Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History) - Nicola Perullo 2016
Taste and Pleasure, Experience, and Wisdom
The Wisdom of Taste, the Taste of Wisdom
The intertwining of naked pleasure and dressed taste can be observed on many occasions. Think of the intentional re-creation of childhood taste. Many chefs are attracted to this project. In a video with the significant title Like a Kid in a Sweetshop posted on his restaurant’s website, Heston Blumenthal of the famous restaurant The Fat Duck in Bray, England, explains to his clients how to prepare for the tasting experience that will take place in vivo, by describing with the help of a number of coworkers and scientists the processes that trigger the pleasure of food in relation to childhood memories.
Chef David Scabin of Combal Zero in Rivoli, Italy, stated in an interview in 2008, “I start from an advanced position, and that is producing taste, but I hardly take it into account anymore. Because what I try to sell here is Pleasure. . . . I have invented a system that turns pleasure into emotion. And from emotion one passes on to experience. . . . In the gastronomic field the loop between emotion and experience is fatal, because if experience resides on the conscious side, emotion is still unconscious. However, the part I am most interested in is the ’animal’ one tied to pleasure. All of us enjoy, but we don’t all do so in the same manner. I’m interested in this side because it is the most popular and at the same time the most true, even though there is no guarantee that I produce tastes and things that give me pleasure. The biggest problem is when the passage enters into the conscious phase, into experience, after which one can only be reexcited with difficulty. At this point, transgression and perversion come to our rescue. A well-balanced employment of them can kick-start an experience. They interrupt a schema. They reproduce pleasure. We often trivialize things that, redusted and repolished, reobtain pleasure. At times even a negative taste can be an appropriate stimulus for recreating the experience” (Scabin 2008). Scabin’s words express a very high level of awareness, which permits him re-create unusual and intertwined types of experience thanks to sophisticated technique and deliberate intent. Clearly, however, nothing is less immediate or natural than a project that solicits an emotion in enjoyment by way of a stimulus offered through certain preparations. As a result, we find ourselves within the aspirations and horizons of highly structured expectations. But, as the method used in this essay suggests, in order to understand taste experiences, it is appropriate to describe them primarily from the point of view of the one who perceives them, and not only from the outside and metatheoretical vantage of the external observer and the cook. I assumed from the beginning that understanding taste as experience means above all knowing taste from the inside. Consequently, projects such as the one described above by Scabin can be seen from the perceptual side. This helps to remove the generalist and all-encompassing interpretation according to which there is further evidence for the truism that taste is “just cultural” and, instead, helps us to live gustatory experiences in their specificity. I argue that this is the right way to approach the subject because taste does not envisage a completely external look since it affects everybody. Thus, an experience of gustatory pleasure re-created and related to childhood memory does not correspond to an experience of childish pleasure lived directly by a child, but, in turn, neither of the two corresponds to the experience of adult foods such as wine, coffee, chili peppers, and all the possible variations of elaborate sour or bitter dishes stemming from intentions and projects other than “reawakening” the taste of childhood.
The notion of wisdom I utilize here—as usual, in a very pragmatic and basic sense—stems from the methodological attention paid to the phenomenological variety of food perceptions. It practically corresponds to a syntonized, sensitive, and skillful perception, able to recognize these differences, embedding them into a fulfilled experience. In other words, the wisdom of taste is a wise attitude that allows us to cross the three modes of access to the experience of food and their contamination. Wisdom is a noble word of great extension, which does not only refer to the tradition of Eastern thought, but also to the very birth of Western philosophy. As is well known, the ancient Greek schools characterized philosophy in terms of daily exercise, a theoretical practice aimed at a peaceful and happy life, thus connecting philosophy to ordinary experience and to behavioral patterns. In this context, a sage is someone who possesses a special type of wisdom that the Greeks called phronesis; it is through phronesis that a person is able to orient herself in different life situations and to choose what is most appropriate. The sage sets an example of virtuous behavior, which is propaedeutic to a balanced and fulfilling life. But why did I choose to use this word—wisdom—in an essay on the philosophy of food and the aesthetics of taste? The answer is just as surprising as it is trivial. The connection between taste and wisdom almost resides “in the things themselves” even if it has rarely been emphasized. The etymology of the word wise, or rather sage, has a double origin in Latin. According to one origin, it comes from sapidus, from the verb sapio (to know, to have taste); according to the other, it comes from exagium (in Greek exagion), from the verb exigo (to weigh, to examine, to assay, in the sense of trying and proving one’s hand at something). An essay—in the sense of a text—therefore plays with wisdom in its twofold sense, always connected to the (mother) tongue: the essay is an attempt, an exploration, a test, an assay, a tasting. But the wise person is also the person who has the practical wisdom that allows him or her to move skillfully in accordance with the rhythm of experience.
