Before joining the world of academia, Stan Blackley worked for more than 30 years as an environmental activist, political campaigner, communications adviser, and community organiser. He joined Queen Margaret University in 2014 to enrol in the MSc Gastronomy programme, after which he was employed as a lecturer, contributing his knowledge in the environment and sustainability, animal welfare and human rights, ethics and society, and politics and activism.
Donald Reid is a legally trained writer, publisher, and journalist with a background in the production of food and travel guides. He joined the QMU MSc Gastronomy programme as a lecturer in 2014, contributing his expertise in areas such as food culture, communication, and campaigning, as well as his encyclopaedic knowledge of food and drink in Scotland. He is one of the leaders of the Slow Food Movement in Scotland.
Stan and Donald are the co-Programme Leaders for the MSc Gastronomy programme at Queen Margaret University (QMU) in Edinburgh, Scotland. Established in 2013, the programme remains the only course of its kind in the UK.
After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:
- Describe how gastronomy involves an informed and critical view of where food comes from, how it is produced, and the many, varied impacts that it has.
- Articulate the historical origins of the term gastronomy and the trajectory along which the term and concept has evolved.
- Name ways in which gastronomy can be applied to practices around and with food, in ways that begin to tackle the environmental and social issues inherent to food systems.
To define gastronomy, it is helpful to note two key anchor points. The first is etymology, which suggests—from a literal translation of the Ancient Greek—that gastronomy is the knowledge (nomos) of the stomach (gastros). While the term can be found in Ancient Greek texts, it was neither prominent nor common until 1801, when it was adopted by a French poet, Joseph Berchoux, and subsequently by two prominent French food writers from the early 19th century, Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de la Reynière and Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. The former is acknowledged as the first truly influential critic in the world of restaurants, and the latter—the second anchor point—was the man who coined the aphorism, “Tell me what you eat: I will tell you what you are.” 
Brillat-Savarin was a lawyer, politician, philosopher, and self-declared expert and enthusiast on the subject of food. His 1826 book, La Physiologie du goût (“The Physiology of Taste”) set out to establish a foundation for gastronomy. He defined gastronomy as “the intelligent knowledge of whatever concerns man’s nourishment” and suggested that gastronomic knowledge was important for all “who hunt, supply, or prepare whatever can be made into food.” Importantly, he indicated that such knowledge was to be gained from disciplines as broad-ranging as physics, chemistry, cooking, commerce and political economy. “Gastronomy rules all life”, he wrote. “It has to do with all classes of society”; it considers taste “in its pleasures and its pains”, and how food and drink affects “the moral of man, on his imagination, his mind, his judgment, his courage and his perceptions.” To him, it was worth understanding all about food, because food is universal: “The pleasures of the table belong to all times and all ages, to every country and every day; they go hand in hand with all our other pleasures, outlast them, and remain to console us for their loss.” 
In considering how gastronomy has become popularly understood in the two centuries that have passed since Brillat-Savarin wrote La Physiologie du goût, it is important to reflect on how the term gastronomy became synonymous with the country of France. In Sociologies de l’alimentation (“The Sociology of Food”), Jean-Pierre Poulain defines gastronomy as the attachment of an aesthetic value to the act of eating, something he traces back to the French royal court, aristocracy, and French Catholic theology during the 17th century. By the late 18th century, even as the French bourgeoisie was rejecting the hierarchies of the church and aristocracy, the culture around food retained its cultural capital. Far from being rejected as a mark of the ancien régime, Enlightenment thinking and revolutionary politics in France actually embraced gastronomy—the arts of the table—as “a celebration of all that was worldly”.
