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Do You Really Know How to Cook?

Lisa Heldke sticks up for the pastry chefs against Plato and the physicians.

In Plato’s dialogues, food and food-related references spring up with a frequency that becomes rather impressive when one begins paying attention to them. They are nearly always found intertwined with discussions of bodily health, virtue, and knowledge. In the Republic, for example, he discusses the diet of inhabitants of the so-called city of pigs in surprising detail. He pins the arrival of war in the luxurious city to its residents’ demands for meat. Socrates observes that if the residents of the city are not content to subsist on a “pig’s diet” of vegetables, acorns, and cheese, but demand meat to eat, then “there will be [need] for many other fatted beasts…” As a result of this need,

The land which was adequate to feed the earlier population will become small and inadequate instead… We must therefore annex a portion of our neighbours’ land if we are to have sufficient pasture and ploughland, and they will want to annex part of ours… So our next step is war, Glaucon…

Socrates also prescribes the diet that guardians in the luxurious city should eat – meat, roasted – and praises the virtues of a plain diet.

In the Timaeus, Plato considers digestion. Here we learn the reason for a long intestine, located far from the center of thinking; it allows us to engage in contemplation for longer periods of time without interruption, and protects us from the vice of gluttony:

Accordingly, to make provision against the danger that disease should bring swift destruction and the mortal race should forthwith come to an end in immaturity, they [the framers of humankind] appointed the lower belly (as it is called) as a receptacle to hold the superfluity of food and drink, and wound the bowels round in coils, in order that the nourishment should not pass so quickly through as to constrain the body to crave fresh nourishment too soon, and thus, making it insatiable, render all mankind incapable, through gluttony, of all cultivation and philosophy, deaf to the command of the divinest part of our nature.

In the Gorgias, Plato contrasts pastry cooking unfavorably with medicine, in order to illustrate the difference he believes exists between a mere knack and a genuine art. In this article, I want to consider his comparison in some detail. I will try to show that Plato’s treatment of cooking distorts or misconceives it in order to shore up his arguments about the distinction between arts and knacks, and about the separation and hierarchy between minds and bodies. Plato’s treatment of cookery seems to be informed not by the activity of cookery itself, but by medicine, the activity against which it is set. In contrast, I shall suggest that a more direct look at foodmaking can challenge Plato’s art/knack and soul/body dichotomies in several important ways.

Pastry Cooks and Doctors

In the Gorgias, Plato likens rhetoric to cookery in his effort to show why the former activity is a mere knack, not a genuine art like lawmaking or medicine. Plato frames this discussion in terms of human health. In the dialogue, Socrates convinces Gorgias that there is a state called health for both body and soul, and also a state of apparent health corresponding to each. Socrates then shows Gorgias that human activities can be divided into arts aimed at producing genuine health in body and in soul, and knacks which aim only to create the appearance of health in each. Arts for the soul include law-giving and corrective justice, while arts for the body are gymnastics and medicine. These activities count as arts because they meet two criteria: first, their practice requires knowledge of what constitutes health in the soul or body; and second, the activities involve knowledge of how to produce health in their respective parts. The crucial term in both cases is knowledge; for Plato, medicine and lawmaking count as arts only because their practitioners can give a ‘reasoned account’ of health in body or soul, and of what is needed to bring it about. Knacks too are further divided; there are rhetoric and sophistry that appeal to the soul, and pastry cooking and cosmetics that appeal to the body. To illustrate the difference between these knacks and genuine arts, Plato contrasts medicine and pastry-cooking. Cookery is a knack, not an art, he argues, because it rests upon no knowledge. In contrast to medicine, it cannot give an account of what is best for the body, nor can it give an account of how to promote health in it. Plato’s reason for calling cooking a knack rather than an art is not that he believes that what one eats is unimportant. On the contrary, he believes eating well is vital, and for one reason; it is central to bodily health. Thus, eating must be under the control of physicians. In assigning physicians to the task of selecting foods, Plato derives his position from standard Greek medical views about the centrality of diet to health. E.D. Phillips notes that in the Hippocratic text Ancient Medicine, the author argues that “Medicine arose because sick men cannot take the same food as healthy men, so that their dietetic needs had to be considered. Indeed the whole art of preparing human food could be included in it, since even healthy men need prepared food and cannot feed on raw things as animals do.” This idea carries down to the present day to some extent; doctors often give patients dietary prescriptions as a part of their treatment for maladies, or as a means for promoting good health. Plato goes beyond even the claims of Greek medicine; for him, not only is food central to bodily health, but bodily health is central to food. The importance of food is that it promotes health. Diet must be attended to – but by the physician, not the cook. It is because Plato regards diet as important for health that he believes the cook should have nothing to do with it. Or, more precisely, he believes the cook should have nothing to do with making decisions about it; later in the Gorgias, Plato suggests that medicine should ‘control’ activities such as cookery, implying that the cook can, and even should, do the actual physical labor of foodmaking, but only under the supervision of a knowing physician.(518a) What does cookery offer, then, if not health? Why would anyone seek the services of a cook instead of those of a doctor? Quite simply, Plato says, cooking aims to flatter. The cook offers pleasant feelings, but feelings which masquerade as health – or which are so pleasant that health comes to seem unimportant. So of course anyone who doesn’t know any better will be attracted to the offerings of the cook. Cooking involves no genuine knowledge of bodily health, but it acts as if it does – Plato says it ‘impersonates medicine’ – and it is treated as if it does by those who do not know better. Plato’s physician actually makes you well, by accurately diagnosing what is wrong with you, and determining what foods will return you to bodily health. The doctor’s prescriptions may not be pleasant at all – they may involve bitter medicine, or unwelcome changes in diet – but the ultimate result will be genuine health of one’s body. On the other hand, Plato’s pastry cook says “you’re not feeling so good? What’s your favorite flavor? Chocolate? Perfect. I’ll make you a flourless chocolate cake that’ll make you forget you even have a gall bladder.” Health or flattery?