In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France in 1977, on the relationship between language and power, Roland Barthes—who also explored in the same years the concept of the neutral, which profoundly shaped his work—emphasized the limits of a pure theoretical conception of language and knowledge. With respect to the etymology of sapientia, characterizing the sensitive origin of taste, he made the following statement, which became famous: “No power, a bit of knowledge, a bit of wisdom, and as much flavor as possible.” Barthes thus defines knowledge and wisdom as ethical-aesthetic attitudes starting from the awareness of the inseparable unity of sensory perceptions and the intelligible, of body and mind. In this light, wisdom does not correspond to pure cleverness and to logico-linguistic ability, but to an ecological and practical understanding of one’s own psychophysical being where the primary and fundamental relationship with food is not denigrated. If the taste of wisdom is a flexible exploration of the environment through perceptual abilities that develop from the indissoluble bond between the mind and the senses, and if, among these encounters we have throughout the course of our life, the relationship with food stands out for its necessary importance, then we need a wisdom of taste as the flexible perception of food experiences. The gustatory experience can then promote this comprehensive attitude, which I propose to define as wisdom. What is, in fact, an experience? In German, there are two distinct terms for “experience,” Erfahrung and Erlebnis.
The word Erfahrung refers to the idea of travel, because fahren in German means to travel. It defines a worldly and externalized experience, the encounter with the things of the world, “having” an experience and then becoming an expert, “acquiring” expertise. The word Erlebnis, on the other hand, is the lived and interior experience: “living” an experience, because leben in German means to live. Taste as an aesthetic relationship is as much an experience in the sense of Erfahrung as it is in the sense of Erlebnis. What we eat, in fact, contributes to “having an experience” while it is being accepted, internalized, and assimilated. Through a process of somatic assimilation, taste expertise promotes both an external and an internal transformation, so that we could also speak, as Richard Shusterman (2014) puts it, of a somaesthetics of taste relationship. Wisdom is the awareness of the many variables and processes in which these experiences occur, along with the ability to pass through them. The epigraph from Montaigne that opens this chapter is an example of gustatory wisdom: “If you make your pleasure depend on drinking good wine, you condemn yourself to the pain of sometimes drinking bad wine. We must have a less exacting and freer taste” (Montaigne 2002, bk. 2, chap. 2, p. 247, my emphasis). This sentence does not display an inadequate and careless attitude to food, or a superiority complex, but rather the opposite. It expresses extreme sensitivity for the differences and the variables that constitute the set of possible relationships, a sensitivity that wants to mold itself in accordance with things and that is the key to understanding the experience of taste.
In the history of aesthetics, of course, there have been positions that strongly emphasized the value of experience for forming a complete, active, practical, and wide-ranging aesthetic sensitivity, despite the predominant modern contemplative paradigm. I have repeatedly mentioned Dewey, but one also needs to call on the German poet, playwright, and philosopher Friedrich Schiller, author of a famous treatise On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795), in which he proposed an aesthetic education that aims at having human beings develop their perceptive possibilities to the fullest, and at connecting aesthetics and art to social life and politics. However, the praise of experience on behalf of the aesthetics of taste must not be confused with a simple eulogy of vitalism, because the “lived” experience (Erlebnis) stems and develops from an encounter with external events (Erfahrung), which, in turn, set its limits. The experience of the different, the extraneous, and the exotic calls into question one’s own critical and evaluative self-sufficiency, inviting exchange and negotiation. There is also another important aspect that prevents the leveling of the experience of food to vitalism, to the frenetic activity of gathering information and data that runs the risk of flattening the understanding of environment to the self-referential character of instantaneous emotion: the awareness of the relational, ecological, and biased character of our experiences. The wisdom of taste develops from that awareness.