It was, after all, in Paris in the decades preceding the 1789 French Revolution that restaurants were ‘invented’ and took on their modern form. Of equal significance, by the early 19th century, restaurant criticism had also been invented, with critics operating as intermediaries between the new eating places and their bourgeois clientele. Critics were important for legitimizing the restaurant as a place for refined eating, and in doing so, they raised the esteem of the chef, the people who dined there, and the cuisine itself. From this early stage, it was clear that gastronomy went beyond the food being served. “The gastronome is more than a gourmet – he is also a theorist and propagandist about culinary taste,” suggests Stephen Mennell, arguing that there was democratic value in the way gastronomes disseminated knowledge of elite standards beyond the elite. To this day, the mutual dependency between restaurants, chefs, and critics survives, most famously in the (French-based) Michelin guide books and star ratings.
For the 19th and most of the 20th century, the most revered and prestigious gastronomes were envoys of French cuisine, just as the chefs—the high priests of gastronomy such as Antonin Carême and Auguste Escoffier—were French. New ideas evolved within France, most famously when nouvelle cuisine upset the established orthodoxies in the 1970s (again led by a combination of French chefs and guidebook writers), but France remained the locus of gastronomic identity across Western Europe and North America. The ‘Gastronomic Meal of the French’ appears in UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, cited as a practice that “emphasizes togetherness, the pleasure of taste, and the balance between human beings and the products of nature.” It goes on to note that gastronomes, who “possess deep knowledge of the tradition and preserve its memory,” are expected to “watch over the living practice of the rites.” UNESCO’s focus is on the meal itself, though most French nationals (and others besides) would assume their valorization applies more generally to a uniquely French approach to food.
But why should the term gastronomy be restricted to French culinary approaches, or limited to the aesthetics of food and eating? Neither etymology nor Brillat-Savarin’s original definition demand such narrow viewpoints. Indeed, it was Brillat-Savarin’s expansive conceptualisation that resonated with Carlo Petrini, the Italian founder of the Slow Food Movement, as he sought to reclaim the value and integrity of food in the face of an increasingly industrialized, globalized, and homogenized food system. Slow Food identified itself as a reaction against the ‘fast’ modern world, one characterised by speed and in which the human relationship with the earth has become unsustainable—what Petrini called a “technocratic dictatorship” of profit prevailing over politics, and economics over culture.
Frustrated by the ‘old’ French model, Petrini argued that gastronomy had wandered far from its original conception and too narrow a focus had left it open to misinterpretation, misunderstanding, and marginalization. The challenges of nourishment are, after all, fundamentally human and little different to those of our ancestors. Whether in hunter-gatherer societies, Ancient Greece, or post-revolutionary Paris, people seek to choose and consume food to the satisfaction of the stomach and the senses, a combination of nutritional needs and food’s ability to deliver pleasure.
Petrini set in motion a re-evaluation of gastronomic science in modern frames of sustainability. It was no longer sufficient to concern ourselves with our own palates and pleasure, the point where Brillat-Savarin’s legacy seems to have become stuck in the general consciousness. Rather, Petrini argues that in a globalized world gastronomy must be global as well, and that modern gastronomes are required to take a holistic, critical, and connected view of where their food comes from, how it is produced, and the impact it has on both society and the environment. He writes: ‘‘Under the frenetic impulse of technocratic and reductionist thought we have fallen into the temptation of neglecting the totality of the processes and inter-relations that enable us to eat every day, considering only the result, the food that we swallow.”
In his book, Slow Food Nation, Petrini offers his own translation of Brillat-Savarin’s definition of gastronomy as “the reasoned knowledge of everything that concerns man as he eats”, arguing:
To reduce gastronomy to “eating well” is a twofold error: first, because this definition implicitly accepts the common belief that the history of nutrition—economy and subsistence—and the history of gastronomy—culture and pleasure—are distinct subjects; and secondly, because it only covers a small, and perhaps the least noble, part of the complex system of “roots” which underlie our food.