Plato’s arguments in the Gorgias about the distinction between arts and mere knacks have of course been challenged from a number of directions; for example, by questioning his claims that one cannot have knowledge without being able to give an account, and that one cannot give an account of how to produce pleasure. Not surprisingly, these challenges have tended to focus on rhetoric, which, after all, is the subject of the dialogue. But I think that another sort of challenge to Plato’s distinction emerges, if we examine his discussion of cooking. What if we place cooking at the center of our attention, rather than introducing it to compare-and-contrast, as Plato does? We are then led to ask, “Is Plato justified in describing the aim of cooking as flattery?” Specifically, is he justified in describing cooking as an activity that pretends to promote bodily health, all the while charming its patrons with succulent morsels? Is it accurate, useful, fair to understand the true work of a cook – even a pastry cook – as aiming at producing foods which are pleasant for the moment, but which actually work against the dictates of bodily health? I think not. Even if we accept without quarrel Plato’s assertions that there are clear distinctions between bodily health and the mere appearance of such health, and between activities that promote health, and those that just appear to do so, it would require more than this to show that cookery is in fact an example of the latter type of activity – that its aim really is to flatter people into not caring about their physical wellbeing. Plato’s own descriptions of cookery don’t help much; indeed, they seems to stipulate this aim, as if Plato has created a four-fold categorization of human activities and now must find examples to fill all four slots. Plato’s reasoning seems to go something like this: since medicine, an art, concerns itself with bodily health and with the way that foods promote health, cooking must be pretending to do the same thing, since it too involves giving food to people. And why is cooking not an art? Because it cannot give an account of how to produce health in a body. But this answer only works if we take bodily health – or the appearance thereof – to be cooking’s aim. I think Plato’s example assumes this to be the case, rather than showing it to be so. Because he can identify physicians as practitioners of a real healing art concerned with the question of what people should eat and how it should be prepared to restore and maintain health in the body, Plato seems to conclude that for cooking to be any art at all, bodily health would have to be its aim. Plato’s description of cooking is not so much a description of cooking as a description of not-medicine. I believe other understandings of cooking are possible if we ask the question, “At what does cooking aim?” Other understandings might not limit the possible answers to “health” or “pretended health/flattery”. Or they might reject the assumption that cooking has or should have a single aim. Other understandings of cooking may in turn challenge some of Plato’s fundamental views about the nature of knowledge, about the division and hierarchy between bodies and souls, and about the nature of health in bodies and souls.

So, at what does cooking aim? I’ll suggest four different possible answers. They vary in the degree to which they challenge Plato’s view, and they do not necessarily agree with each other. That is, it is not possible to follow all four suggestions, for they point in different directions, requiring one to accept and reject different parts of Plato’s system.

Food as the Aim of Cooking

The flat-footed answer to the above question is that cooking aims at the production of food. But then the next question is, what sorts of desires and needs does the cook aim to fill by cooking the food she does? We’ve seen Plato’s answer to this question; he suggests the cook produces foods that genuinely harm one’s physical health but that feed one’s baser appetites.

Suggestion 1 We need to think about whether we would say a cook was fulfilling the aim of cookery if she consistently produced food that made people feel happy while actually harming their health. It is not clear that we would. Certainly anyone whose cooking made one feel ill a few hours after eating, for example, would not be regarded as having fulfilled those aims. But we might further hesitate to apply the term to someone whose cooking produced ill health over the long term, by failing to nourish, or by slowly poisoning the eater.

