Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History) - Nicola Perullo 2016
Learning About Quality, Cultivating Taste
Second Mode of Access: Knowledge
My experience as a teacher and wine taster, an activity I have practiced for several years at a professional level, has taught me a good deal about the development of learning and cultivating taste. Using my personal background, I will now start to sketch some lines that can be useful for understanding a number of basic processes regarding the access to food via dressed taste. My skills were clearly formed through practice (tasting many different wines, building an archive for the recognition of some recurring features, and making comparisons as a habit), study (reading books and journals, keeping up to date on new products, and so on), and trips to vineyards, wineries, and meetings with producers and winemakers at their places and at fairs and events. During this apprenticeship, I was “promoted” to taster and educator of the tastes of others. The quotation marks are there because there is no “school of taste,” there is no institution certifying that someone has “good taste” for wine or food, just as there is no school that guarantees a degree in good criticism or—to look at the issue from the side not of judging, but rather of making—no school one can graduate from as a good writer. This impossibility is most revealing; neither the fields of taste and criticism nor the fields of creating artworks or artifacts are subject to general and abstractly computable certifications. There are of course schools of tasting and sensory training, as well as those of literary criticism, journalism, and creative writing, but they provide the basic tools for understanding the backbone of the functioning of these activities. Success—becoming a good critic, a good taster, or a good artist—is an entirely different story. That is up to individual talent, to a personal process and development of something that is recognized as good. Such evaluation is made ex post by the same communities of affiliation—the critics, the tasters, the artists—and by the public, the general audience (Shapin 2012).
As a wine-tasting teacher, I have taught many courses for both beginners and advanced students who in vivo helped me to understand the difference between the expression of individual naked and immediate pleasure and qualitative evaluation. Educating taste aims first at teaching words, a grammar, and a syntax of quality that express a reasoned appreciation of what is ingested and assimilated (Smith 2007). This process develops through various stages. At the first step, the beginner acquires the tools for building a value-oriented reference system. But how does this acquisition occur? Instead of “acquisition”—a word that underlies the idea of gathering knowledge as it was “already given”—it would be more correct to speak of interaction, active correspondence, and negotiation (Ingold 2013). In fact, masters are the authorities that teach a system of values. They provide examples and, thanks to their persuasive and seductive ability (seduce comes from the Latin se ducere, “to lead a person toward oneself”), convince the novices of the “truth” of the system proposed. The language of taste here is under construction. Let me give a personal example: Many years ago, I wanted to verify a particular fact about this process. In an introductory wine-tasting class, I proposed to focus on quality in wine through concepts and perceptions expressed by words like flavor and acidity. Was it a neutral gesture? Clearly not, because from those features I stressed a certain idea of quality based on values like drinkability, elegance, lightness. I recommended a whole language of wine, which depended on that initial move and convinced others through gestures, postures, and facial expressions that a quality wine had to have exactly those characteristics.
Before finishing my direct evidence, let me offer an important clarification. Around the middle of the twentieth century, the distinction between so called nonaesthetic properties and aesthetic properties (or qualities) was introduced into aesthetics to explain how qualitative values are established in works of art. In short, the nonaesthetic properties correspond to the characteristics that define an object or work of art in physicochemical and quantitative terms. These properties are easily discernible and measurable: color, shape, weight, volume, and composition. Aesthetic properties, on the other hand, are those attributions that involve a very problematic area, namely, that domain of qualitative perception called aesthetic perception where properties such as harmony, finesse, elegance, appeal, and balance are taken into consideration (Sibley 2007). Now the problem is to discover whether there is some kind of a relationship between the aesthetic and the nonaesthetic properties. If so, what is it? Without entering into the merit of the many possible answers offered by scholars, I would only like to point out that the question applies perfectly to our case as well. In the tasting course, in fact, I wanted to convince the students that flavor and acidity—nonaesthetic properties, subject to measurement and quantitative analysis—were closely linked to certain aesthetic properties such as drinkability, lightness, and elegance. Now that this has been made clear, and keeping it in mind, I can conclude my story. In another introductory course with a different group of novices, I proposed focusing on quality in wine through completely different concepts and perceptions, expressed by nonaesthetic properties such as alcohol content, fruitiness, and sweetness. I then connected these properties to the same aesthetic properties of the previous course: drinkability, elegance, and appeal. In both courses, I obviously justified my value system, not only by way of seductive and rhetorical strategies, but also with reasonable arguments taken from wine production. With an audience of beginners, in two “experimental” courses, I obtained the same outcome—a good measure of pleasure and new wine enthusiasts—by constructing two diverse and in a certain way opposite paradigms of taste as value and qualitative appraisal.
