Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History) - Nicola Perullo 2016
Curiosity, Expertise, Criticism (with Risks Included)
Second Mode of Access: Knowledge
Walter Benjamin believed architecture to be an emblematic case of an art that has a collective and routine use. The appropriate experience of architecture—precisely because it responds to practical uses and because its original function is not visual contemplation but rather dwelling interaction—amounts to a perception that he defined as “distracted.” The question posed by Benjamin was part of a major aesthetic debate regarding the nature of a work of art. In the wake of Benjamin, we can address in our context the following similar question. Do food experts and critics, with their analytical dissections of gustatory processes, incarnate the most appropriate way to live taste perception? From an evolutionary point of view, the first and primary function of food has been to feed and to feed well. In parallel, the first and primary function of taste has been to escape harmful and toxic foods, and then to make us feel good and give us pleasure. An aesthetics of taste should start then from this fact: all edible matter, even the most refined, is picked, bred, or made to be eaten. And all food, even that of the most refined gastronomic quality, retains its nutritional and energy-providing function. Why then should we assume that the cultivation of gustatory perception aimed at appreciating taste stems from the removal of this very basic but essential fact in favor of a mere analysis of flavor? I believe this approach depends on the preponderance of the visual and contemplative paradigm of aesthetics, according to which the true appreciation of food and drink must pass through an analytical exploration made by our sensory/perceptual apparatus. The haptic process of tasting is then considered as if it were observed by an eye. However, this approach surreptitiously presupposes what it sets out to prove, namely, that to appreciate food requires analyzing it in discrete terms, dissecting the object of appreciation into separate moments like the color, the odor, the taste. I do not reject the legitimacy of food being appreciated also in reflective and analytical ways, as I suggest that taste perception is molded in many different environmental experiences that take many different forms. I am merely asserting that this is not the only possible approach or the only way to appreciate it. We can appreciate food aesthetically also taking a different way, just considering its physical and psychological effects and its transformation into energy for life. This implies accepting a different conception of aesthetics, based on material contact, assimilation, and metabolism. To wholly understand the aesthetics of taste, it is necessary to go beyond the privilege of vision and the formal perspective that supports it. We should value instead the vital and metabolic aspects, as well as transformation and change, because taste always leaves a trace, even if you cannot see it.
Adult, thoughtful, and cultural gustative appreciation passes through different stages. Historical and anthropological curiosity is usually the first stage. Bertrand Russell was not particularly interested in food, but he was a curious and certainly very intelligent person. He once made a very interesting observation: “I have enjoyed peaches and apricots more since I have known that they were first cultivated in China in the early days of Han Dynasty; that Chinese hostages held by the great King Kaniska introduced them to India, whence they spread to Persia, reaching the Roman Empire in the first century of our era; that the word “apricot” is derived from the same Latin source as the word “precocious,” because the apricot ripens early; and that the A at the beginning was added by mistake, owing to a false etymology. All this makes the fruit taste much sweeter” (2004, 25). The passage clearly shows that taste can be directly stimulated by cultural factors such as historical knowledge and extrasensory elements, which may affect the moment of perception itself. The degree of conditioning varies with the tasting subject. It is no coincidence that a “simple” curious person can point out the link between information received and perceived gustative pleasure (“much sweeter”). Just prior to the quoted passage, Russell writes that “curious learning not only makes unpleasant things less unpleasant, but also makes pleasant things more pleasant.” Extrasensory information that does not refer to the intrinsic characteristics of the foodstuff and that is intended rather to arouse interest and attraction, creating a sort of “aura” of uniqueness around the object, is what many marketing strategies and also many contextualized everyday experiences offer.