This suggestion is a relatively conservative one. It leaves Plato’s assumptions about aims, and about the nature of arts and knacks, intact. In making it, I simply suggest that a cook might have knowledge of the sort a doctor has, or that we might be entitled to expect her to. This suggestion entertains the possibility that cooking might in fact be an art in the Platonic sense. But in response, Plato might insist that producing unhealthy but delicious food is practically the job description of a pastry chef; these folks are fulfilling their aims if and only if they produce delicacies that, over time, will harden every artery in one’s heart. The pastry chef appeals to our basest appetites, getting us to ignore our cholesterol levels as we please our sweet tooth.

Suggestion 2 This reply leads me to make a second slightly more challenging suggestion, namely: couldn’t the pleasure one derives from understanding and appreciating a complex flavor also be a form of appreciation which draws the soul upward toward higher, purer forms of the Beautiful itself? If it were, then eating would be listed among the activities which could improve the soul. The pastry cook would in fact be practicing an art to the degree that she had knowledge of the Beautiful, and knew how to create delicacies which could lead others to that knowledge. To reject this possibility, Plato must argue that appreciating food involves only the most base bodily appetite. The fact that eating involves the senses is not alone enough to prove its pure appetitiveness, for certainly the soul depends upon the senses to some degree until it reaches the absolute highest levels of contemplation. In defense of pastry, I would argue that an examination of the aims of cooking should take seriously the possibility that the appreciation of excellent foods (foods that I am even willing to grant might cause ill health, even death if eaten to excess) actually can improve the embodied soul. For this suggestion even to make sense requires some significant shuffling of Plato’s views, for hunger often stands for him as the very definition of bodily appetite, of that which must be controlled by reason. It would require us to challenge, for example, the hierarchy Plato establishes in the Republic between appetitive bodies and knowing souls. To suggest that one might ‘taste knowingly’ is to fly in the face of Plato’s views about appetite and eating, as they are revealed in pronouncements about the vice of gluttony in the Timaeus, and the perils of ‘Attic pastries’ and ‘the Sicilian table’ in the Republic. The message in those dialogues is quite clear: attending to the pleasures of taste will send the eater careening away from the quest for knowledge. In contrast, I suggest that the attainment of knowledge might actually call upon one to attend to and develop taste. What would it be like to attend to taste in this way? One thing to note is that taste differs from vision, the sense that is Plato’s most important source of metaphors for knowing, in that it does not invite the taster to abstract, distance, or disembody herself. Taste keeps the taster grounded in her body – as does touch. One cannot taste food without having it in one’s mouth. By suggesting it as a candidate for improving the soul, I also mean to suggest that remaining grounded in the body is no obstacle to such improvement – indeed, it may be necessary for it.

Suggestion 3 By proposing that eating may improve the soul, I also question Plato’s view that the body must be controlled by the soul if it is not to succumb to some always-present temptation to eat donuts all day long – to wallow in base bodily pleasure without regard to health. It is this view about the proper relation that should obtain between bodies and souls that makes Plato regard the offerings of the pastry cook as so particularly dangerous to the appetitive individual. My third suggestion responds to it: what if we viewed souls, bodies and health in a way that began with the recognition that we work best when we are healthy, and continued with the observation that it is often not ratiocination that brings us to eat more vegetables, but salivation? We stand in the produce aisle and get hungry in the presence of apples and tomatoes. Admittedly, this aspect of our appetite may have a hard time attracting our attention; I’m not suggesting that the Twinkie aisle doesn’t prompt a little salivation of its own. But this second fact does not refute the first. Nutritionists tell us that bodies experience cravings for things in which they are deficient. I am suggesting that we see these so-called cravings as a kind of ‘bodily knowing’, engaged in by ensouled bodies, bodies that know, in some unmetaphorical sense, what is good for them. To call it knowing rather than craving calls on us to pay attention to the intelligence that this desire displays. This third suggestion challenges Plato’s conception of the nature of bodies and souls. It presses further in the direction of what I’ve called an ‘embodied soul’ – a soul which can be improved by tasting and which is capable of bodily knowing. Put another way, the suggestion invites us to challenge the sharp separation and hierarchy Plato maintains between bodies and souls, and the way in which he makes bodily health subservient to the health of the soul.

