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Emma C. Spary, Eating the Enlightenment. Food and the Sciences in Paris, 1670-1760 (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2012), 366 pp.

There is no way of minimizing the importance of food. Political and economic structures have been built on it. But food is just one of the many facets of eating. In recent decades there has been a trend for cooking to be held in high esteem, and for chefs to be seen as a bridge between the kitchen and the laboratory or pharmacy, providing practical solutions to the nutritional issues raised in research. Moreover, it is generally acknowledged — for better or worse – that moral and social values are attached to particular diets making eating a symbolic space where identities and the rhetoric of success intermingle with questions of discipline, feeling for life and well-being.

To date, these discussions around diet, health and social standing seem to have been overlooked by the history of science and culture community. Questions such as when did cooking become valuable knowledge; how much did it contribute to the shaping of the relationship between experts and consumers; how does reflection upon how we eat and what we experience while eating and digesting throw light on appropriate and healthy lifestyles and the associated moral judgements. Addressing such issues is Emma C. Spary's aim with Eating the Enlightenment. Here she carefully reconstructs the spaces and debates in which food and eating were primary concerns in pre-revolutionary Paris.

The first chapter of the book, ‘Intestinal Struggles’, is devoted to the disputes on fasting that took place in the late seventeenth and early 18th centuries and how they related to theories of taste and refinement. Spary shows how different religious currents, such as Jansenists and Molinistis, fostered different models and explanations of the digestive process in order to support, respectively, the meaning of fasting as penitence and a change of dietary habits suitable to a more austere lifestyle (making Lent and penitence somehow superfluous).

Chapters 2, 3 and 4 hinge around the many aspects of the commercial networks and the social and economic dimensions of the practices developed by consumers, once luxurious foods (and mainly beverages such as chocolate, coffee and tea) triggered what Jan de Vries called the ‘industrious revolutions’. In chapter two, ‘From Curiosity to Consumers’, the author tracks the effects attributed to the increasing consumption of coffee and how French commercial interests and colonial networks forged agency and knowledge. Chapter three, ‘The Place of Coffee’, focuses on how the guild's system shaped the cultural features of the coffee-house as a space for intellectual sociability and innovation, and how discussions about the stimulant properties of coffee were pivotal in assessing the authority and credibility of the knowledge produced therein. Chapter four, ‘Distilling Learning’, turns to liqueurs and the status achieved by the non-academic chemists involved in their production.

Chapter 5, ‘The Philosophical Palate’, deals with the intellectual value of philosophers from the perspective of the control they kept over their own desires. In other words, it considers how temperance, temperament and pleasure were related to each other during this period to unveil conceptual links between enlightenment and equilibrium, moderation and (sound) judgement. Spary stresses how this approach strengthened the conviction that addiction was connected to weakness, a lack of will on the side of the consumer. However, as she notes, discussions of the way appetites should be managed also reflected concerns about the roles played by pleasure and new experiences in an expanding world, paving the way for deliberations of the superior power of reason over corporeal passions and inclinations, and of nature over culture.

The last chapter, ‘Rules of Regimen’, explores the consequences of this swift march towards moderation that accompanied the status of the European savant from 1750 onwards, which occurred in unison with a return to an acceptance of the ‘natural’ body, and the role of medical practitioners in sustaining this reaction against nouvelle cuisine. Self-experimentation, self-monitoring and the acknowledgement that sobriety, contrary to the chemical knowledge allegedly inherent to nouvelle cuisine, was not out of reach of any individual with average capabilities, opened the way for the spreading of a political way of referring to the body subjected to disciplines of diet, and to new ways of expressing autonomy and resistance to medical authority.

Spary's book is a solid attempt to answer the question of how and to what extent people yielded to the medicalization of their alimentary habits during the Old Regime. It is based on a thorough reading of a broad literature, memoirs, diaries and letters where the elite of 18th century French society displayed their concerns about living a worthy life within a complex society without renouncing, necessarily, a social life and academic respect. Certainly, she shows the disparity of spaces and ways of ‘stomaching knowledge’ connected with food, but also, and despite her claims that due to its ephemeral nature, food does not support a longue durée perspective (p. 293), she unravels ‘the process of cultural adoption of a particular alimentary truth’ (p. 297), truths that become ‘black boxed’ and, in a certain sense, irreversible.

The point here is to recognize the local basis of global expansion: that is, its contingency. The expansion of new desires and commodities is connected to an abstract cycle of capitalist accumulation that makes possible its self-reproduction; but, as Spary suggests, this does not account for the persistent reluctance to change and criticisms against such innovations that go along with this expansion. Neither can it serve as a satisfying explanation about the meaning of such apparently homogeneous expansion. But, as Eating the Enlightenment shows, whereas the micropolitics of eating allow us to understand the centrality of changing religious and political categories such as penitence, guilt, discipline and purification that surround eating even nowadays, they do not sufficiently explain the persistence of some food and alimentary practices that constitute the core of local gastronomic lifestyles. Thus, the book opens new questions in the realm of knowledge production and self-identity construction. Questions about the political frameworks that either suffocate or make these traditions possible, about the anti-economic behaviour that they possibly represent in connection to the unfolding of an international market or about what kind of learning is behind the history of eating as a collective experience.