Review: Eating in Theory

Photo by Ron Lach on

Ariana Gunderson

Anne-Marie Mol, Duke University Press, 2021. 147 pp.

“Everyone eats” is a common enough justification for the study of food. In her new monograph, Eating in Theory, anthropologist Annemarie Mol breaks down this refrain, conducting an ethnographic analysis of eating to reconfigure what we mean when we say everyone. In doing so, Mol destabilizes the ideal of an individual, autonomous human and instead presents humanity as semi-permeable and entirely interdependent with the rest of the world.

Human-exceptionalism, a worldview that legitimizes the unsustainable and exploitative societal organization that causes climate change, threatens all life on earth. Mol seeks to de-center humans from our understanding of the world in support of ecological sustainability and with a goal of helping to stave off total ecological collapse. To undo centuries of human harm, Mol argues, we must not only curb our emissions but also our understanding of humans as separate and different from everything else. To argue against human-exceptionalism, Mol’s new book employs empirical philosophy to topple hierarchies: of humans above other animals, of animals above plants, of living things above non-living things, and of the mind above the body.

Grounded in human experience and inextricably bound to the ethnography in which it is based, Mol’s practice of empirical philosophy is persuasive and enjoyable. Mol presents vignettes of eating in many forms and bases her philosophy on the words, events, and foods in these scenes. Some of these stories are from her own life–eating asparagus with a friend, going to dinner with her daughter—and some are from her Dutch fieldsites—a weight loss clinic, an open day at the wastewater treatment plant. These concrete ethnographic moments, considered philosophically, form the crux of Mol’s argument.

In four central chapters, one each focused on Being, Knowing, Doing, and Relating, Mol reimagines and redefines these terms through ethnographic and philosophical studies of eating. In each chapter, she considers canonical texts from Western philosophy that engage with or define the term that serves as the chapter’s focus, and then stretches and contests those texts, drawing empirically on her fieldwork experiences to do so. She picks apart the human-centered hierarchies put forth in such texts as The Phenomenology of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty and The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt: hierarchies that rank great deeds above mere labor and experiencing and perceiving the world above merely surviving in it.

In the first body chapter, “Being”, Mol argues for the quotidian event of eating to serve as an exemplary situation for theorizing what it means to be. In response to The Phenomenology of Perception by Merleau-Ponty, which theorized the self as an intact whole moving through—and separate from—the world, Mol argues, “as an eater I do not first and foremost apprehend my surroundings, but become mixed up in them” (30).  In eating, the self is made and re-made of that which is ingested, and some parts of the self are later expelled as waste. With her ethnographic vignettes from a swallowing rehabilitation appointment and her local wastewater treatment plant, Mol argues humans are not separate, individual entities, but semi-permeable and enmeshed with the world around us.

Our bodies do not perceive the world at a distance, Mol writes in the chapter entitled “Knowing”. Rather, we know only through and because of our bodies, which are entirely tangled up with the world. Knowing or thinking is not the work of an aloof, bodiless mind, as Merleau-Ponty argued in The Phenomenology of Perception, but rather, Mol argues, it is “a fleshy affair” (51). Recounting her experience falling ill after eating spoiled fish, she wonders, how did she know the fish was off? She knew in the reactions of her body, and in the fish in her body; the gustatory mixing up of ‘out there’ and ‘in here’ served as her means of knowing.

Mol continues mixing up ‘out’ and ‘in’ as she punctures the idea of a human agent acting upon an external, separate universe, demonstrated through the preparation and enjoyment of a spinach frittata in the chapter on “Doing”.  Her digestion begins under the knife and over the flame; long before the food reaches her tongue. “Eating offers a model according to which doing eludes the control of a willful center and is spread out through space and in time,” where the self doing the doing extends beyond a single body (94). Blurring cooking and digesting into a single process frames nourishment as a collaborative endeavor, rather than the accomplishment of a single human body.

In the final body chapter on “Relating”, Mol theorizes the many complex relations made manifest in the process of eating. By way of example, she traces the fate of the Belle de Boskoop apple. Her preference for that rare apple variety, along with a trend of increasing popularity among other consumers, contributed to a rise in production of Belle de Boskoop apples. Meanwhile, other humans who do not eat the apples she purchases, or who work in poor conditions to produce those apples are, in some sense, in competition with her for the food she desires. Mol illustrates that global food systems are organized around ideas of competition, but if the winners keep winning, in the end, ecological collapse will make moot any victory.

Taken as a whole, Eating in Theory makes a compelling case for humanity’s total enmeshment within the universe through vivid ethnographic detail and elegant philosophical argument. Readers of Mol’s The Body Multiple will recognize a design quirk of this book: the extended sidebars running alongside the primary text of the chapter, sometimes across ten pages. In these sidebars, Mol presents eating fieldwork and findings from other scholars, often drawn from non-Dutch geographic locations in contrast with her own work. The reader chooses when to step back from the primary text to read the sidebar, flipping pages back and forth, a physical engagement with the text I found intriguing.

With readily accessible prose and enjoyable storytelling, this text is a good fit for students and scholars. The audience Mol imagines for this book is primarily the fields of philosophical anthropology and sustainable ecology. She states in Chapter 1 that her “primary aim here is not to contribute to Food Studies, or, for that matter, to Eating Studies. [She] gratefully draw[s] on scholarship from those fields but rather than being about eating, this book takes its cues from eating” (5, emphasis in the original). I am surprised Mol distances this work from the field of food studies; certainly, many food scholars will be among those who read and engage with this work. This distancing implies Mol considers philosophy and theory to be beyond the scope of a materially-focused study of food. Is philosophical anthropology not part of the wide, interdisciplinary world of food studies? In shaking up the definitions of being, knowing, doing, and relating through examinations of eating practices, Mol offers a rich study of eating itself, one that food scholars will certainly benefit from encountering.


Ariana Gunderson (she/her) is a PhD student in Anthropology at Indiana University Bloomington studying the ways cultural, political, and environmental processes are lived out through embodied food experiences.  She holds a Master’s degree in Gastronomy from Boston University and a Bachelor’s in Egyptology from Brown. You can learn more about her research, vermouth making, and film photography at