Thoreau and food (Walden 150)

Last time Thoreau talked about his mixed feelings about hunting and fishing. But in this chapter he also included thoughts about food in general. He favored a “simple and clean” diet, warning, “put an extra condiment into your dish, and it will poison you. It is not worth the while to live by rich cookery.”

I suppose we’re learning the truth of this as we face higher levels of obesity. Henry would be amazed (and appalled, I’m sure) at the ubiquity of food and food advertising in today’s culture.

OK, but Henry also expresses disapproval of alcohol, coffee, and tea. Granted, part of this was his desire to reduce expenses, but a lot of it was asceticism. There “are infinite degrees of drunkenness,” Henry warns, and, “Even music may be intoxicating.”

As always, he’s worried about being distracted from higher things. In this case I think he’s taking some good ideas way too far. Sure: moderation, healthy living, and all that… but honestly, do you want to go through life without sometimes enjoying that donut or that ice cream sundae? My wife and I have gotten so we don’t buy a lot of ice cream or keep cookies in the house… most of the time. The idea is, don’t buy as much, don’t keep it around as often — but now and then, dammit, you bring home the Ben & Jerry’s. Do it right and really enjoy it.

If Thoreau can enjoy a walk in the woods, why can’t I enjoy a cup of Chunky Monkey? It too is among the wonders of the universe.

And yes, Henry, music can be intoxicating. Otherwise, what’s the point? As I write this I’m listening (for the first time in years) to Paul Simon’s 1990 album, The Rhythm of the Saints. “The clouds shift,” Simon sings. “The plane lifts. She moves on.” The song ends and now he’s singing about being born at the right time. I was born at a different time but I know what he means.

Taste and sound, the patterns of flavor, the patterns of music, the rhythm of the saints — those too are part of nature, and ought to be savored as such.

I’ll say a little more about Thoreau’s asceticism next time.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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