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.

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Slow Food

Of the various impressions made on the English man of letters Joseph Addison during a 1702 visit to a Freiburg monastery, one that lingered longest was the delight its inmates took in eating snails. A thick ragout they would prepare into which they would toss these creatures by the dozen. A great wooden box called an escargotiere ensured a reliable supply, its interior lined with greens in which nestled snails often as large as a child’s fist. “I do not remember to have met with any thing of the same in other countries,” Addison wrote in reference to this ingenious contrivance. In these boxes the snails reposed and ate, ate and reposed, until such time as the cook came and shook out a hundred or two of them for supper.

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Fish Pudding for Fearless Flyers

Some time before 1879 the peasants of the remote and mountainous district of Telemarken, Norway, grew tired of using their skies solely for traveling along snow-clogged highways. They set out to transform this dull wintertime routine into a competitive and pleasurable sport by devising wild races and stunts that tested participants’ powers of vaulting. News of these hyperboreal capers reached nearby towns and districts, creating such a stir that soon annual competitions came to be held outside Christiania (present-day Oslo). In his 1905 book, Ski-running, D.M.M. Crichton Somerville describes these meets as “very ludicrious, the hill being neither steep nor long, the competitors riding astride their poles down the track, and only jumping, if jumping it could be called, a few yards.” The decidedly unspectacular nature of these feats spelled the competition’s early demise.

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