enjoying food that is prepared with such great care.
Viewed in this way, the Epicurean label isn’t as paradoxical as I originally thought. Fully appreciating food for its excellence isn’t as easy or instinctive as I thought. Perhaps the Epicurean would say that thoughtfully enjoying the gastronomic goodness of food is far more in the Epicurean spirit than simply gobbling it down to satiate hunger.
Eating can be as much an art as cooking, and cooking, I imagine, enlightens one to this art.