A diner pensant, or dinner discussion, is a unique Dutch phenomenon. Michele Ernsting sits down to a four course meal with food philosopher Michiel Korthals to talk about the role of food in society.
What is more important: to know where our food comes from or to simply enjoy eating it? In a forward to his book ‘Before Dinner: Philosophy and Ethics of Food,’ Michiel Korthals writes:
“Hardly a day goes by that we do not hear about some scandal or problem related to agriculture and food: the risk of cancer from eating French fries, dioxin in pigfeed, pesticide residues in organic chickens. Obesity has taken on epic proportions, experts call for a ban on junk food. But at the same time, we also hear all sorts of positive reports from nutrician experts: a life free from illness, a medical food that prevents memory loss, a fatty substance that does not make us fat. It is hard enough to grasp the exact implications of this news; it is even more difficult to penetrate to their ethical and philosophical core.”
Korthals wrote the book because he observed that something is fundamentally wrong with our entire food system. His starting premise is that food is a great good that must be enjoyed, but that it deserves far more attention and care than it now gets from consumers, producers, governments and scientists.
Food as fuel
“If people do not care any more about the quality of the food and only see food as a fuel, I think something very precious gets lost in society,” Korthals told Michele Ernsting over a dinner sponsored by the International School for Philosophy in Amsterdam. He says many of the ideas he has about food have come over long dinner conversations. He believes the social function of food is important because individuals come together and confirm their mutual relationships during meals.
In today’s fast food culture, individuals eat on the run and families have little time to sit down and eat together. Also, food production has changed drastically from the Utopian dreams of men like Frederik van Eeden, the Dutch philosopher who started a Walden community for artists in Bussum where they worked the land and made their own daily bread. Korthals is cautiously optimistic about the future: “There will always be cultures where food is more appreciated and seen as something to live for.”
Diner Pensant was produced by Michele Ernsting. The program was originally broadcast in June 2006 as part of the series Vox Humana.