The implication of this is that the modern gastronome or gastronomer (a variant adopted by some as less encumbered with implications of gourmet elitism) recognises the ways in which food choices and practices connect to the well-being of the earth and the shared destiny of all that inhabit it. The old, narrow and awkward connotations of French and ‘culinary’ gastronomy are thus further distanced by conceptualising contemporary gastronomy as eco-gastronomy—an ecological-philosophical vision of food—the “thinking-feeling-doing” of modern gastronomy. This approach acknowledges that any choice or practice of food has to take into account the ecological and human dimensions of both the food itself and the systems and processes that provide it. With globalization, hunger, public health, labour, and climate change so prominent in our contemporary consciousness, no coherent philosophy of food today can ignore these issues.
Critics of Petrini—or more accurately of the Slow Food Movement under his charismatic leadership—point not just to gourmet and Euro-centric elitism in the attitudes of its followers in certain territories, but also to conservative, protectionist attitudes to heritage, tradition, and authenticity in its core philosophy. It is true that different aspects of Slow Food’s cultural, political, and practical messages have taken hold in different parts of the world, leading to a somewhat confused understanding of the most effective thrust of its principles. That said, the value in re-interpreting gastronomy as concerning itself with matters beyond culinary aesthetics, and the incorporation of social and ecological considerations to questions of food, largely stand outside the areas of dispute.
Boiled down, Slow Food recognises that, while an assessment of whether food is ‘good’ principally from a taste perspective is important, it is also insufficient. ‘Good’ must be informed by knowledge that includes whether food is also ‘clean’, in terms of ecological sustainability, and ‘Fair’, in its dealings with humans and animals. This approach wraps together pleasure with politics, palate with purpose, and practice with principles. By this thinking, food cannot satisfy nor nourish unless the totality and interwoven complexity of these impacts of food are acknowledged, better understood, and addressed. This chimes with thinking that had previously been posited by French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who stated that, in order to be “good to eat” (bon à manger), food must be first of all be “good to think” (bon à penser), indicating that food must nourish people’s values, beliefs, and traditions to be considered suitable for their stomachs.
This is the work, now, of gastronomy. Thus reformulated—or ‘liberated’ as Carlo Petrini put it—gastronomy, eco-gastronomy or ‘neo-gastronomy‘, has a greater sense of purpose in the world and a wider scope to influence not just food, but the world from which it comes. Such thinking about modern gastronomy shifts its focus decisively (though not completely), beyond chefs, cooking, and eating to recognise and celebrate the contributions of farmers, growers, fishers, producers, processors, sellers, caterers, and the countless others engaged with food, who have valuable specialist skills and make crucial contributions to the food landscape. The gastronomer argues for a role alongside such specialists, offering the skills of the generalist, as someone who can appreciate the many different perspectives of these diverse participants, hold a centre ground, and reflect the complex, multidimensional, polysemic, diverse nature of food itself.
Modern gastronomers appreciate food in a multi-faceted way, first, as a lens through which to examine the world around them; second, as a tool through which complex issues and concepts can be made tangible and communicated more simply; and third, as a means through which to challenge injustices and change the world for the better. They recognise that food has wide-ranging influences and impacts and is more than just a simple satisfier of basic needs, but is, instead, something that fundamentally influences and shapes every part of the world around us: identities, relationships, communities, societies, cultures, economies, environments, and more.
Modern gastronomers recognize that food can be a cause or driver of many of the world’s most pressing problems, such as hunger, dietary-related ill-health, and ecological destruction, but that it can also, therefore, be part of the solution to these problems. If we ‘get food right’ then positive responses to these other problems will follow.
The perspective of modern gastronomy is that attitudes to and understanding of food have to move beyond personal preferences and concerns towards an appreciation of food as a potent, political tool. In this sense, everyone’s relationship with food incorporates economic, political, social, and environmental consequences, meaning that food choices and practices can influence the food system and help reshape it for the better. This broader view of food’s importance also demands that the subject of food, along with its study and the thinking around it, is given greater respect, especially in the traditionally male-dominated areas of science and academia where food has been invisible or, if considered at all, viewed as base, frivolous, or simply ‘women’s work’..
