photograph BY Ramoncin1 | Dreamstime
I have the greatest respect for vegetarians, a breed which at present includes, down Atlanta-way, a son, a daughter-in-law, and two granddaughters, the latter of whom, charm-buckets both, conscientiously avoid jelly beans because they have been made aware that gelatin is an animal component.
I am quite certain that the discipline practiced by these, my beloved kinfolks, and all others of their fraternity, makes for both good nutrition and noble philosophy. But a couple of things tweak my curiosity. One is that I know a few people, just as keen and fastidious about human welfare and planetary balance as the aforementioned, who tout something called the Paleolithic diet, which assumes that human beings have not really evolved from the basic physiognomy of hunters and gatherers and are obliged to keep that fact in mind when they make a meal. That means eating a lot of meat, as well as vegetables and fruits, roots and nuts, but shunning grains, legumes, and processed foods.
At least to my eye, these folks appear, on the average, just as healthy. And yes, quite as honorable.
And the other thing is that, as a celebrated book of the recent past, The Secret Life of Plants, convincingly argued, the vegetable kingdom may well possess varieties of awareness, even bona fide emotions, that had previously been unsuspected. Within the last few weeks, an article in the Sunday New York Times has elaborated on that thesis and documented apparently successful efforts to measure degrees of intellection and systems of communication among plants.
The fact is that only life forms — whether animal or vegetable, assisted in either case by some necessary add-on minerals — can provide the means of survival for other life forms. That is the meaning of the food chain, and one of the miracles of what we call civilization is that the human species has not only maneuvered itself to the very top of this chain, where, but for the rare and usually avoidable misadventure involving, say, predators in the wild, people themselves remain free of having themselves ingested. But they have also evolved rituals for their own food consumption that afford a measure of grace that goes beyond merely staying alive.
That is the process we call dining, the art which this very issue celebrates. In these pages the gustatory instincts have not only been acknowledged, they have been transformed and transcended. The nutritionist is hailed as a scientist, and that’s distinction enough, but the chef is regarded as an artist.
It is not for nothing that the bestowing of human honors so often revolves around banquets or that public festivals exist in all known cultures to celebrate the successful end of food-acquisition cycles — whether of the hunt or of the harvest. And clothes may help make the man, but in our evaluations of others, it is their interactions with food that looms as large. Breaking bread with one’s fellows is at the heart of religious sacraments. Witness the Christian rite of communion and the Jewish Passover meal, among numerous other examples.
On successive nights recently, for the sake of profiles I was doing for our sister publication, the weekly Memphis Flyer, I had the subjects — former Democratic state Senator John Ford and current Republican state Senator Mark Norris — to dinner in local restaurants. As much as anything they said in answer to questions, their eating-out demeanor gave me some clue to the nature of their respective beings.
Ford, a member of a renowned political family with origins in inner-city Memphis and a holdover from a now long-gone age of Democratic dominance in Tennessee state government, was dressed to the nines and comported himself like a don. (A gracious one, it should be said.) During the course of our meal, he was the subject of numerous courtesy visits from other diners — this despite the fact that at the time he was waiting out the end of a probation period following a prison term.
Norris, a Republican, a lawyer, and a man of the suburbs, was otherwise. Dressed with weekend casualness and in company with his wife, Chris, he went largely unnoticed among the other diners and seemed wholly at ease with that fact, though in his blue-suited weekday capacity as majority leader for a Republican super-majority, he wields enormous power in the lives of his fellow Tennesseans.
Two men, two eras, two styles, but sitting with them at table was as good a way as any of appraising their appetites for life and what it is they fancy.
Jackson Baker is the senior editor of the Memphis Flyer and a contributing editor to Memphis magazine.