When we talk about the ethics of eating, our subject is usually what we eat. Is it ethical to eat horses? Pets? Factory-farmed cattle? To eat meat at all? Or dairy? What about foods harvested across the world? We concern ourselves with questions like these for many reasons, and rightly so. The health of our ecological systems depends, in part, on how we treat the plants and animals in those systems, and therefore on which ones we eat and how we regulate the business of eating them. And every schoolchild who has been introduced to cell biology is aware that what we eat becomes our bodies—nutrients, chemicals, and all. In a globalized and commodified food economy, the ethical ramifications of what we eat are of crucial concern.
But there is another way in which ethics is relevant to eating. There is an ethics of how we eat, and it has more to do with people than animals. Whom do we invite to eat with us, and whom do we exclude? How do we serve others and how do we expect to be served by them? How do we behave while eating, and how do we relate to our food? In what ethical quandaries does eating itself—which after all involves consuming all or part of another creature, even if we are eating a carrot or an apple—ensnare us?
We talk about this second set of questions far more rarely, but those questions are equally important to our society and environment. While the question of what we eat encourages us to think of food as a series of discrete objects, each with different ethical claims, thinking about how we eat makes us consider ourselves and our environment as inextricably linked. How we treat each other at the table has everything to do with how and whether we eat horses, hormones, or homegrown foods. If food becomes an object, then both the other and the self begin to take on the qualities of objects too. People, not to mention animals, become feeding machines, for whom food is merely fuel. We have to address the how in order to put the what in perspective.
In Renaissance England, the situation was reversed—many more people worried about the ethics of how than of what to eat. Early modern writers certainly did debate the morality of consuming meat and other culturally charged foodstuffs, like sugar and alcohol, as we do now. But the majority of the population, perhaps because they lived with the constant threat of food insecurity and famine, worried less about whether to eat meat than about where their next meal might be coming from. Rather, writers of all levels of European society argued—constantly and strenuously—about how and with whom their food was to be eaten. “We should not so much consider what we eat as with whom we eat,” wrote Michel de Montaigne in the late 1580s. Early modern authors approached the table as a scene of great ethical drama—of togetherness and division, holiness and degradation, noble action and craven self-interest.
One of the features of early modern culture that kept the ethics of eating relationships ever immediate was its religiosity. The ideology of communion as an active exchange between individuals, the collective, and the deity dominated notions of eating in English culture. The fact that arguments over communion caused violence and civil war throughout the period shows us that most believed communion was worth thinking about deeply, and that thinking about it urged one to consider all forms of eating with gravitas. The Eucharist, as much for early modern Protestants as for Catholics, galvanized a whole set of considerations about the relationship between eating, the body, the human community, and the world beyond.
This ethics of how to eat crop up, so to speak, in the strangest places. One of the things that motivated me to write Eating and Ethics in Shakespeare’s England was that I wanted to show that writers from very different social backgrounds—Protestant polemicists, Shakespeare, Milton, and the anonymous (mostly female) writers of household recipe books were all concerned with the same kinds of ethical questions when it comes to food. On one hand, Shakespeare gives us the play The Merchant of Venice, in which the acceptance or rejection of meals helps show the fault lines of hospitality and obligation in the cruel world of anti-Semitic Italy. On the other hand, manuscript recipe books illustrate how the women who ran their households imagined their social communities in terms of recipe exchanges and the sharing of meals. If Shylock’s famous plea, “Are we not… fed with the same food?” seems a world away from an English housewife’s recipe “To Make Ginger Bread my Cousen Millisent way,” I set out in my research to discover if I could draw links between the two. I found that Shylock and Cousin Millicent belonged to the same world—a world in which the ethics of how we eat and with whom we eat once formed the basis of English culture and society. Today the table still plays a highly charged role in our lives. Renaissance writers understood this better than we do, and reading their attitudes about it gave me an entirely new appreciation of what it means to sit down with another person and eat a meal.
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