Cooking as the Aim of Cooking

Suggestion 4 The arguments I’ve offered so far all have shared the assumption that cooking aims at producing food. In what may seem an odd move, I now offer my fourth suggestion: that we ought also question the centrality of this assumption. What happens if we think of cooking not only in terms of food and its benefits for those who eat it, but also in terms of the benefits of cooking for the cook? Consider the possibility that it is an activity the very practice of which can improve those who engage in it. To suggest that cooking might be such an activity, again involves challenging Plato’s distinction between bodies and souls and between knowledge and knack. First, the body/soul distinction: While Plato certainly understands the notion of an activity the very practice of which would improve the soul of the one practicing it, his examples of such activities tend to be contemplative and reflective and to involve abstract reason: geometry, the dialectic. Or, at the very least, they are activities in which the soul very clearly leads the body, in which the body’s role is to support or facilitate the work of the soul: medicine. I’m suggesting that cooking is an activity in which body and soul work together, not with the soul as boss and the body taking orders, but cooperatively, with each one informing and guiding the other. In describing what goes on when I bake bread, for example, the hierarchical model of souls and bodies hampers my description. If I try to use it, I find myself lapsing into discussion of ‘embodied souls’ or ‘ensouled bodies.’ I mean for cooking to be thought of not as an intellectual enterprise, in which manual labor is incidental, but as a ‘thoughtful practice,’ in which I, as my hands, know what to do. Cooking might in fact be an activity which improves one precisely because it requires a constant interplay between so-called mental work and manual work. Its virtue lies in part in the way it resists neat divisions between bodies and souls. Conceptions of health also are transformed by this vision. Physical health is not simply in the service of the healthy soul; my body is not just something that I need to take care of so that it will not interrupt my efforts to think well. What of the distinction between knowledge and knack? Recall that Plato believes that the cook, properly controlled, actually does possess a knack that is useful to the community. Plato does not think that cooking lacks in cleverness; he just thinks it is devoid of knowledge. If the clever cook defers always to the wise physician, one can respect and value the work she does. The physician on the other hand, need never cook herself; for, even if she never boils a single egg, her knowledge of nutrition and health give her authority over the cook. But the fact that the cook can prepare food, make it delicious and attractive, and preserve the nutrients in it, gives her nothing – specifically, no knowledge – that would require the physician to defer to her. Physicians need not possess whatever it is that one gains from physically making food – because whatever it is, it is not knowledge. In short, actually being able to cook is not a requirement for knowing how to cook! Granted, should the physician ever decide to come down to the kitchen and make a midnight snack, she may have to ask the cook how to boil water for the egg – but her ignorance here would not be construed by Plato as an ignorance of something which is necessary for the improvement of her soul. I suggest that a more useful understanding of the nature and importance of cooking and eating would recognize and value the importance of being able to cook. The cook, I want to argue, does indeed have a kind of knowledge, a kind of knowledge which is necessary if any actual food is going to be produced, which is not reducible to the knowledge of Plato’s physician, and which can enhance the health of the cook-as-embodied-soul.


In the Gorgias, Plato’s discussion of food and foodmaking emphasizes the subservient role he believes they play in the quest for the good life. One must use food to support one’s quest for knowledge (by using it to keep one’s body from interrupting oneself, for example), but one must not ever mistake the pleasures of food for the pleasures of true wisdom. One must maintain the body, but recognize that maintaining the body with food is something one does for the sake of one’s soul. Those who prepare food must always remember that promoting good bodily health is the only legitimate aim to which they can attain; cooking itself is an activity which can improve the soul only insofar as the cook, with her knack, listens to the doctor, who knows best. My discussion of what it would mean to take food and foodmaking seriously has proceeded by negative example, for the most part, using the Gorgias to show how not to look at cooking. In closing, I would like to provide a more positive example, one in which food and foodmaking are the focus of a philosopher’s consideration: The residents of the city will “make bread and wine,” and:

“For their nourishment they will provide meal from their barley and flour from their wheat, and kneading and cooking these they will serve noble cakes and loaves on some arrangement of reeds or clean leaves. And, reclining on rustic beds strewed with bryony and myrtle, they will feast with their children, drinking of their wine thereto, garlanded and singing hymns to the gods in pleasant fellowship….(372a-c)

“Furthermore, they will have salt, of course, and olives and cheese, and onions and greens, the sort of things they boil in the country, they will boil up together. But for dessert we will serve them figs and chick-peas and beans, and they will toast myrtle berries and acorns before the fire, washing them down with moderate potations. “(372c)

The quotation is from Plato; it’s his description of the city of pigs in the Republic.

© Lisa Heldke 2001

Lisa Heldke buys her Twinkies in St Peter, Minnesota, where she teaches philosophy and women’s studies at Gustavus Adolphus College. She is completing a book on ethnic food, colonialism, and authenticity.

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