GASTRONOMY AND LEARNING
In terms of the teaching of this modern version of gastronomy, its multidisciplinary and generalist stance can struggle for recognition where reductionist approaches dominate within science and academia. However, various forms of food studies have emerged over the last three decades, and there are a growing number of educational institutions offering programmes oriented towards neo-gastronomy, most prominently at the University of Gastronomic Sciences (UNISG) in Pollenzo, Italy, but also in institutions as geographically diverse as Montreal and Boston in Canada and the U.S., Auckland in New Zealand, and Edinburgh in Scotland. Innovative and groundbreaking as these all are, it is worth noting that the concept of an academy for gastronomy was actually proposed by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1826.
In such programmes, and in a growing number of other forward-thinking institutions around the world, food is used to unpack and explain economics and ecology, culture and communication, politics and philosophy, a wide range of social and life sciences, and much more. Graduates in gastronomy understand that food touches and influences everything in this world and connects seemingly disparate parts of our lives. They emerge as practiced generalists who recognise different viewpoints, understand and embrace food’s complexity, are wary of reductionist responses, and expect food matters to be multidimensional and interconnected. In Food: the Key Concepts, Warren Belasco asserts that “to study food often requires us to cross disciplinary boundaries and to ask inconvenient questions,” pointing out that “to help us sort out the issues and gain some needed perspective, we need generalists – people with a decent grounding in science and poetry, agriculture and philosophy, who are not afraid to question assumptions, values and methods.”
This approach equips graduate gastronomers to bring a fresh, even emancipated vision to established food-related work places or to conceptualise new roles that use food to bring benefits to an unexpectedly wide range of activities and interests. That people’s most pressing concerns—from health and well-being to the functioning of society or matters of sustainability—are deeply entwined with our relationship with food and the practice of feeding ourselves, makes the study and development of gastronomy, and gastronomers themselves, both important and necessary.
That is not to say that gastronomers give up appreciating food. Humans all eat and drink because of the compelling biological necessity to do so, but we also eat to learn, to belong, to appreciate, to understand, to share, to express ourselves, to practice who we are, to make ourselves better people, and to enjoy the social and physiological processes and all that it entails. The appeal of food and its importance are not mutually exclusive, and are indeed intertwined, a point made by Carlo Petrini who declared that “a gastronome who is not an environmentalist is surely stupid, but an environmentalist who is not a gastronome is merely sad.”
This serves as a reminder not to lose touch with food. The Pollenzo Manifesto, produced by the University of Gastronomic Sciences in 2018, states that “the true 21st century gastronome does not study food as an object; a gastronome studies with food,”. This points to two ways in which the study of food can be strangely susceptible to misplacing food. First, it can veer into looking too closely at just the food, a form of ‘foodie-ism’ that becomes obsessively interested in the particulars of food—its production, cooking, or presentation—but largely blinkered to broader perspectives. Anyone studying gastronomy in the form described here has likely had to rebuff assumptions that they’re participating in a kind of cookery course—a situation muddied by the frequent use of the word gastronomy in association with cookery skills classes, sometimes as an adjunct to culinary arts programmes or those specialising in molecular gastronomy. The neo-gastronomer’s response is that, while cooking or making food are hugely valuable and important skills, they are only a sub-section of the knowledge and practices around food.
The second, and oddly converse issue with some food scholarship, is that researchers and educators often become detached from ‘food’ itself. This can be seen in some social sciences contexts, where activities around food become a focus for observation and analysis. Similarly, in the health sciences, the functionality of food can dominate knowledge paradigms, sometimes reaching a point at which solutions to the challenges produced by food actually counter the holism of food. A similar problem occurs when policy connected to food is developed in isolation by or around government, with theoretical ideas failing to take account of how people actually interact with food and its meanings in real-life situations. Gastronomy and food studies programmes designed to develop holistic and interconnected thinking help learners study food “beyond the plate,” but without forgetting that it is still food.
