Preface to the American Edition

Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History) - Nicola Perullo 2016

Preface to the American Edition


To demonstrate how honored and pleased I am to have this book translated into English for the American edition, I would like to briefly depict the motivation that generated it. This essay is the result of the intertwining of my theoretical reflection as a philosopher and my practical experience as a food and wine lover over the past twenty years. My initial interest in wine and food at the beginning of the 1990s was by chance, and only after a certain number of years was my expertise directed toward a theoretical path. Nevertheless, the theorizing that you will find in these pages is heterodox and not systematic. In fact, I have always found the valorization of food that doesn’t take into account its experiential, narrative, and practical dimension to be paradoxical. Today this paradox looms large: there are numerous conventions, in many disciplines or cross-disciplines, on the importance of taste and gastronomy in which care is not taken to organize good convivial settings, to eat good food or drink good wine. Indeed, in some cases, there is only speaking and no eating. Either one speaks or one eats: this aut aut expresses a dichotomous and hierarchizing point of view on which much of our culture is based. Instead, the convivial experience proposes a different perspective in which real eating and metaphorical eating intertwine.

In effect, in the humanities and in philosophy there are different ways of approaching food as a theme of study, but I believe that increasing interest in this matter has been driven mainly by two different strategies. The first one can be called the “rising strategy”: food is important because it is Culture with capital C, that which is also called “high” culture in contrast to “simple” and “material” culture. This strategy has already been clearly expanded today. The second strategy, on the other hand, can be named the “lowering strategy”: food is important because all culture is food, in both the physical and the metaphorical sense. Or rather, beyond the opposition between the physical and the metaphorical. To state this, we need to see culture and knowledge differently, of course, and to deconstruct some stabile dichotomies and hierarchies. This essay follows this second strategy. In other words, my attempt has been to make philosophy with food rather than of food, stemming from a particular and heterodox phenomenological perspective. I would call it a phenomenology “from inside” since I attempted to describe the tasting experience by taking into account the active perspective of the participant more than that of the observer. This choice is due to my conviction that a philosophy of food, to the extent that it is a philosophy with food, depends on a transformational interrogation and not only on a descriptive one. Food is not only an object for reflection, but also a matter that affects reflection. The experience of food is specific perception: a direct relationship, a unique piece of the external solid world that we incorporate into ourselves. This suggests important assumptions and consequences for the way we think. Taste as Experience is therefore an attempt to approach food not as an object of study among others, but rather as a matter of a specific system that requires a specific narrative.

This essay is constructed around the concept of taste. Rooted in common sense, as has been frequently observed, is the idea that there is no possible way of constructively discussing what is good, in terms of that which is pleasing to taste. Discussions regarding goodness are often taken for granted and contained within the boundary of the seemingly obvious question of so-called subjectivity and objectivity. The problem of taste is the problem of the subject. More precisely, it is the problem of subjectivity in individual consciousness and awareness of identity. However, this definition has a history. The concept of taste as an individual response, in terms of pleasure and knowledge, sensorially external (visual, auditory, or, in the case of food, taste/ olfactory), is not, in fact, a very old one. It was born within the context of modernity, in which a new paradigm of consciousness was defined that determined the concept of something akin to subjectivity. This goes together with the idea that outside there is a world made up of objects. Taste then becomes a measure for recognizing quality and expressing values: the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad. Much of modern thought has proposed various solutions to guarantee that taste, as so defined, has its own legitimacy. Immanuel Kant, for example, wants to separate taste in the metaphorical sense, the taste for beauty, from physical taste, that of the palate. According to Kant, only the taste for beauty can be shared and therefore universal, not that of the palate since it does not allow for objectivity. The fact that we assimilate and incorporate external material brings about an extreme individualization of the perceptual experience, undermining its universal value. The question that arises in this essay is then: can we deconstruct this paradigm, which has become more or less established, and promote a different scenario that is both positive and useful? I suggest three steps that the reader will find through the chapters of the book.

First step: Show the complexity of taste by claiming expertise (especially know-how, competence). It is obvious that taste can be examined by separating out the collective shared recognition of quality from that of individual pleasure. The saying goes that there’s no accounting for (discussing) taste, but discussions regarding taste are very frequent and this has a meaning. Taste does not only refer to the pleasure an individual experiences when eating, but also the recognition of the quality of what is eaten. The difference between pleasure and the recognition of quality depends on the capacity of the consumer: in gastronomy, it is through the acquisition of a certain expertise that it becomes possible to distinguish “I like” as an expression of preference from “good” as a judgment of quality. Expertise plays an important role: whoever is unable to distinguish the two will not be able to notice the difference between pleasure and goodness. However, those who can will be able to discuss the quality of a food even without liking it personally. Expertise, therefore, allows us to take an important first step toward understanding the meaning of “good” in a social and historical sense. “Good” is not just what I like, but rather a cultural and negotiated value. Lévi-Strauss identified it as the relationship between “good to eat” and “good to think about,” which is the key factor for understanding models of taste: what’s good to eat is that which is good to think about. The great anthropologist gave a primary and fundamental role to ethics in valuing what is “good” with reference to taste.