My little experiment is not supposed to suggest a skeptical conception of taste. I do not intend to argue that taste is just a matter of private preferences in the line of “de gustibus non est disputandum.” This motto refers to taste as naked and immediate pleasure, to instances where impulses encounter flavors, that terrain where the gustatory perception exhibits our uniqueness, our unwavering signature. Taste cannot be discussed here, it can only be reported. This is a good thing, as we argued in the first chapter; there are aesthetic encounters that need to be seen in this light. From a different angle, however, taste is the chosen topic of discussion, a true “social negotiating table.” We are also social and often sociable beings. For this reason, dressed taste is what is most debated and demands criteria, values, and judgment. It requires knowledge and culture, shared through socially coded patterns of behavior and a corresponding grammar. The example of the wine-tasting courses helps us understand how aesthetic knowledge concerning aesthetic properties comes about through negotiation, a comparison of perspectives that does not have a causal foundation, but instead contingent motivations and hence historical, anthropological, and social ones. Harmony and elegance, beauty and finesse, personality and character are not caused by a wine’s physicochemical components; rather, they depend on them in a different way. They are perceived by virtue of specific training that produces an ability to perceive the second degree, diverse from standard perception, which is therefore defined as taste. Taste is the mark of aesthetic perception (Levinson 2005). Aesthetic perception, however, is not a definitive and fixed stage. It changes and develops in accordance with the historical significance of the values it captures, but also with respect to every single experience and environment in which it occurs. If the first gustatory aesthetic relationship we have analyzed in terms of naked pleasure corresponds to the vital impulse and delight, in the transition toward cognitive and cultural stages aesthetic appreciation becomes even more specialized and articulated.
The historicity of gustatory aesthetic perception affects both individuals—tastes change, and they change because experiences, perspectives, and more generally the values attributed to objects change—and society as a whole. The values associated with wine substantiate this well. My personal experiment showed two different systems at play, one typical of the 1990s, according to which wine had to be structured, dense, soft, and fruity, the other, which is currently popular, according to which wine has to be crispy, light, fresh, and mineral. Those novices and unwitting victims of my basic tests, who continued to broaden their knowledge and developed a greater tasting capacity, might have begun to harbor certain doubts about the paradigm imparted by me in retrospect. Maybe someone has transformed their initial curiosity into true expertise, and in this process their perceptual amelioration, their ability for discernment and judgment, has increased. With those former students, I can no longer draw up grids of value to my liking, but instead I would have to face them and negotiate as between peers.
If education and training play a crucial role in the constitution of adult gustatory perception and are the way toward dressed taste, it is furthermore impossible to ignore the basic conditionings that structure our perception, an involuntary legacy that cannot be done away with. Explicit projects and conscious purposes to establish one’s style and identity are one thing; the background of individual biographies, memories and social environment in which one has grown up and been raised are another (Auvrey and Spence 2007; Burnham and Skilleås 2012). In the example above, the project that the beginners chose by enrolling in the wine course was to learn a perceptual ability and the appropriate language skills to describe a sensory perception and its subsequent qualitative assessment. This is normally what people attending a wine-tasting class expect, but since I happened to be their teacher, I gave them something more to learn, aesthetic perception. In fact, I have been arguing that taste perception comprises two different levels, sensory perception and aesthetic perception. This assumption needs to be discussed since it is controversial.
According to a certain view—shared, for example, by some sensory chemists and analysts who are more in tune with the “hard” sciences and statistics than with philosophy and the humanities (Noble 2006)—the only possible and “objective” gustatory perception is standard perception. This perception, as we said above, refers only to nonaesthetic properties such as the levels of acidity and tannins as well as the presence of certain aromas rather than others. In this context, training taste would mean learning to perceive, recognize, and appreciate standard characteristics, similarly to what occurs when a child learns to recognize colors and shapes of objects and the letters of the alphabet. In this conception, beyond standard perception, taste “non est disputandum.” The defenders of such a position claim it is the only reasonable way to discuss and to share judgments about food and wine. On the contrary, they argue that adjectives such as harmonious, elegant, and vibrant would express only individual preferences. Words such as balance, finesse, power, or grace would not denote anything real and would only correspond to pure personal idiosyncrasies, exempt from any reference to the tasted object. It is easy to refute this concept. First, it works with the subject/object paradigm that we already put into question, replacing it with the relational and ecological paradigm. According to the latter, taste perception is a complex skill, aimed at different purposes and projects. In this framework, recognizing quality is recognizing values rather than mere facts, as the former paradigm would affirm. In other words, we are freer. It is entirely legitimate, and for some purposes even useful, to enhance the sensory practice of flavor and aroma recognition by training taste and smell aesthetically, as these senses are generally underestimated and therefore not used to the fullest of their capacities. But—and this is the second point—this does not imply that standard gustatory perception (flavors “as such,” aromas “as such”) is neutral and not itself biased. It’s just another game, as has been argued also by historians and social scientists (Perullo 2012b; Shapin 2011). Third, sensory perception does not cover everything that taste allows one to do: it is perfectly possible to distinguish between two wines with a similar sensory profile but dissimilar final qualities, different values. Think of the different prices of two wines belonging to two adjacent but diverse vineyards that cannot be explained just by sensory features. If the price differential is warranted, it calls for other arguments, both perceptual—standard and aesthetic—perceptual and nonperceptual. These arguments compose the domain of aesthetic. Aesthetic sensibility is the capacity to ecologically correspond to the intertwining of facts and values; it does not pertain to the complexity of the reasons that temporarily and historically justify certain value orientations. Learning about quality and cultivating taste, therefore, means facing our inescapable relationship with food, making it an integral part of our experiences. It also means consciously exercising one’s perceptive ability in the direction of the complexity of embodied knowledge, leaving the environment around us to interact with our psychophysical system.