An Essay on (Food) Criticism
“’Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill / Appear in Cooking or in Tasting ill”?
There is something of a mild, low-stakes debate among “foodies,” scholars, and
people who just generally have too much time on their hands over whether or not
food qualifies as art. From looking over the syllabus, it certainly seems like this is a
question that we’ll be returning to frequently in this course, and Alexander Pope’s
“An Essay on Criticism” strikes me as an opening salvo in the case for the
Reading through the poem, one could easily substitute many of the terms of art
Pope uses in the context of poetry and language with equivalent food- and
cooking-related terms, and the result would be an “Essay on Food Criticism” with a
lot of content that is relevant even today. In particular, Pope’s preoccupation with
the supremacy of Nature and how it informs and shapes poetry – “At once the
Source, and End, and Test of Art” – echoes a wide range of modern concerns about
health and environmental issues as they relate to the production and consumption
of food, expressed by authors and activists like Michael Pollan and in the popular
documentary Food, Inc. Pope’s warning that “Nature to all things fix’d the Limits fit
/ And wisely curb’d proud Man’s pretending Wit” wouldn’t seem out of place on a
label for organic milk or a polemic against genetically-modified corn.
In a broader sense, Pope attempts to blur the line between the crafting and the
consumption of his subject, arguing that good critics have an appreciation and
understanding of the artist’s experience – “A perfect Judge will read each Work of
Wit / With the same Spirit that its Author writ” – and, implicitly at least, vice versa.
This is of course equally true, if not more so, for chefs, cooks, grillmasters, bakers,
brewers, vintners, and the armies of professional and amateur food critics who
judge their work.