The Virtues of the Table

The Virtues of the Table: How to Eat and Think by Julian Baggini

Reviewed by Honor May Eldridge

In his book, Baggini explores the ethics and history around the food that we eat. He considers the philosophy of the table and the societal attitudes that have come to be. 

He addresses the contemporary issues of local production. As an Italian by birth, his love of local, seasonal food springs off the page, especially in his chapter entitled “Tear Up The Recipes” where he argues that “when you rely on what is written rather than on what you see, smell and taste, you lose command over your kitchen”. However, that Mediterranean influence is also seen in his love of seasonality, which to his mind “makes us more aware of the flow of time” and connects us with the “rhythm of life”.

Charting the history of the ethical food movement, he acknowledges the positive changes that have occurred as the public increasingly adopts such practices in recent years. He highlights the success of the Slow Food movement “by which local traditions are strengthened and made sustainable” but does not see that as the pinnacle of achievement. While sufficient to jump start the movement, Baggini doesn’t believe that the concept of “organic” doesn’t go far enough today since it “is defined by its system of certification”. For him, “many of those who once used the organic label as a kind of proxy for good, sustainable produce now look to the specific virtues that most concern them; sustainability, seasonality, locality, fair trade or animal welfare” and demand a higher assurance. 

More practical than other authors, he does not romanticize the past saying “there is no point pretending that we ca go back to the time of the mule”. Perhaps for many, his vision will not be sufficiently left-ist. On the issue of sustainability, he believes that ultimately the market will lead to change suggesting that “(conventional farming) has very strong incentives to reduce its dependency on finite resources such as oil and synthesized nitrogen” and his critique of GMOs centers around the ownership of varietals by large conglomerates, rather than the science itself. Similarly, on the issue of meat, rather than an out-and-out rejection, he supports compassionate meat-eating that “does not deny that animal life has value but it does not overstate what that is”. This is one of the many examples where his philosophical training comes into effect since he highlights omnivorism as the way “we show that we are willing to accept that death is a fact of life” and that “to kill an animal and then discard its meat is less respectful of the beast’s life”.