Tasting the World - Second Mode of Access: Knowledge

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

Tasting the World
Second Mode of Access: Knowledge

Experiencing food while traveling is one of the most deliberate, appreciated, and popular ways of approaching the culture of new and unusual places. Wine and food tourism is on the rise, in particular with regard to the aesthetics of traditions and their territories. The encounter with “other” food in contexts differing from the usual ones is also an extremely rich topos, from Montaigne to Stevenson, from Twain to Chatwin. The travel writer John Foster Fraser describes the discovery of a fish in Burma in his book Round the World on a Wheel (1989), which narrates a bicycle trip that lasted over two years: “We investigated how the food was prepared. First of all the fish were caught and laid in the sun for three days to dry. The fish being then dead, though moving, were pounded in plenty of salt. Then they were put into a jar, and when the mouth was opened people five miles away knew all about it. Nga-pee, I soon saw, was a delicacy that could only be appreciated by cultured palates. The taste is original; it is salt, rather like rancid butter flavoured with Limburger cheese, garlic, and paraffin oil. The odor is more interesting than the taste. It is more conspicuous” (265). This passage makes clear how taste can serve as an active probe for the discovery of the world, in direct experience as well as in academic research: much of cultural studies today is about food as a marker for multicultural complexity (Counihan and Van Esterik 1997).

In a well-known story originally published 1982 with the title Sapore Sapere (Taste Knowledge) (which in 1986 was changed to Under the Jaguar Sun), Italo Calvino described some itineraries of taste as knowledge and culture in great depth. In the Italian edition, the story opens with a long epigraph from Niccolò Tommaseo’s Dizionario dei sinonimi,1 which provides further clarification about the original meaning of taste. This is what the Italian linguist wrote in his famous work published in 1830: “Tasting, in general, exercising the sense of taste, receiving its impression, even without a deliberate will or without thought. The sampling becomes more determined in order to taste and to know what one is tasting; or at least it denotes that from the first impression comes a reflected sentiment, an idea, the beginning of an experience. Therefore, to the Latins, sapio in translation meant feeling correctly; and therefore the sense of the Italian sapere [to know], which in itself stands for the right doctrine and for the prevailing of knowledge over science” (Calvino 1988, 23). Tommaseo distinguished between a direct impression, before any intention and reflection, and a reflective exploration, aimed at recognition and intellectual appreciation. Then he referred to the etymology of the Italian verb sapere (to know), from the Latin sapio (originally “to have taste” and, by extension, “to know”). Tasting, therefore, means correctly perceiving a substance’s immediate taste, but also its subsequent recognition following an investigation. According to Tommaseo, taste is a double ability, related to the same double nature and meaning of the sense. This word in fact denotes both the immediate sensation (the instant “epidermal” sensation) and good sense (“to have good sense”), something that helps us choose and orient ourselves. A few decades before Tommaseo, the French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin had already offered a similar and even more precise definition of taste. According to him, taste is a combination of three elements corresponding to three consecutive steps: direct sensation (the immediate introduction of a food item into the mouth, with the activation of all receptors responsible for the recognition of chemical stimuli), complete sensation (the first and the subsequent perception, obtained by the mastication and oxygenation of the food in the mouth, which allows capturing the aromatic and tactile nuances), and reflective sensation (the final appreciation and the act of judgment after the ingestion of the food item—a process that can take a long time, if it is true that we are sometimes undecided in evaluating whether we really enjoyed something or not) (Brillat-Savarin 2009). Taste in Calvino’s story is a complex system that presupposes these articulations.

