“Sadness and Food are Incompatible”

Polish Sugar Bowl

I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness. I always think of food.

So imagine my surprise when I learned that it was Mikhail Bakhtin, Russian philosopher, literary critic, semiotician, and personal hurdle to leap in graduate school who once said that “sadness and food are incompatible.”

I completely agree with autobiographer Charles Simic who writes, “One could compose an autobiography mentioning every memorable meal in one’s life and it would probably make better reading than what one ordinarily gets. Honestly, what would you rather have, the description of a first kiss or of stuffed cabbage done to perfection?” I for one can bypass stuffed cabbage but wax philosophical about a good peasant soup.

I’ve mentioned Daniel Gilbert before and the scientific study of happiness, how we tend to imagine our happiness as something deferred, about to happen to us, a future goal. I think these ideas are linked.

What makes food incompatible with happiness?  After all, Bakhtin, who is writing about French author Francois Rabelais, immediately adds the parentheses “(while death and food are completely compatible)” to his claim about sadness. He is writing about the banquet scenes in Rabelais’s fiction while Simic is writing about his own life.

Maybe it comes down to the moment, the one that is not deferred. Perhaps, when we think of meals as opposed to food, we’re close to recognizing the incompatibility of the moment we break bread, particularly with other people, with enduring sadness.

Just yesterday, when we sat down to waffles turned moist by sour cream and made decadent by pure maple syrup, that moment was enshrined in happiness. Was it the texture of the dough, formed by a thoughtful combination of ingredients?  How flour and egg whites with some sugar and dairy was transformed?

Perhaps it was the satisfaction of sitting across a sun-drenched table meeting laughing, coffee eyes while my heart and love was nourished by my meal? Would the happiness of the moment have been the same if we subtracted the distant shimmering lake or molten-drenched mountains?

I was fairly certain I never thought I would hear myself say that Bakhtin is right, perhaps with a small modification to acknowledge Simic: sadness and meals are incompatible.

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