Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History) - Nicola Perullo 2016
Taste and Diet
Second Mode of Access: Knowledge
A variant of ethical appreciation deserves to be very briefly considered. It is a vast, almost pervasive topic, but here I want to suggest only a connection with our theme. There is one way to approach taste as culture primarily or exclusively oriented to the nutritional and dietary aspects of food. For very long time, food, taste, and diet were very strictly bound together; with modern times, they drifted apart. Today’s meaning of diet is different and much more limited than the original. Etymologically the word diet—from the ancient Greek diaita—meant way of life, matters related to daily activities such as physical exercise, sleep, sexual activity and, of course, alimentation. Food played a great role in diet, so much so that “dietetics” then came to indicate that branch of medicine that deals with food. It was based on the principles of Hippocratic-Galenic medicine, grounded in the four elements (earth, water, air, and fire) corresponding to as many qualities (dry, wet, cold, and hot), humors (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood), and temperaments or characters (melancholic, choleric, phlegmatic, and sanguine). Ancient and medieval dietetics claim that every food has at least one corresponding quality. Eating well means measuring and mixing the various food qualities in order to obtain an equilibrium of moods and temperaments (Flandrin and Montanari 1999). The taste for food corresponded in large part to this interpretative model of reality, and historical documents attest to the close link between taste as pleasure and as health. Taste was in fact mainly the result of dietary reasoning, and it was only in the early modern period that the “liberation of the gourmet,” as the French historian Jean-Louis Flandrin called it, was born with a new paradigm of taste based on the palatal perception of single elements of food, regardless of its effects on the body and mind. In the nineteenth century, gastronomy by and large freed itself from dietetics as health, but in the meantime, dietetics has taken on completely different characteristics, because medical science has changed since Hippocrates and Galen. If back then the main proof of the link between taste and diet was based on the perception of foodstuffs, because the elements of reality and the qualities—wet, cold, dry, hot—were perceivable qualities, modern science is instead grounded in (trust in the existence of) components of invisible reality: atoms, electrons, cells, and molecules, which are not detectable by the human eye. The same can be said of vitamins, amino acids, minerals, and the lipids and proteins that make up food, but it is exactly on these components that modern nutritional science, as well as the specific branch of dietetics, relies.
In recent years, however, that modern dualistic paradigm has failed once again. Many chefs work with great consideration for healthiness, lightness, and balance in terms of nutrients (calorie count) and food quality (freshness, seasonality) that make up their dishes and menus. Yet regarding the most common experiences with food, the attention to the link between nutrition and taste exploded: food literature contains a virtually limitless number of titles on diets. On the one hand, of course they guarantee important sales figures, but on the other side today the word diet encompasses all that goes under the name of wellness. In this perspective, eating well and eating the good mean healthy eating. It could also be argued that diet sometimes becomes a stand-in for faith and other apodictic postulates: health is truth, a recipe for prêt-a-porter happiness, though the common approach of accepting as “healthy” everything that is offered by nutritional science can itself be called into question (Shapin 2007). The connection between food and health is envisaged in different ways with varying intensity, which one must be able to distinguish, ranging from an attitude of simple “common sense” in accordance with popularized scientific knowledge to compulsive and obsessive attitudes such as orthorexia. The formula of the popular “Mediterranean diet” is well known (for example, eat carbohydrates for lunch and protein in the evening, plenty of fruit and vegetables, and few sweets and drink little alcohol). Less common is the habit of alternating between gluttony and health (alternating periods of disregard for nutritional balance and weight control, and very strict periods of almost complete abstinence from “dangerous” foods), and there is also the belief that a food is only good because it does good. Of course, there is also an approach to food that redirects all attention to its nutrients, with an utter indifference to its taste. But this attitude goes beyond the scope of this chapter and will be treated in the next.