New Writing at Adam Smith Works! Food and the Enlightenment

It started the way many of these things do, as I’ve found out, with a call from Amy Willis. Amy had invited me to attend a virtual book group in January reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiment together. It was a bit of an eye opener for me. Smith, 75 years ahead of Austen, was laying her characters out in detail — with their virtues and vices for all to see. Amy asked if I’d write an essay for Adam Smith Works on my insight and I was happy to oblige.

Fast forward a couple of months and another lunch with Amy and she had another great idea: A column on what Adam Smith ate complete with a recipe. As I drafted for an intro:

In his seminal work, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith writes “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.”  If the quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, Smith observes that the fastest way to feed an economic engine is with food.  But if the butcher, brewer, and baker were keys to enterprise in the mid-18th century, what were they delivering to Smith’s table? 

To think about what staples – and treats – graced Smith’s table, we are going to delve into Smith’s life. We’re going to look at Scotland in his time as well as his travels. Living humbly in Scotland while working, Smith may have taken simple meals prepared by his mother or cousin. And while traveling in France having a lively dinner with David Hume, the food, courses, and wine were much more elaborate.

We’re also going to look key ingredients in the Scottish diet of the time like sugar, oats, potatoes, and, yes, even herring. By learning about life at the time, we hope to better understand how expanded trading brought Scotland new staples and displayed Smith’s principles in action, principles that would drive the prosperity of economies around the world.

So, I hope you’ll join me on our little romp through Smith’s life and times. So far, I’ve covered Smith at Oxford (with a recipe for bone broth), Smith in Bordeaux with the dishy Duc de Richelieu (and a scandalous French picnic), a simple breakfast with Smith and his thoughts on strawberries, and a tavern supper with the Edinburgh gang as told by the Rev. Carlyle. More is coming on Smith with Voltaire and in Toulouse, his dinners with Hume in Paris and London, the his clubs and Sunday suppers.

The hope is that by better understanding his life and times, we’ll better understand our own. And by learning about the man himself, who frankly, I think I would have liked, we’ll learn about ourselves, too.

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