Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History) - Nicola Perullo 2016
Taste and Sustainability: The Good That Grounds the Good
Second Mode of Access: Knowledge
A remarkable approach to taste as culture is the ethical appreciation of taste. So far we have seen ethics “percolate” from the uniqueness of the gustatory experience. This approach reverses the perspective where evaluation and judgment grow and develop before perceptual encounter. There are many clear examples such as religious dietary laws, whose regimens govern abstinence or moderation according to their purity or to the calendar. However, there are also many, at least apparently, nonreligious ethics that subscribe to the idea that aesthetics is anchored in ethics. Duty lays the foundations for pleasure, such as in vegetarians and vegan models, fair trade, associations that promote food culture, and, more generally, critical gastronomy based on the idea of environmental sustainability (Petrini 2007; Pollan 2006, 2008). A political conviction and an epistemic conviction are the foundation for the ethical appreciation of taste. The latter evaluates aesthetic pleasure and appreciation as secondary or, in its more radical versions, subordinate to the sense of duty as “acting rightly” on the basis of a subscription to the idea—whether informed or not, it hardly matters—that ethics is the first philosophy. This approach sees food as a powerful tool for political change, so good taste must correspond to fair (Lemke 2008)
One of the best examples of the ethical appreciation of taste is proposed by the American essayist Wendell Berry. In an essay titled “The Pleasures of Eating,” he writes, “The pleasure of eating should be an extensive pleasure, not that of the mere gourmet. . . . I mentioned earlier the politics, esthetics, and ethics of food. But to speak of the pleasure of eating is to go beyond those categories. Eating with the fullest pleasure—pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance—is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world” (Berry 1990, 151—52). This is an explicit manifesto: pleasure refers to a broader sentiment, governed by knowledge and ethical reasoning. Gustatory appreciation for food requires a primary sensitivity that can be found in the deeper understanding of our “connection with the world” and that allows the “pleasure of eating” to become “an extensive pleasure” that is not reducible to palatal appreciation while ingesting food. According to this model, education and taste training are primarily oriented not toward gustatory perception but toward an overall educational project that one might define as “sustainable sensoriality” or the desire to direct perceptive values toward an ethical appropriateness. In other words, to have good taste, one must have good rational beliefs. One must understand that taste is formed through conditioning and interests, as a result of which we risk being manipulated and food is likely to be considered a mere commodity. It is a matter not only of contextualizing perceptual experience, but of overloading taste with elements that seem distant and unrelated to gastronomy “in the strict sense.” Gastronomy thus changes its traditional characteristics; it both shrinks (less importance is given to taste perception and expertise itself) and grows as an atmospheric mark almost without limits, becoming the expression of a general modus vivendi. This approach is not entirely new; in fact, it goes as far back as the vegetarian regimens of Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras and Plutarch, to the choice of organic or biodynamic production methods, and to certain trends in contemporary culinary research that are increasingly carving out the link between creation and ethical responsibility. Let’s take vegetarianism as an example. The choice to not eat meat may stem from animal-rights ethics (animal suffering), from environmental ethics (the energy-related and ecological costs of factory farming), from a religious precept, or from questions of health. In all these cases, taste aligns itself with a prior conviction, with a preliminary orientation.
We could, however, ask in what sense preliminary ethical choices really translate into the gustatory appreciation of food. In other words, does ethically and morally “good” food always taste better (Perullo 2014)? And will this ethical approach be able to orient the grammar of taste definitively? I believe there is no simple answer. Ethical appreciation of food is an interesting and complex attitude, but it is not without problems. First, it may risk forgetting the chronological priority in the evolutionary development of our relationship with food. We are not born adults and childhood is a crucial time in our lives. Strictly separating ethics and aesthetics, as some references sometimes seem to suggest, seems to promote an accidental paradox; sometimes sustainable taste becomes the updated version of modern day “good taste,” a correct and comfortable trend, widely followed for purely fashion reasons. Consider, for example, the risk of a degeneration that affects the notions of “natural” and “organic,” ever more subject to violent semantic and commercial fraud as sedatives for commercial ends used to gain consumer trust and confidence. I am keen on organic and biodynamic food and wine; I find them interesting and often fulfilling. The problem is that sometimes they are an alibi for not increasing one’s perceptual awareness and mindful ability to practice environmental tasting. There is also a further problem. The main psychological factor in consumer food choice is pleasure, not ethics (Glanz et al. 1998). Therefore, an optimizing strategy that disregards food’s impulsive and hedonic dimension might turn out not to be very effective. Better to pursue a more versatile and lay gustatory model that can hold together the hedonic and the ethical motive, gustative desirability and its moral appropriateness. And moreover, in everyday life don’t we often see the very advocates of regulative food ethics let themselves go and indulge in naked pleasure, in their own idiosyncrasies and biographies, suspending and putting aside ethical beliefs and cultural motivations even if only for the moment?