In the seventeenth century, as the Ming dynasty was falling, its great historian and memoirist Zhang Dai ... [wrote]:
I have been blessed with the ability to distinguish between the taste of the water of the Sheng and of the Zi rivers, to tell when the flesh of the goose is that of a black or a white one, know whether the chicken has perched in the open air or when the meat has been cooked over firewood that is already worn-out….1
The exquisite acuteness and depth of Zhang Dai’s ability to taste is an expression of developed knowledge: not only his own, but also his ancestors’ accumulated knowledge of geography, botany, biology, animal husbandry, techniques of cookery, nature, tradition, and the passing of time. Eating with disciplined excellence is a search for wisdom. The practice of eating philosophically can also be seen as a microcosm of ideal government, as the roots of the word “gastronomy” itself invoke, meaning the legislation of the stomach, of the appetite.