The Only Thing You Can Eat is Outside of Yourself: Lisa Heldke’s Philosophy on Food

11 Oct

Do words like “terroirism” or “freeganism” make you turn your head and take notice? I am easily pulled into environmental topics that haven’t been fully revealed to me before. Being an ES& P major, I am often immersed in topics like food activism and its related issues. There is plenty of controversy surrounding our food and what dictates a healthy person or a healthy diet. I am seeking answers to whether humans are doomed as a “healthy society” and Lisa Heldke’s recent lecture clarified some important points.

Lisa Heldke is a professor of philosophy at Gustavas Adolphus College, and clearly felt comfortable in front of an expectant crowd. Dr. Heldke has published numerous articles, as well as a book, Exotic Appetites: Ruminations of a Food Adventurer. She has also co-edited two books in this area:  Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Transformative Philosophies of Food that was co-edited with Deane Curtain; The Atkins Diet and Philosophy is part of a series of books that explores popular culture using philosophy. Her most recent lecture was called Urban Farmers and Rural Cosmopolitans, which was here at Smith College.

I was shocked at how much I have to learn about food philosophy and what it means to truly understand topics as complicated as food dichotomy. One of her solutions to improve human health was to cluster typically binary dichotomies together to mutually support one another; dichotomies like consumer/producer, global/local, urban/rural, cosmopolitan/provincial, to name a few. With more cooperation between these entities,  many of the food-related issues we face can be solved.

Dr. Heldke has a self-deprecating sense of humor and a quick wit that had the audience on her side immediately. Complicated theories that were based on long-dead philosophers and activists  like Jane Addams and John Dewey were made easy to understand as she navigated her way through her PowerPoint and Wordle sets. She has spent the better part of her career pondering her theory that food=everything, and the lens through which we use to examine the world is multi-disciplinary. According to Dr. Heldke, “Philosophy is usually accused of making grand sweeping claims that can build a cantankerous relationship between science and philosophy.” Parasitism was a key focus of her lecture. She points to the relationship between a chicken-of-the-woods mushroom and the heartwood of the tree that it feasts on and eventually kills. She makes the comparison that humans have a host and parasite relationship with their food resources as well. She makes the philosophical claim that beings depend on beings for sustenance, meaning this parasitic lifestyle is merely natural, even unavoidable.

Dr. Heldke framed the cultural aspect of food with arguments by Charlotte Biltekoff, a professor at University of California at Davis who makes the argument that food sovereignty is built of two positions: neo-liberalism and elitism. These are opposing arguments suggesting that poor people are not just poor, they are bad somehow for being fat or unhealthy. Somehow “healthy living” leaves behind the poorer sectors of the working class. Cultural politics dictate that only those with money can afford to live healthy lives. The point is, we need to rethink the way our culture looks at dietary ideals, where our food comes from, and what it means to be a food activist.

Many of the terms that Dr. Heldke used were new to me, including “new agrarianism,” “farm to college,” and “organiculture,” but they struck a chord with me, and stood out as something to investigate further. Sometimes the typical buzzwords can be over-used to the point that we become desensitized and become apathetic. The main take-away that Lisa Heldke seemed to be illustrating is that food activism is not easy to depict and is never neatly represented. Her efforts are to bring clarity that can potentially lead to food scholarship; the missing keystone to the way humans cook, eat and think.
Liz Wright ‘AC, CEEDS Intern

One Response to “The Only Thing You Can Eat is Outside of Yourself: Lisa Heldke’s Philosophy on Food”

  1. Jenn October 12, 2012 at 3:34 am #

    Thanks Liz! I wish I could have been there, but you’ve given me a lot to think about.

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