Under the Jaguar Sun tells the story of a couple, the writer and his partner Olivia, on vacation in Oaxaca, Mexico, the city of chocolate. Europe’s interest in this product, which was initially used as a drink and brought to Spain by the church (Schivelbusch 1992), began here in the sixteenth century. Chocolate, the ambivalent food par excellence, symbol of pleasure and sin, so much so that it appears everywhere in literature and cinema, is not the key player of this story, however. Instead, the story revolves around different foods, seeing taste as a complex device for exploration and as an internal travel compass through Mexico. Here, taste is mostly dressed and related to cultural forces, an adult version of the relationships one bears to oneself and to others. The anthropological trip through food in Under the Jaguar Sun leads to reflections and new elaborations on identity and the redefinition of relational strategies. During their travels, the two main characters try many traditional dishes and come to recognize the signs of a highly developed culture: “Olivia remarked that such dishes involved hours and hours of work and, even before that, a long series of experiments and adjustments . . . imagining entire lives devoted to the search for new blends of ingredients, new variations in the measurements, to alert and patient mixing, the handing down of intricate, precise lore” (Calvino 1988, 6). This approach leads to food through an explicit interest in its social and anthropological meanings that precede or follow the act of ingestion and assimilation. The transmission of the art of preparation and the patient alchemy in the transformations, as well as the conflict between the Spanish and the American Indian civilizations and the regional differences in edible material and vocabulary, are all elements that come before or after the perceptual experience. The experience is constituted by an approach toward taste, by anticipating it along horizons of expectation and information, the acquisition of historical and anthropological data, and their explicit intellectual elaboration afterward. The trip Olivia and her husband made is a cultural project that lives the experiences of taste as aesthetic experiences. It reflects an attitude toward food that differs highly from naked pleasure as it was discussed in the first chapter. Naked pleasure was, above all, an aesthetic relationship stemming from a “simple” sensory stimulation taken in its relative “narrowness” in an environment. Dressed taste, on the other hand, emphasizes the constructive and poietic role of the aesthetic relation. This difference in attitudes does not denote any hierarchy but, pragmatically, different relevant contexts of experience and appropriate narrative processes.

In the following passage, Calvino defines such an aesthetic program with words that are often quoted: “The true journey, as the introjections of an “outside” different from our normal one, implies a complete change of nutrition, a digesting of the visited country—its fauna and flora and its culture (not only the different culinary practices and condiments but the different implements used to grind the flour or stir the pot)—making it pass between the lips and down the esophagus. This is the only kind of travel that has a meaning nowadays, when everything visible you can see on television without rising from your easy chair. (And you mustn’t rebut that the same result can be achieved by visiting the exotic restaurants of our big cities; they so counterfeit the reality of the cuisine they claim to follow that, as far as our deriving real knowledge is concerned, they are the equivalent not of an actual locality, but of a scene reconstructed and shot in a studio.)” (1988, 12). Calvino’s aesthetic perspective sees in the journey the most radical search for experiential authenticity, and therefore it redefines the hierarchy of the senses as in Nothomb’s novels. Instead of a bare perception, however, here we find a semiotics of culture: tasting, the “only kind of travel that has a meaning nowadays,” means assimilating “between the lips and down the esophagus,” ingesting and physically consuming the object, and this perceptual process can be neither substituted nor replaced, in contrast to what may well happen in visual perception. Taste is the embodied experience that permits the most appropriate knowledge of the other, the perceptual ability that allows a true contact with things, exactly because it does not only touch the matter, but merges with it. Taste establishes a carnal twine between perceiver and perceived. If in the Platonic-Hegelian tradition this mixture expresses the epistemic limit of the so-called minor sense, Calvino instead adopts an alternative paradigm. According to a minority in Western thought, taste guarantees an even higher level of truthfulness: “it informs us in a perfect way concerning the nature of things” because “the entire substance of the tasted object comes into contact with the tongue and penetrates it directly,” as an anonymous medieval commentator claimed (“Summa de saporibus” 1991, 231).