If one evening, in a fit of generosity, I were to offer a special bottle of wine to some friends who are everything but “foodies,” I would not offer it “blindly” without saying a word (unless I wanted to perform another experiment about the universal and absolute perception of good). But neither would I describe its particular aesthetic and nonaesthetic gustative properties, for they would not understand them, lacking the vocabulary provided by expertise. I could tell them something about the wine’s historical and cultural importance, its myth, and also its market price. In this way, I would capture their attention and create a horizon of expectation and perceptive curiosity that could lead to their drinking with appreciative awareness and not in a mechanical and ignorant fashion. This would not be enough to create awareness, but it would be a suggestion, a signal for a path to be walked. Were I to offer the same wine to connoisseurs, I would not say those things because they could be taken for granted. More importantly, because of the nascent established relationship between the guests, the wine, and myself, it will develop further from gustatory perception as such, and then possibly turn to extrasensory data ex post. Here, too, I am not describing a straightforward and imposed process. Not all curious people become experts and not all experts become experts by following the same training and process. There are wine experts who have acquired their experience exclusively via sensory training, without any historical, anthropological, or geographical knowledge. Do they enjoy less? It depends on the occasions. In order to enjoy and appreciate food, knowledge as the voluntary accumulation of information and culture is not always necessary, but relational aesthetic sensitivity is. Of course, culture can help in developing a more accurate and critical perception, but again this is not always the case since cultural organization can also be subject to the same standardizations as production processes. In this light, criticism is important, but at the same time, we should not forget that the main purpose of food—to nourish well and to arouse pleasure—suggests taking the issue of criticism lightly.
The highest social mark of distinction for the cultivation of taste is expertise. The food expert is someone skilled in some particular product, like wine or beer, or in the gastronomic experience in general such as fine dining. Wine experts are traditionally more common in Western society, but there are also experts in spirits, cheese, cured meat, and chocolate. In Eastern society, tea ceremony expertise is very well known. Being an expert regarding products is different from being an expert on taste in general terms. The latter case presupposes a developed sensitivity, not solely geared to the object but to many different features: styles, traditions, contextual goals. In other words, being a gastronome does not mean being an expert on every single ingredient tasted; it means being experienced in how the final combination, the dishes, their sequence, the whole menu, and the overall experience, comes to be. A restaurant serving traditional Tuscan fare, for example, will have certain standards of reference, with respect to the ingredients, the recipes, their elaboration, and maybe even the atmosphere. The expert should be able to interpret and evaluate these factors along with many others, offering consistent and reasonable grounds for her assessments. The learning process of a gastronome is an interesting experience because, unlike what one might think, it does not involve only the sensory training during food intake.
Undoubtedly, it is necessary to train one’s senses in order to perceive what nonexperts do not perceive. As David Hume already asserted in the middle of the eighteenth century in his well-known essay “Of the Standard of Taste”: “A good palate is not tried by strong flavors, but by a mixture of small ingredients, where we are still sensible of each part, notwithstanding its minuteness and its confusion with the rest” (Hume 1909—14, §17). However, the attention needed for good gustative perception is only part of the path that leads to expertise. One must focus on the surroundings of taste, what precedes it, what constitutes it, and what follows. John Dewey stated this well: “Even the pleasures of the palate are different in quality to an epicure than in one who merely ’likes’ his food as he eats it. The different is not of mere intensity. The epicure is conscious of much more than the taste of the food. Rather there enter into the taste, as directly experienced, qualities that depend upon reference to its source and its manner of production in connection with criteria of excellence. As production must absorb into itself qualities of the product as perceived and be regulated by them, so, on the other side, seeing, hearing, tasting, become esthetic when relation to a distinct manner of activity qualifies what is perceived” (1980, 50—51). In this mode of experience, taste should function as an antenna designed to capture meanings and values of different orders: aesthetic, ethical, economic, political, and social. The taste expert, both the enthusiast/connoisseur and the professional critic, should therefore be an example of equilibrium, openness, vision, and sensitivity, as suggested again by Hume: “Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty” (1909—14, §23).
