Friday, February 25, 2005

Of Eating and Being

Ludwig Feuerbach is the source of the pun, man ist was man isst, the punniness of which is lost in the English translation: One is what one eats. ‘Ist’ is translated by is, ‘isst’ by eats. ‘Isst’ is from the infinitive essen, to eat. A nice feature of German is that it marks the distinction between human and animal eating. Essen is what we do; fressen is what the animals do. But if a man pigs out, then he can be called a Fresser. My cat Caissa, old and spoiled, prefers my food to her own. I have so 'humanized' her that she is now an Esser rather than a Fresser. Indeed, she is on the way to becoming a Delikatesser, indeed, a Feinschmecker.

I once ate in a Jewish delicatessen on the east side of Cleveland in which one of the sandwiches on the menu was entitled ‘The Fresser.’ Of course, that is what I ordered. Ein Fresser ist was er frisst.

The English distinction between the nouns ‘food’ and ‘feed’ parallels the distinction between essen and fressen. Feed is what animals, typically farm animals, get; food is for humans and their pets. I heard of a woman who, suspecting her man of engaging in an extramural liaison, remarked that her evidence was that he was "off his feed." The animal!

There is a restaurant in Apache Junction, Arizona called The Feedbag. No restaurant in Scottsdale (or at least the tonier precincts thereof) would ever bear such a name. There is also an eating establishment in AJ called the Dirtwater Café. One morning my wife wanted to go out for breakfast. (I prefer to eat at home where I am master of my domain, fork in one hand, remote control in the other.) Confusing the two establishments, she said, "Let’s go out to the Dirtbag Café."

I’ll end on a serious note. I used the expression ‘pig out’ above. It is philosophically unacceptable because it involves the dubious ascription of gluttony to pigs. It is arguable, however, that only a man, but no animal, can be a glutton. Similarly, a man, but no animal, can be bestial. A man, but no animal, can sink below his nature. This naturally leads us into normative ethics and the concept of perversion. But these are topics too tough to tangle with at the moment.