The kitchen philosopher: Pass the mince pies…

The kitchen philosopher: Pass the mince pies…

’Tis the season for groaning festive tables, enthusiastic indulgence and unfettered generosity. But when does going overboard at Christmas cross over from seasonal indulgence to gross excess? Julian Baggini decides that post-feast fasting can wait a week or two…

We all know that our good health requires us to cut down on calories, sugar, alcohol; the good of the planet that we cut down on waste and packaging; and the good of our finances that we shop thriftily.

Once a year, however, all that goes out of the Advent calendar window. Not even a decade of austerity has stopped the British tradition of seasonal indulgence. Fifty-one weeks of belt-tightening culminates in one week of epic belt-loosening.

There are some puritans who object to any kind of feasting as excessive. Humbug to them. For the rest of us, the question is not whether we should indulge ourselves but to what extent. What’s the difference between joyous feasting and grotesque excess?

Part of the answer is context. For most of human history, food was not always plentiful and people never knew for sure if they’d have enough in the future. Meats and rich foods were also rare treats. That meant that feasts were truly exceptional opportunities to indulge. If people went a bit overboard, that was perfectly understandable.


Today, however, meat-free days are the exception not the rule, while cakes, biscuits and sugary breakfast cereals are commonplace. The result is visible around our waists, which for the average British man all-too like myself has increased from 34 to 37 inches since 1954. When we’re eating too much all year round we have less excuse for going overboard at Christmas too.

But what counts as too much? Personal taste comes into it. Being slumped on the sofa, too stuffed to move, is hell for some, heaven for others. Excess is easiest to define when it’s purely pragmatic. If you’re setting out to enjoy yourself, spending more than you can afford or eating more than you can comfortably digest is a tactical error for which you end up paying. The sudden increase in TV adverts for indigestion remedies and payday loans in late December reveals how common these mistakes are.


However, excess also has an ethical dimension. This is not a matter of puritanical moralising or killjoy tut-tutting. It’s simply about living better, for own sakes as well as for others’. When we are too greedy, for example, we become hard to satisfy, always wanting more and not leaving enough for others. Our excessive concern for our own pleasure therefore leaves all of us enjoying ourselves less.

Or take the question of waste. If we throw away too much food, we’re not respecting its true value, properly appreciating how fortunate we are to have it. This makes us less able to be happy with what we have and it also contributes to a wider problem in which the relatively rich have too much while the poor have too little.

Over Christmas and New Year, however, we might be justified in worrying about making the opposite mistake – being so obsessed by avoiding waste and indulgence that we become petty-minded and ungenerous. There is a time and a place for everything and addressing our problems with over-consumption can wait until the last of the mince pies has gone.


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