Often, however, reality shows us a very different approach to expertise. An extreme characterization of the risk of compulsiveness that leads to a dramatic disease is depicted in Paul Torday’s novel The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce, in which the main character, Wilberforce, develops a slowly increasing curiosity about wine driven by conscious existential unhappiness, a successful but unrewarding career, and almost no affective relationships. The passion for wine grants him access to a new, emotionally active, and fascinating social life. Wilberforce now begins to invest the time he had so far spent anonymously on his career affectively and emotionally, but along the way he falls prey to his love. Wine becomes an all-encompassing investment and, through the lens of a more refined expertise, a compulsive obsession. He becomes fanatical about great Bordeaux wines and consumes more and more until he turns into an alcoholic. The story of Wilberforce is the story of a man who discovers unprecedented experiences that shed unexpected meaning on new passions by living the taste experience as knowledge and as pleasure to its fullest. However, he loses the balance necessary for their “positive” incorporation and dies. In a very significant point of the novel, the weak boundaries of pleasure, knowledge, and pathology within one and the same experience become clear. Wilberforce has tried tackling his addiction in a center for alcohol abuse. Upon returning home, he reflects, “Meanwhile, it had been a very long time since I had drunk a glass of wine. With, I admit, trembling hands, I found the last bottle of Chateau Carbonnieux and opened it. An alcoholic, which I am not and never have been, would not have sat and let it breathe for half an hour, and let it come up towards room temperature. He would not have poured it lovingly into the large bowl of a tasting glass, to ensure the bouquet could develop properly. Nor would he have checked the glass first for any mustiness. . . . An alcoholic would not have rolled the purple liquid gently around in the glass, to capture the aroma of the wine, and then taken a single sip, allowing the complex chemicals of the wine to release themselves upon his tongue. He would not have made the effort to characterize the tastes from the wine in the approved wine taster’s vocabulary: sweet black cherries, toasty oak in the background” (Torday 2008, 71—72, my emphasis). Wilberforce excuses his addiction, denying both its seriousness and its real name, “alcoholism,” by referring to the cultural dominance of the field and his absolute expertise. An analogous defensive strategy is found frequently in real life among gastronomes, both enthusiasts and experts, though in less serious cases than those of poor Wilberforce. It is as though the “drawbacks of the trade” were enough to ennoble a practice, to redeem it from the “lowliness” of instincts and toxins.
There are other, less explicit, and more subtle types of addiction and compulsive behavior. Some experts and critics are victims of a true obsessive-compulsive disorder regarding the food they should be appreciating and evaluating in a levelheaded fashion. If classic iconography portrays the fat gastronome in the act of smelling or tasting, his nose deep in a glass of wine or close to a piece of meat or cheese, today we can witness new forms of foodism modeled on different tools—computers, digital cameras, smartphones—that sometimes complement and enhance the body’s perceptual apparatus according to a consistent evolutionary process, and at other times tend to replace it instead. Recording data and archiving images in some cases appear to stand for the living perceptual experience, as if what really mattered were documenting the fact that “I’ve had that experience” rather than enjoying and critically reflecting on the experience itself. Just as naked pleasure risks becoming autistic and infantile if it does not develop and evolve, surviving in the appropriate contextual circumstances, dressed taste can degenerate into a narcissistic discourse in spite of any true relational perception. An expert may lose the value of the intellectual pleasure of tasting (this is the sense of appreciation through knowledge) because he focuses on the analytical observation of food and its components. Wittgenstein once expressed this aesthetic misunderstanding, arguing that anybody who read the description of a monument or sculpture instead of looking at it would lack the perceptual experience of why that object was created. The object is read regardless of its interaction with the perceiver; the perceiver acts as a neutral medium of presumed pure knowledge. This may lead to a recognition of taste, as it were, made of already known elements, as it was handed over to codes that are already known and assimilated, eliminating any possible new cognition and any surprise effect. In this situation, one perceives in a dulled fashion, hurriedly and distractedly, and maybe even accepts the fashion of the moment. If, in the experience of naked pleasure, the risk was canceling any real otherness as well as the very self that constitutes itself through it by way of an enjoyment that unilaterally abandoned itself to the object, the risk of dressed taste is instead an “epistemological abuse,” a cognitive obsession where the otherness of the matter paradoxically almost disappears.
