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Plain Food Society

Published March 9th, 2013

I hardly ever use a camera’s built-in light meter. Instead I use the traditional method passed on to me by my first employer, when I was a young photographic assistant in 1995; I lick my thumb and hold it in the air as if to estimate air-speed, then I take a wild guess at the correct exposure. It works every single time, especially after the first few thousand attempts. These photographs are mostly ‘first-shots’ which I took while the subjects were still warming up for their “actual” photograph. Everybody gets their one shot, as is sometimes true in life. Quantum physicists tell us that the effect of observing an event, can itself change the event being observed. This holds true for portrait photography, and it’s probably true for anything and anyone that can somehow observe themselves being observed.

Sir Christopher Wren (b.1632 d.1723) was an astronomer, geometer, mathematician and physicist. He was proficient in optics, ocean navigation, cosmology, mechanics, microscopy, surveying, medicine and meteorology. Wren was an ‘architect’ and builder in a time when educated and learned gentlemen would take it upon themselves to design and build architecture, solely by the application of general knowledge, physics, mathematics and construction methods. Today, the title or term “architect” is legally protected, just as the title, “doctor” is. America’s most famous architects and designers, Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles and Ray Eames, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, did not hold degrees in architecture and therefore could not in fact, have legally called themselves architects.

Sir Christopher Wren was a dedicated man that worked until his death at age 91, but like every man, he had to eat food. Wren started a dinner club for himself and his friends. He called it, ‘The Plain Food Society.’ The club was started as a reaction to the many heavily flavored foods and their sauces that were becoming popular in England, influenced by the cuisine of France. His issue with these particular foods is unclear. Perhaps an intelligent man is still capable of idiosyncrasies, eccentric forms of food xenophobia, or maybe even some harmless jingoistic pride in his nation’s eating habits.

Or, perhaps, such a learned and academic person as Wren might see the consequences of every action in a more mechanical way. One could presume that a man so accomplished in as many scientific fields, specifically fields with real-world applications of an empirical nature, would value observation and results, over dogma or idiosyncrasy. We may never know. His life’s legacy is there for all to see, as the man that may have built more of London than any single other person. Wren’s indelible mark remains. However on this point, there are few clues to his true motivation.

“Fraudulent food tastes sweet upon the lips, but turns into gravel in the mouth.” This line from Proverbs would suggest that people have been complaining about falsely flavored foods for at thousands of years, and almost certainly longer. It’s literally, an age-old problem. This biblical statement, unlike many others, is open to some interpretation. Either nature could be perpetrating the food fraud, or it could be committed by another person by way of cleverness, and motivated by profit; using spices or texture that excite the palate, but don’t nourish the body.

Another interpretation is this: “Food obtained by fraud tastes sweet, but turns into gravel in the mouth.” That is, stolen (but otherwise nourishing) food comes with unexpected and undesirable consequences. All of the above could be true. Proverbs is one of the most practical chapters of one of the greatest repositories of wisdom in all of human history. A message so simple as, “Don’t steal food,” seems less likely. It seems more likely that the statement is referring to our susceptibility to fraud via the taste-buds, whether that fraud is perpetrated by man, or by nature.

Ask anybody the question, “What is food?” and most people would agree on certain facts. ‘Food is a fuel.’ This is true for everybody. ‘Food is enjoyable.’ This is true for most of us. The most contentious food question to ask anyone might be, “Which food is beneficial and/or necessary for us, and which is not?” The answers to this question may differ the most. It is fair to say that the question, “What is food?” is as old as we are. Some of us live our entire lives without thinking about food. Others are obsessed with it. It’s also true that the healthiest specimens amongst us don’t even eat what some people would consider, ‘food.’

The food pyramid might be our first reference. The typical Inuit or Mongolian diet is an inverted version of this, and yet both groups are well known for being healthy and vigorous, in contrast to the western world. Fruit and vegetables are rare or entirely unavailable for them, so to call them essential would fly in the face of logic. Certain truths are self-evident. We need air. We need water. There may be some things that we need, and don’t need, that we are not aware of. Once upon a time we, as a culture, believed that the body needed only protein, carbohydrates and fat. Later, we found out that there are other trace substances in food that we also need, which we call vitamins. Is that really the end of the story?

In other parts of the world, there are people that live on fruit. There are people that live on vegetables. Rice. Trash. Alcohol. Some of these people are also very healthy, sometimes against all odds. Some people, perhaps tricksters or illusionists, have said that they can live on sunlight alone. There are so many of us in the world, that it’s not that unreasonable to think that somebody, somewhere, can photosynthesize. Stranger things have happened. One man’s meat might be another man’s poison. In theory, we didn’t start off with eyes, ears, noses, hands, and speech. These are tricks that we picked up, fortunate mutations that worked out nicely.

Somebody, somewhere, may be able to thrive on the hard-to-spell ingredients that are ubiquitous amongst food products across the western world. There may even be a sub-group of people that can live on the mysterious and anonymous ‘vegetable’ oils contained in those same products, which, at the turn of the 20th century were only considered fit only for oil lamp fuel and fattening cattle before market. It’s also true that another person might take one bite of an apple and become sick, because simply, apples just aren’t good for them. A scientist should not presume either. Both theories should be tested, in theory at least.

As a physicist, an engineer, a designer and a builder, Sir Christopher Wren would have been acutely familiar with the concept of first principles. That is, the method of experimentation and calculation that presumes no truth other than the most basic laws of physics. This scientific method is over a thousand years old: Presume nothing whatsoever. Hypothesize, experiment, and observe. Test all the variables in isolation. Test them again. Reproduce the results. Reproduce them again. We’re scientists, the moment that we decide to decide, ourselves, what is happening right in front of us, or in some cases, right inside of us.

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