Calvino provides a radical meaning to the access to food through dressed taste. In the words of the anthropologist David Le Breton, taste here is the taste of the world because it is knowledge of the world (Le Breton 2006). It is a knowledge that fuses sharing and bonds, but also lacerations and conflicts. If, with naked pleasure and prereflective enjoyment, sharing, struggles, or guilt feelings occur with respect to infantile behavior or to regression in adulthood, in Calvino’s story the context is different. We are faced with a rational conflict between cultivated human beings in whom dressed taste acts as an amplifier or mirror of the discomforts that lie outside the planned management of existence. The perceptual difference between the narrator and his partner surfaces, for instance, in a pragmatics of taste: “Olivia more sensitive to perceptive nuances and endowed with a more analytical memory, where every recollection remained distinct and unmistakable; I tending more to define experiences verbally and conceptually, to mark the ideal line of journey within ourselves contemporaneously with our geographical journey” (Calvino 1988, 11). While Olivia cultivates a gustatory knowledge geared toward intense perceptual attention and tacit memory, the narrator for his part tries to translate the living experience into words and concepts. This difference harks back to the hierarchy between men and women with respect to the kitchen. The domain of taste, of smells, of the body, of practical gestures is a woman’s assigned social prerogative; the domain of theory, of conceptualized language, and of ideal design is a man’s. Far from being an obsolete prejudice, this still holds true today. Think of the distinction between so-called traditional and creative cuisine, commonly seen as a sharp distinction between the mechanical execution of coded recipes and creative inventive design, and now consider the predominant gender associated with each. There is a French word that expresses this axiology, that is, chef. The chef, according to the definition by the French historian Revel, “is a man capable of inventing that which hasn’t already been eaten at home” (Baugé 2012). The chef is therefore a chief, that is, primarily a head, a mind. The space of the chef is outside of the house, the space of the woman cook is at home. Women should stay in the kitchen: this thought expresses the ideology of a precise social structure that involves all aspects of human life (Cooper 1998). The autonomous space of women is carved out within the domestic walls and, above all, expresses itself in cooking and in other tasks that are done in the absence of men, who go out to work, produce, create, and fill public roles. The mouth symbolizes this hierarchical prejudice well, at the same time denoting its ambivalence. It is the opening through which food enters and words exit, a medium of the physical and the mental together, and it differently serves sensitive, perceptual, and intellectual needs.

Through taste, Olivia emphasizes haptic and tacit perception; the narrator, on the other hand, emphasizes verbal and conceptual perception, exploring the object and then putting it back at a distance. Olivia lives taste as a harmoniously twofold instrument, “pleasure that knows, knowledge that enjoys,” as defined by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben (2015). Knowledge and culture do not weaken but rather enhance pleasure. Instead, for the narrator taste is a problem. He recognizes its potential, but he lives it within a dramatically dualistic frame—tacit, haptic pleasure on the one hand, explicit, theoretical knowledge on the other—whose only solution is a complete translation of taste into conceptual language. Calvino’s story therefore provides a good example for dressed taste to be expressed in different manners.

Let’s return to the gender issue. The conflict between male and female is repeatedly evoked in Calvino’s story, but more generally it can easy be established that, in the Western tradition, the neglect of gustatory perception has always accompanied emotional, erotic, and sexual problems. From the condemnation of physical pleasure and its excess by the more radical versions of the Christian tradition—where gluttony and sex are united by the same interdict—to the opposite glorification of gluttony as a mark of Eros/Thanatos recounted by so much literature and so many films (think of La grande bouffe), taste always has a gender connotation, both in physical and in psychic characterizations. Taste as a psychic glue is an interesting variation on the theme for understanding some of the prevailing attitudes in the experience of food: cooking can be a vehicle to seduce, to call back those who are gone, to be forgiven, but it can be also a survival strategy. Olivia and the narrator leave for their trip to Mexico during a marriage crisis, and food is the medium chosen for their attempt to reestablish a true sensual relationship. It is not difficult to bring fiction back to real life. At times, the development of the dominance of gustatory experiences in couples is the supplement to, or substitute for, the sensual decline in long-term relationships. This finding is not irrelevant to our theme. We have to know how to frame taste experience in this context with the possibility of an alternative or supplementary performance. This allows us to understand these gustatory attitudes and not condemn them.