In the end, gastronomy remains hard to define. It is, in Barbara Santich’s astute description, “slippery.” It can be easier to attempt to describe what gastronomy does than what it is, although in the recurring emphasis on multidisciplinarity, polysemia, and broad thinking, boundaries can be hard to come by too. Yet in remaining rather mercurial, important but imprecise, gastronomy asserts that its substance and meaning are continually developing, discussed, and negotiated, and shares those characteristics with its equally elusive principal subjects, humanity and food itself.
- Describe and discuss the tension between ‘old’ culinary gastronomes—and their focus on cuisine—and ‘new’, eco-, or neo-gastronomers. Explain their differing views and visions of food. Can (and should) both views be held at the same time? How and when are they contradictory?
- Why is gastronomy so difficult to define? Why is it so ‘slippery’, as Barbara Santich noted? What historical and current elements contribute to, or cause this confusion or difficulty? How might you begin to define gastronomy?
Belasco, W. 2008. Food: the key concepts. New York: Berg.
Brillat-Savarin, J.A. 1826. La Physiologie du Goût ou Méditations de Gastronomie Transcendante. Paris: A. Sautelet & Co.
Brillat-Savarin, J.A. 1949. The physiology of taste or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy. Translated by MFK Fisher. London: Penguin.
Brillat-Savarin, J.A. 1994. The physiology of taste or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy. Translated by Anne Drayton. London: Penguin.
Lévi-Strauss, C.1962. Le totémisme aujourd’hui. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Maberly, C. 2017. “Thought for Food.” Beshara Magazine , Spring 2017.
Mennell, S. 1996. All manners of food: eating and taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the present. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Perullo, N. 2018. “Pollenzo Manifesto.” UNISG.
Petrini, C. 2001. Slow Food: The Case for Taste. New York: Columbia University Press.
Petrini, C. 2007. Slow Food Nation. New York: Rizzoli.
Petrini, C. 2015. Food and Freedom: How the Slow Food Movement is Changing the World Through Gastronomy. New York: Rizzoli.
Poulain, J.-P. 2002. Sociologies de l’alimentation. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Spang, R. 2020. The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and modern gastronomic culture. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Santich, B. 2004. “The study of gastronomy and its relevance to hospitality education and training.” International Journal of Hospitality Management 23 (1): 15–24.
Slow Food. 2021. “Slow Food terminology.” Slow Food Website.
Szanto, D. 2015. “The Eco-Gastronomy Project.” UNISG Website.
UNESCO. 2010. Intangible Cultural Heritage. UNESCO Website.
- This is the origin of the more commonly known and often misapplied simplification, “You are what you eat.” ↵
- Brillat-Savarin 1994, 54. ↵
- Ibid. ↵
- Brillat-Savarin 1994, 15. ↵
- Poulain 2002, 195. ↵
- Spang 2020. ↵
- Mennell 1996, 267. ↵
- UNESCO 2010 ↵
- Petrini’s involvement in food dates from his earlier career in journalism and local food activism, largely starting in the 1970s. It was in the 1980s that his efforts grew into the movement now known as Slow Food. ↵
- Petrini 2001. ↵
- Petrini 2015, 38. ↵
- Petrini 2005, 55. ↵
- Petrini 2005, 41. ↵
- Szanto 2015, n.p. ↵
- Chrzan 2004; Laudan 2004. ↵
- Petrini 2015. ↵
- Lévi-Strauss 1962. ↵
- Petrini 2015 ↵
- Slow Food 2021. ↵
- Belasco 2008 ↵
- UNISG is widely recognised as the ‘Slow Food University’, having been founded by and built around the ethos of Carlo Petrini. ↵
- Belasco 2008, 6–7 ↵
- Petrini 2015, 29. ↵
- Perullo 2018, n.p. ↵
- Maberly 2017. ↵
- Santich 2004, 15. ↵