Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History) - Nicola Perullo 2016
The Extension of Pleasure and the Limits of Gustatory Exclusivism
Third Mode of Access: Indifference
The considerations regarding water and the neutral lead to the development of a broader meaning of pleasure. The pleasure I presented in the first chapter had a strong characterization in terms of inclination and exclusion since when the main reference is intensity some flavors exclude others. A different pleasure, though, is also possible. A pleasure experienced around food and not of food, that is, one where food can play the role of a supporting actor. It is appropriate to insert this kind of pleasure into the framework of the indifferent approach, for at this point, it will be easier to understand its legitimacy. Imagine a very common situation. You decide to go out for dinner with some friends and choose the place for reasons other than the quality of the meal, such as the beauty of the location, the people who frequent it, the friendliness of the owners, excellent live music, the convenience regarding the fact that afterward you may want to go see a movie. For a negotiated and deliberate reason, in one of these or other possible cases one decides to subordinate gustatory experience—in terms of both naked pleasure and dressed taste—to another overriding enjoyment, within which considerations of taste are then subsumed. Experiences like the one just described are perfectly legitimate, and they show once again the complexity and variability of our relationship with food. Loading all the weight of possible pleasure around the taste of food is, in fact, at best a naive and often very limiting attitude, which even runs the risk of missing the overall understanding of the ongoing experience.
In the second chapter, I mentioned the possibility of broadening gustatory pleasure through cultural awareness and the acquisition of expertise. Remember the words of Wendell Berry and Bertrand Russell; knowing more about the history of food, about its sources and criteria of production and so on orients and intensifies pleasure. Sometimes this is true. With respect to different cases, I have now arrived at the argument that the acquisition of knowledge is not sufficient, or more precisely, that “acquiring” is not the right term to be applied here. Since this point will be discussed more thoroughly in the next chapter, I will only highlight here that what we need is not an extension of the pleasure of food, but rather around food; occasionally, one can skillfully reduce the importance of (the taste of) food. With respect to this approach, which I propose to call “taste exclusivism,” the attitude of someone who thinks they have to appreciate food only and exclusively through taste appreciation, there are then at least two limitations. The first limitation has to do with the social nature of taste. If taste has an eminently social and mundane dimension, it becomes necessary to emphasize its necessarily discrete and intermittent essence. It is impossible to savor and taste in continuum because our physiological apparatus cannot bear it, and also because we are not always together with others. The gustatory experience requires complementary moments—respites, reprieves, and frequent breaks. It is certainly possible to eat on one’s own and this is often associated today with the atmospheric indifference that characterizes entire lifestyles and behavior patterns. It is even possible to relish a lone meal, as experts, critics, and food professionals sometimes do, tasting in solitude. But this practice often goes hand in hand with specific purposes and does not represent the ordinary and common model of the experience of taste, which, not by chance, requires sharing. Sampling is not eating, tasting wine is not drinking it, and there is nothing more evident than socialization to make this difference clear. Sampling and tasting are activities that cry out for concentration, and maybe even a certain amount of solitude. But how many people enjoy intentionally going to a restaurant alone, or opening a bottle of wine on their own? Again, I do not pose this question in order to establish an alternative rule; it depends. For example, wine tasting is a special case, due to the very nature of the object being storable. Wine allows repeated interruptions of the taste relationship within the same experience. For this reason, it could come close to a kind of quasi-illusion of suspension of the temporal dimension. It is, in fact, possible to drink a bottle of wine very slowly and for many hours, approaching that meditative and almost contemplative state typical of other experiences that we are easily willing to accept as aesthetic, because of the prevalent paradigm of visual perception based on contemplation (Scruton 2010). But this is not the case for most of our everyday experiences, in which taste, above all, develops in a relationship that includes communicative expression. From the mother/child relationship during nursing, to the apprenticeship that characterizes the establishment of a grammar of taste in adulthood, which takes place in social contexts, gustatory perception misses the necessity of solitary experiences. Generally speaking, expressions of pleasure and appreciation require community and witnesses. Even Michel de Montaigne wrote that no pleasure has any savor without communication. If, on the one hand, taste exclusivism forgets to place the experience of taste in its broadest context, and therefore neglects the possibilities resulting from the extension of pleasure, on the other it does not sufficiently consider that the taste experience should in any case be a limited experience confined in space and time.
The second limit of taste exclusivism has to do precisely with the specific nature of the temporal structure of the taste relationship. Tasting is a rhythmic temporal experience with rather narrow and hardly expandable boundaries. In comparison with other aesthetic experiences—such as writing, reading, looking at that famous painting, meditating under a tree—eating, due to its process made of ingestion, digestion, metabolism, does not allow the perception of time annihilation (Telfer 1996). Even if we were experiencing the most intense pleasure, tasting the most wonderful food in an exceptional restaurant, we would be dealing with an active temporal consciousness, at least in the sense that, at some point, if we were to exceed the food intake our body would send us strong and clear signals. Think of the gastric torture of many wedding banquets or other rituals, where the time for food consumption is extended above and beyond any reasonable limit. This saturation signal is certainly also noticeable with other experiences, but in a different sense (one cannot get drunk by reading, writing, or meditating) and with much wider boundaries. It is possible to “get lost” in thought, imagination, and fantasy, while meditating under a tree for hours or looking at Botticelli’s Primavera. Taste does not grant such possibilities, and it is for this reason that frequent ennoblings of the taste experience in fine modern arts pertain to memory and memories—from Proust’s madeleines to countless other examples from literature.
This limit leads me to underline again a crucial point. In traditional aesthetics, aesthetic pleasure is associated with a certain idea of duration, based on the (visual) paradigm of contemplation from a distance. Instead, in gustatory aesthetics as a relational and ecological aesthetic, pleasure and enjoyment are considered to be aesthetic, but they depend on a different paradigm. One must free the aesthetic pleasure from the notion of duration modeled on visual contemplation and connect it to a haptic relationship. The aesthetic pleasure of food is a vital, interactive, and basically short pleasure bounded by a period of contact. Therefore, the second limit mentioned above does not involve a differentiation between aesthetic and nonaesthetic pleasures. It instead emphasizes the fact that human beings require different types of aesthetic pleasure, those pertaining to contemplation and distance, and those pertaining to physical involvement, proximity, and physical engagement.