To Diet Like Kant — A Categorical Imperative?

Emil Doerstling (1859-1940), Kant and His Friends at Table
Emil Doerstling (1859-1940), Kant and His Friends at Table via Wikimedia Commons

The eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, native of the Prussian town of Königsberg and a towering figure in Western thought, was in life a rather diminutive man. His writing reveals that he rued his stature, his “flat and narrow chest” in particular. Yet his negative opinion of it appears to have rested on concerns of well-being rather than personal vanity: A chest as slight as his, he wrote, accommodated but “little movement for the heart and lungs.” Similarly cramped must have been his stomach, for it often troubled him. Such complaints notwithstanding, Kant would frequently put to friends the question, “Is it possible to conceive a human being with more perfect health than myself?” Though the question may be thought to mask a boast, it’s likely Kant really sought validation of his daily habits, which were as regular as they were salubrious.

At five minutes before 5:00AM Kant would rise, and would do so each morning to his footman’s greeting, “Mr. Professor, the time has come.” The morning hours saw Kant at his usual activities. He’d read, or write, or go walking. This last he would accompany with a mindful breathing method — deep, regular, and strictly through his nostrils — that he believed to promote his health. With sound health his breathing method apparently also brought him great equanimity. It was said that Kant never perspired, even in the most stifling summer weather. Rather, he remained throughout life “drier than dust,” as one of his contemporaries would remark. In such a condition he would end his day’s pursuits promptly at 10:00PM. He’d clear his mind of agitating thoughts before burrowing under his bedclothes, there to await “the approach of sleep” while “swathed like a mummy,” and “self-involved like a silkworm in its cocoon,” as a close friend of his ribbingly put it.

Whatever self-involvement Kant could be said to be guilty of appears to have included dietetics, a subject that was for him something of an obsession. Kant observed closely the latest medical wisdom of his day. Overeating, for example, was an evil to be avoided, because it caused one’s body and mind to grow sluggish and dull. To this end, he breakfasted on weak tea alone or, on those occasions when his stomach was balky, accompanied by a few drops of bitters. No meat or drink would he touch until fifteen minutes before 1:00PM. At which time he would announce to his cook the hour. The announcement — invariably, “It has struck three-quarters!” — cued the cook to bring Kant his wine, always Hungarian or Rhenish. If neither Hungarian nor Rhenish wine was on hand, Kant would content himself with English Bishop, a spiced wine punch. Uncharacteristically for a German, Kant never touched beer. He called it “Prussian poison” and shunned it for the evil he believed to be worked by it, namely, the development of hemorrhoids. The ever-refined Kant covered his aperitif with paper to keep it warm. And whenever he sipped it, he did so with his mouth wide open to heighten the pleasure of drinking.

To heighten the pleasure of dining Kant surrounded himself with many guests, from whom he would draw wit and banter by way of little jugs of Medoc placed near each table setting. Such conviviality served not only to entertain the host. It also served to keep him from overindulgence. Though a small man, Kant had a big appetite. He feared that without lively conversation to distract him, he might fall on his favorite dishes with an abandon he would later come to regret. For Kant numbered not a few dishes among his favorites. He loved soups of broth and vermicelli, relished roast meat, broiled fish, and vegetable sides of all kinds.

Kant may have abhorred gluttony, but he championed variety. Indeed, he believed that variety conduced to sound health. His belief rested on the idea that humans represented a mean between carnivorous and herbivorous creatures, and therefore a diet consisting of one-third flesh and two-thirds vegetables reflected that position. Kant taxonomized food of all sorts according to their effects on one’s organism. Liquids, be they soups or simply water, were debilitating. Mustard, butter, and grated cheese, on the other hand, were enlivening. Kant himself was a great fan of these latter foods for the quickening effect he believed them to have on his bowels, which were reputed to be sluggish.

In later years Kant’s tastes evolved in the direction of ever more pungent foods. The aging thinker would eat his meat “high,” for example, appreciating the tenderness the slight rot conferred on it. He would complain if he thought his sauerkraut too sweet. And he began to drink a lot of coffee. Yet he sometimes felt a craving for bland foods as well, bread and butter at one point having become an obsession of his. Whether pungent or bland, the food Kant ate he never ate more than once a day. “An impulse to have an evening meal after an adequate and satisfying one at midday” he deemed wholly excessive, rooted more in “a pathological feeling” than in any true hunger.

It truly could be said of Kant that he never let a pathological feeling master him. Self-discipline was for him crucial for remaining upright on the tightrope of life. Tipping neither left nor right, forging ever steadily ahead, Kant finally arrived at his tightrope’s end at age 80. He did so with the utmost tranquility. “Gentlemen, I do not fear to die,” he told his friends. “I assure you … that if, on this very night, suddenly the summons to death were to reach me, I should hear it with calmness.” The summons came finally, and Kant submitted to it. “It is good” (Es ist gut) were his final words.

I suppose it would be good to go about life with such composure as Kant was able to muster. But such unflappable tranquility requires unshakable stability — of home, money, family, and government — a state many of us can only dream of today. Still, even if we can’t live like the sage of Königsberg (and, really, who would choose such a clockwork kind of life?) we can always dine like him. Of all his favorite dishes, Kant loved  cod the most. “I would eat a full plate of it,” he wrote, “even on leaving the table.” If you’d like to experience the heights of his rigidly regimented gourmandise, try this recipe for broiled cod translated from Henriette Davidis’s 1845 Practical Cooking for the Common and Fine Kitchen (Praktisches Kochbuch für die gewöhnliche und feinere Küche). And, when conditions allow, make sure to share it with three to five guests — the perfect number, Kant insisted, for a dinner party.

Braised Cod

Cut off the cod’s head and tail, wash the fish and salt it, and place it in a casserole dish. Sprinkle over it plenty of butter, crushed rusks, a sprinkle of nutmeg or mace, and sliced lemon. Pour around the fish 1/4 liter of white wine. Cover the casserole dish and steam in a medium oven, or over low heat.

 

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