Second step: The return to having a look at taste “from below” since everyone eats. The idea that “taste is culture” is an important achievement, but it still doesn’t explain everything. What does it mean to be an expert—or a cultured person—in a domain that is immersed by its nature in everyday life? This perceptive peculiarity of our relationship to food consists in always experiencing an interested assimilation. Because the specifics of our daily relationship with food happens through processes, ordinary gestures, and incorporated memories, identifying “experts,” in the most complete sense of the word, becomes extremely problematic. This is why in this book I give so much importance to naked pleasure. It is therefore necessary to understand that the abilities to recognize and appreciate with respect to taste are qualified according to socially and culturally shared codes, but are not separable from interested assimilation, and, as such, must be articulated and understood within that context. So, even the most refined gastronomic critic is, at the end of the day, one of us, and vice versa, each one of us could become an expert, at least regarding certain foods. This description of different levels does not disqualify taste, but just the opposite: thanks to it, it has an enormous potential to draw the greatest amount of interest. Taste is a multimodal and flexible device, used in different ways in the most varied circumstances of everyday life. Tasting a beverage to verify its toxicity is not the same as tasting a premium wine: the tasting perception is always oriented according to the necessity established by the taster in that environment, the situation in which she finds herself. Dinner at a friend’s house activates processes of attention and judgment with regard to food that are different than those that come into play in a famous three-star Michelin restaurant. Taste is both pleasure and knowledge; in some cases what’s good is only related to pleasure, but in others, it is only related to knowledge; more often than not, it is related to both taken together. So “good” refers to a grammar of values where social and cultural codes claim as much space as instinct and personal experience do.

Third step: Beyond the subjective/objective paradigm, one needs to understand taste as an ecological system. It is this last observation that allows us to take a final step toward a new direction. Referring back to the historicity of the question of the subjectivity of taste, the subject/object paradigm was born in the modern age together with an anthropocentric epistemology according to which the human being is the measure of all things, the subject who knows, values, and judges objects. In the essay, I tried to conceive of taste according to a different paradigm by bringing back, in part, a wider vision, which can certainly be defined as systemically holistic or—as I prefer putting it—ecological. In other words, taste is a complex perceptive system, in the sense of a multimodal ecological device; one shouldn’t conceive of it as a dualism between subject and object (the human being who tastes, on the one hand, and the object being tasted, on the other), but rather as an ecological relationship, an exchange of information among elements immersed in an environment. In this model, “good” goes beyond the question of subjective/objective since it always refers to a contextual experience, to the atmosphere in which the subject is located and included. “Good” is then the result of a triangulation between the perceiver, the perceived, and the environment—the context and the atmosphere—in which this relationship takes place. This allows us to conceive of differentiated situations and experiences. We can distinguish between at least four families of cases: (1) That in which “good” (in the sensorial sense) is also “good” (morally speaking). There are cases in which we truly desire the enjoyment of certain foods, and this desire corresponds to a legitimate state that makes us feel better from a moral standpoint. (2) That in which what is good for you corresponds to an appreciation of the ethics of food, which guides our sensorial and cultural education for pleasure. (3) That in which “good” corresponds to what is secure and known, to something that has a reference point for us. (4) That in which “good” corresponds to the exotic and the fascination of the unknown that does not offer familiar terms of comparison.

Each of these cases is legitimate within an aware and consistent perception. This consciousness I call gustative wisdom. The wisdom of taste is the flexible and elastic attitude that follows from acquiring the perceptive ability to differentiate the contaminations and the complex dynamics that are part of the tasting experience. It is a perceptive capacity that distinguishes the variables of the experience and that creates a feeling of awareness and satisfaction. Wisdom is the fruit of a long and complex journey toward increasing sensitivity, which in itself is not static. This is an ideal that should be understood more as a guide to explore experience, rather than as a perfect realization of it. Wisdom is the consciousness of the multiplicity of variables encountered during the experience of tasting food and so of the variables of “good,” together with the ability to go through them, to move among them with openness and flexibility.

As I said, this book is the result of a long journey, not only an academic one, but also an existential one. Along this journey I have encountered many people whom I should thank for having helped me clarify the approach I have taken. The entire list would be very long, so I will limit myself to thanking those who either directly or indirectly, either personally or through their works, have given me important ideas, authentic examples, and vivid stimuli that I tried to assimilate and metabolize in my own way: Jacques Derrida, John Dewey, Aldo Gargani, Tim Ingold, Massimo Montanari, Carlo Petrini, Steven Shapin, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Finally, I am very grateful to Carolyn Korsmeyer for her precious help in the final editing of this English edition.