‘All the business of war,’ the Duke of Wellington remarked, ‘and indeed the business of life, is to endeavor to find out what you don’t know by what you do.’ Militaries, though, tend to imagine what they already know. Wellington claimed to know ‘no more worthless set’ than ‘professional poets,’ was no patron of the arts, but ascribed his own surprising military successes to a habit of ‘guess[ing] what was at the other side of the hill’ – an intellectual posture of openness to ‘uncertainties, mysteries, [and] doubts’ that’s closer to Keats’s ‘negative capability than the ‘Iron Duke’ might have liked to admit. Since 2016, West Point’s annual Zengerle Family Lecture in the Arts and Humanities has asked military audiences to embrace uncertainties at the intersection of military ‘business’ and the broader ‘business of life,’ staging challenging conversations with public thinkers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. This year’s remote lecture, ‘Finding Your Fire: Lessons from a Food First Responder,’ draws West Point cadets, as well as students from the Culinary Institute of America, into dialogue with Chef José Andrés.
Internationally recognized chef, José Andrés, is a New York Times best-selling author, educator, humanitarian, as well as the owner of ThinkFoodGroup, a collective of nearly thirty restaurants. He has been twice named as one of Time’s ‘100 Most Influential People,’ and he was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2015 for ‘cultivating our palates and shaping our culture,’ both in and out of the kitchen. As a naturalized U.S. citizen, Chef Andrés has been an advocate for immigration reform, and he has used his public platform to highlight the role that food policies play in helping to secure the American Dream. At the 2017 Food Tank Summit in Washington, D.C., Andrés put it bluntly: ‘food is politics.’
In 2010, Andrés founded World Central Kitchen, a non-profit specializing in delivering food relief in the wake of natural and humanitarian disasters. His team served 3.7 million meals to the people of Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria and has since served more than 50 million meals worldwide. Most recently, Chef Andrés was involved in feeding the National Guard soldiers who supported the 2021 Presidential Inauguration. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, World Central Kitchen also worked with restaurants, farmers, and local governments around the country to both combat immediate food insecurity and enact long-term food policies. In New York City, for example, Andrés’s organization partnered with restaurants in some of the hardest-hit parts of Queens and The Bronx to support community-based food security initiatives. ‘All we can do is take care of each other,’ reflected Alfredo Angueira, whose Bronx-based restaurant, Beatstro, worked with World Central Kitchen in 2020. ‘There is nothing else.’
Beatstro’s ethos – and World Central Kitchen’s – should resonate with West Point’s 4,400 cadets, whose 47-month experience en route to commissioning emphasizes the significance of living and working with common purpose. For cadets, one of the daily laboratories for this is what Esquire called the ‘controlled and methodical’ chaos of West Point’s famous Cadet Mess Hall. Several times a day at West Point, the logistical feat of receiving, managing, storing, prepping, cooking, and serving, say, ‘2,000 pounds of presliced chicken,’ ‘200 pounds of cheddar cheese, shredded,’ and ‘36 gallons of salsa’ for a single meal goes hand in hand with the social feat of providing ‘warmth, comfort, and connectedness’ in an environment where ‘so much of the cadets’ lives are regimented.’ As hospitality consultant, Eric Weiss, explained, the Mess Hall is a space that can highlight the fact that ‘each of the cadets has an identity, and each of the servers does, too.’
Of course, for West Point cadets, identity is also a communal imaginative project, habituated through shared customs, courtesies, and traditions that inform the work of a professional military. For broader civil society, in turn, the Mess Hall’s rhythms and formalities offer an almost mythological representation of how that social transformation happens. Before I began teaching at West Point, what little I knew about the institution came from John Ford’s The Long Gray Line, one of my grandfather’s go-to classic films. For at least a week after I began work, I kept expecting to find myself in the middle of the scene from Ford’s film where Tyrone Power, a recent immigrant working as kitchen staff, encounters the speed, scope, and curious rituals of Mess Hall meals for the first time. For Ford, it was the sort of scene – a shared meal with common rituals – that bridged Americanness with his own pronounced immigrant identity. For Tyrone Power’s ‘Marty Maher’ – as it does for cadets, visitors, and occasional officer-observers like myself – food culture performed literature’s work: imagining the lives of others or what our own might be.
As part of West Point’s broader ‘Year of Ethical Leadership in a Diverse World’ initiative, Chef Andrés’s visit asks its audience to imagine extended Mess Hall solidarities. For cadets, this invites a deeper consideration of Wellington’s alignment between the ‘business of war’ and the ‘business of life’ as they contemplate the role that food security plays in promoting justice, equity, and social development – the preconditions of lasting peace and security. What are the logistics, for example, of equity? What disciplines help us define what social development means? As Joseph Zengerle remarked in The Washington Post, military planning ‘might require a cost-benefit analysis, but it also requires an understanding that not everything can be quantified.’ Chefs, of course, understand that as a principle of their art and its reception. In Chef Andrés’s words, food ‘is a powerful tool to heal communities in times and crisis and beyond.’ Indeed, it is perhaps through preparing and sharing a meal that we most readily see the interplay of our practical and metaphorical ways of living with one another.
The interdisciplinary nature of Chef Andrés’s talk at West Point also invites us to rediscover the link between ‘the humanities’ and ‘humanitarianism.’ Institutionally, West Point is pivoting toward this this kind of engagement with the development of its new home for the Humanities Center overlooking the Hudson, meant to serve as both the institution’s new ‘public portal’ and a site for staging challenging dialogues between the arts, social sciences, and STEM disciplines. It’s worth recalling, in this regard, that the word ‘humanities’ has a double valence. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it refers both to what used to be called ‘humane letters’ – literature, history, philosophy, and so forth – and, in its more archaic sense, to all essential ‘human attributes; instances of human sensibility or feeling.’ Wellington’s contemporary, for example, the poet Robert Southey, lamented what happens when ‘poor human nature is stript to its humanities.’
The day after the Zengerle Family Lecture, I’ll begin teaching Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, a tragedy that unfolds against a Roman social tableau defined by food scarcity, class conflict, and a pronounced civil-military divide. In Act I, a patrician named Menenius tries to calm a grain riot using an extended metaphor about the ‘body politic.’ It’s a beautiful poetic speech, borrowing from Aesop’s ‘Fable of the Belly and its Members,’ but Shakespeare’s dramatic art also involves his insistence that Menenius’s grand metaphor falls flat for a citizenry ‘stript to its humanities,’ its deaf ears and empty bellies. After all, ‘food,’ Andrés reminds us, ‘is a great way to have a narrative’ about building equitable commonwealths – but one that imposes on us the dual burden of both what we have uncovered and what we have chosen to dignify with our humanities.
West Point’s Department of English and Philosophy hosted the first its two colloquiums with the Culinary Institute of America on February 8th, focusing on Chef Andrés’s article, ‘We Need a Secretary of Food,’ and President Eisenhower’s speech, ‘A Chance for Peace.’ A second colloquium in March will reflect on Chef Andrés’s remarks and the idea of ethical leadership.
The 2021 Zengerle Family Lecture in the Arts and Humanities, ‘Finding Your Fire: Lessons from a Food First Responder,’ occurs on February 17th. Recordings of previous Zengerle Family Lectures are available to the public here and here.