Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History) - Nicola Perullo 2016
Taste, Conflicts, and Culture
Second Mode of Access: Knowledge
Through naked pleasure, the experience of taste molded a perception characterized by ungovernability and passive abandonment. Dressed taste sketches a different way to experience taste, apparently more reasonable and balanced. Culture accompanies and empowers pleasure, returning it to shareability and public language. However, these two approaches are not alternatives. They represent different experiences, different accentuation preferences, which in many cases are even intertwined. In the first mode of access to food, we have shown how, in certain circumstances, naked pleasure touches upon the adult territories of knowledge. Similarly, we must emphasize that, in certain contexts, dressed taste looms close to the borders of impulses not controllable by nature. With a culture’s own perceptual devices, some experiences that are directed toward food find themselves hostage to the unexpected powers stemming from areas of our being that are not subject to rational will. In other words, the perception of taste does not have a linear and irreversible evolution; it is distinguished, instead, by reversibility and circularity, which can take different characterizations. For example, the philosopher Jacques Derrida, in certain analyses based on the Critique of the Power of Judgment by Kant, identified vomit as the limit of digestion, the extreme expression of external matter that cannot be assimilated by our psychophysical system (and that is not necessarily disgusting: we often vomit what we ate with great pleasure) (Derrida, 1981).
In Under the Jaguar Sun, the blind spot and the limit of resistance to the domain of gustatory reason are presented under the disturbing guise of anthropophagy and cannibalism, which Olivia introduces during a discussion of sacrificial cuisine with their local guide. The taste for human flesh explicitly emerges at the end of the story; it goes beyond the field of cultural anthropology and establishes itself as the telos of the gustatory experience, taking on a metaphorical and universal meaning: “Under the thatched arbor of a restaurant on a riverbank, where Olivia had waited for me, our teeth began to move slowly, with equal rhythm, and our eyes stared into each other’s with the intensity of serpents’—serpents concentrated in the ecstasy of swallowing each other in turn, as we were aware, in our turn, of being swallowed by the serpent that digests us all, assimilated ceaselessly in the process of ingestion and digestion, in the universal cannibalism that leaves its imprint on every amorous relationship and erases the lines between our bodies and sopa de frijoles, huacinango a la veracruzana, and enchiladas” (Calvino 1988, 29). As some scholars point out, following a Hegelian perspective, “universal cannibalism” corresponds to a similar structure of understanding. Understanding (the other) is assimilating, ingesting, and metabolizing (the Latin comprehendo refers to the act of grasping, of taking something with your hands and holding it). Here, the vital metabolic process turns into a metaphor of the human as such, to the extent that living means being in society, and every social relationship is a process of recognition of the other, but also at the same time of his or her assimilation. Again, what is here at play is not unrelated to the question of gender. Take the sexual act, for example: the man, unlike the woman, makes love by possessing and being taken in (Derrida 1992). Literature also features many examples of disgust and repulsion—a notion and experience in which philosophers are perhaps much more interested than in taste. To take a famous example, in chapter 64 of Melville’s Moby Dick, the second mate Stubb shares his dinner of whale-steak freshly cut from the animal just caught with a plethora of sharks that finish off the carcass in the water. The description of the scene conveys a sense of horror and disgust, but it is also a reflection on the life cycle and on the relationship between eating and being eaten (Korsmeyer 1999).
In Calvino’s poetics, the gustatory experience often plays an exemplary and metaphorical role. From Mr. Palomar to Cosmicomics, food and flavors appear regarding questions of Eros, of the role of the human being in the universe, and of social and historical relationships. In one of his most famous novels, The Baron in the Trees, the story of Cosimo, who decided to live in trees, follows from an act of rejection of some food due to its taste. Cosimo’s protest becomes totally political. The narrator, Cosimo’s brother, describes the family atmosphere by way of the family meals. The tension between the father and children, in particular Battista, Cosimo’s sister, emerges here: “So it can be seen why our family board brought out all the antagonisms, the incompatibilities, between us, and all our follies and hypocrisies too; and why it was there that Cosimo’s rebellion came to a head” (Calvino 1977, 6). Cosimo rebels against his sister because he is disgusted by the strange dishes she prepares—crostini of rat liver pate, grasshopper legs, roasted pig tails, “horrible dishes”—and, in particular, by snails. The conflict turns into a war of taste involving identity-related paths and experiences, a whole framework of relations that cannot be reduced to the pure, naked pleasure of the palate but rather refers back to the family meal, to the meal as a communal and conflicting moment. The anthropology of food has given much thought to the relationship between “good to eat” and “good to think”: Lévi-Strauss’s famous thesis argued that what communities like to eat is what is (considered as) good to think in a moral sense. In Lévi-Strauss’s paradigm, food aesthetics follows from food ethics. This was overturned by Marvin Harris in a more materialistic sense. What communities find ethically good in food habits is what they must eat for geographic, economic, and historical reasons. According to the general movement of this essay, again it is not necessary to choose between one of the two options. Gustatory taste grows in the intertwining of ethics and aesthetics, and it operates each time on different levels according to the environmental experience. The gustatory multisensory perceptual system contains ethical and economic instances, as well as physiological and aesthetic ones. As we have shown, taste is an ecological perception: it consists of an amalgam of heterogeneous forces—from chemical stimuli to highest cognitive levels—that at times also express conflicting values. This is why taste experiences are many and varied, and for this reason, we sometimes taste with a passive, abandoned attitude, sometimes by way of firmly established cultural codes and patterns, and most of the time playing on both accesses according to different scales and intensities. In the ecological and pragmatic perspective of the aesthetic relationship, one must understand that the perceptual approaches to taste are different and respond to different criteria of distinction, different desires, different projects and goals.
Under the Jaguar Sun crosses the territory of taste on hot and spicy flavors. That is to say, adult flavors, the bitterness of cocoa and coffee, the spiciness of chili. The intellectual appreciation of taste usually comes into play when the food involved is difficult (think of “high cuisine” dishes), strange, or exotic. Exoticism concerns our discussion, because it is the approach to the other that is in question, the interplay with different styles and cultures, as well as with different stages in one’s life: wine, tea, coffee, and high cuisine express the adult appreciation for mediated taste. These foods are social markers; they mark the entry into certain groups. Think of the first glass of red wine, with its acidity and tannins, and how the process of appreciation develops here. The fact that training and education are involved in this category of foods seems intuitive. Why should we have to learn the taste of childhood on which we built our first relationships with others? This would seem useless and bizarre, but this is not always so. On the one hand, owing to different circumstances, some people are estranged from their own childhood tastes, and it is also due to this fact that in postindustrial Western societies a new educational question regarding taste is thriving, which is not geared toward the exotic, but rather toward the local and the familiar and goes by the name of “tradition.” From time to time, celebrity chefs create “childish” dishes, which explicitly evoke gustatory dimensions “surpassed” in individual growth. On the other hand, globalization has changed the dynamic between the exotic and the local. It can happen that the foreign becomes more familiar than the formerly familiar ones, and that the boundaries of the known and the unknown are modified. These remarks show that relying on the notion of “culture” in general is not enough, when taste experiences are at play. A specific perspective and an appropriate narrative are needed to understand time and again what kind of relationship is involved between the perceiver, the food perceived, and the environment. Taste is a multimodal device, embedded, relational, flexible, and potentially skilled at sorting out very different and even opposite situations.