In some cases, the degeneration described above becomes an exercise in power, both in professional criticism and in everyday taste experiences, when the gastronome flaunts his haughty ways in his small playground. A few years ago, this figure was masterfully described by the authors of Ratatouille, the well-known Disney movie starring the rat chef Remy. One of the main characters of the story is the much-feared food critic Anton Ego. In a famous scene, he critically reflects on his work: “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.” This remark provides many suggestions. Anton Ego is consumed by his ego: narcissism and loneliness lead to compulsive, excessive, and pedantic behavior. This compulsion is expressed in different ways. It may concern the boundless need for information on the genealogy of food, orthorexia (the excessive preoccupation with avoiding food perceived to be unhealthy), or the paroxysm of analytical recognition of the elements that make up a dish or a wine—ingredients, cooking methods, spices, flavors, or textures. Again, I am not denying the importance of higher sensory skills, developed through specific and long training. On some occasions, it is important to grasp all the elements to complete an assessment and enrich appreciation. But qualitative assessment normally passes through a total synthetic appreciation, and only afterward can it be broken down into discrete data, for an ex post understanding of the appreciated item and experience. A comparison with music may be helpful here: the appreciation of a piece of music lies in listening, not in reading the score. Of course, this can be most useful for certain purposes, but it should not trump the open act of listening. In this light, at the end of the film, Anton Ego repents and embraces a more open and “amateur” perspective on taste perception, one that can also be supported by convincing philosophical, psychological, and sociological arguments. The same position can also be found in another literary food critic, Monsieur Arthens, one of the main characters of Muriel Barbery’s Gourmet Rhapsody whom we have already met in the first chapter. At the end of his life, Arthens, by now bedridden, asks his grandson to grant him one culinary wish: some cream puffs. Not the best ones in town, but the supermarket cream puffs he loved to eat on his way to school. The great and refined critic’s last perception is reconciled with the pure and vulgar pleasure of the beginning: “In the almost mystical union between my tongue and these supermarket chouquettes, with their industrial batter and their treacly sugar, I attained God. Since then, I have lost him, sacrificed him to the glorious desires which were not mine” (Barbery 2000, 155). The attitudes of Ego at the end of Ratatouille and of Arthens on his deathbed well express that flexible and multimodular perception that taste permits when properly heard and cultivated.
The basic function of food does not conflict with the cultivation of taste, if by “cultivating taste” we do not only reductively mean a social mark of distinction and hierarchy, but instead a tool of social understanding, self-care, and listening to others. Beyond gastronomy, one of the general and classic problems of criticism concerns the connection between expert judgment and public acceptance of it, the connection between the critic’s seemingly designated task—promoting and communicating “good” taste on the basis of “standard” and valuable parameters—and what the public actually likes, something that tastes “good.” A few years ago, an American advertising campaign for a brand of canned tuna summarized this conflict very effectively: “Star-Kist doesn’t want tunas with good taste. They want tunas that taste good” (Iggers 2007, 95). This highlights the reversal of the hierarchy of values in mass society; what really matters is what most people like, not what a few claim to be better. The gap between expertise and ignorance has been increasingly hidden and maybe even erased today, when every cultural, aesthetic, and artistic expression, from the most highbrow and exclusive events to the most ordinary and vulgar ones, can attain “pop” fruition thanks to the enhancing powers of technological devices. Gastronomy is one of the most evident examples of such phenomenon in contemporary society, so much so that many people wonder if the figure of the iconic food critic personified by Anton Ego and Monsieur Arthens still plays a decisive role. In fact, pop food culture is highly involved in the discussion about digital democracy. On the web, many attempts at “grassroots” criticism canceling any representation or authority of good taste are made with sites and servers collecting feedback on products and services and then compiling charts and statistics. However, this trend reveals another facet of the prejudice according to which quality is quantity and numbers that correspond to the sum of all individual preferences. Disregarding the mediation of authority, dressed taste loses the characteristics of a socially constituted and negotiated value among those who became experts through training and learning, and instead becomes a battleground for blind, anonymous, and purely numerical forces. According to our proposal of taste as a flexible experience, the two instances—effectively educated, sanctioned expertise and criticism on one side, and the vulgarization of taste judgments and values on the other—are not mutually exclusive; rather, they need to interact and intertwine. One would have to be blind not to observe that food critics today cannot take Anton Ego as their example. At the same time, it would also be very superficial to take the lawless processes of the democratization and popularization of taste as the arrival points of a democratic and self-generating transparency. The processes leading to the assignment of values are never neutral and objective in the naive sense of the term, since the notion of emotional and aesthetic “value” is an inherently social notion (Shapin 2012).