Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History) - Nicola Perullo 2016
Flexibility: The Forest and the Coast
The Wisdom of Taste, the Taste of Wisdom
There is an Italian proverb that well expresses the skillful ability to transition, know-how as adaptability and flexibility: to belong to the forest and to the coast. Forest and coast are polar opposites in imagery and lifestyles: the cold, the shade, the frugality, and the wildness of the woods contrast with the heat, sun, riches, and sophistication of the coast. This motto has a general application and can be applied to eating: the food of the forest and sea food are different—berries, foraged plants, roots, and game on the one hand; fish, farmed fruits, and vegetables on the other. In the ancient world, forest and sea also represented the respective polarities of nature and culture. Following the advice of the Chinese sage, as well as of Epicurus and Montaigne, belonging to the forest and to the coast thus means giving up any rigid leaning of the self, developing a malleability that makes it possible to go through different gustatory experiences: the high and the low, pleasure and knowledge, attention and indifference, nature and culture, wild and refined.
In his reflections, Jullien emphasized this attitude with the phrase ça va, “it’s ok” or “it’s going well”—and the motto to belong to the forest and to the coast precisely translates this attitude. If you are invited to a party, you will drink what there is; if you go to a friend’s house, you will eat what is offered. These two elementary cases of daily life are especially significant, because hospitality and friendship are relational activities frequently involving food, thanks to which enjoyment and pleasure are not necessarily bound only to olfactory and flavor appreciation, but also to motivations partly extrinsic to the quality of the food. If we were offered a mediocre meal by a friend, not for a deliberate reason but out of unawareness or a lack of means, we would not be allowed to reject it. Phronesis would guide us toward a feeling of appreciation based on the recognition and understanding of the overall relationship: a gift is not to be rejected. “Guest” is an ambivalent notion. Usually we refer to the active relationship when we emphasize the value of hospitality: the value of accommodating someone. In the eighth book of the Metamorphoses, Ovid tells the myth of Philemon and Baucis. The gods Jupiter and Mercury, being in the region of Phrygia in human form, were visiting some villages, asking for hospitality. Nobody let them in with the one exception of an elderly couple who lived in a small and pitiful hut, made of reeds and mud. Philemon and Baucis immediately prepared a modest meal (of cabbage and pork shoulder) and a bed for their tired guests. According to the myth, Jupiter afterward unleashed his fury against the Phrygians and destroyed all the villages, saving only Philemon and Baucis, and transformed their home into a beautiful temple. But the apology of hospitality and conviviality told by this myth needs to be thought all the way through also in the other direction: the value of being accommodated. The ethics of accommodating coincides with the ethics of being a guest. Moreover, the Latin word for “guest” is hospes (hence, hospital), which also means “host,” that is, the one who sustains a stranger, who receives him and cooks for him. Hospitality is therefore conviviality, and conviviality is the acceptance of the hospes, in the double meaning of the genitive: accepting a guest, inviting her, as well as the guest who accepts what she receives (Perullo 2011). Wisdom pertains to the awareness of hospitality. Wisdom is a hospitable vocation.
Of course, there are other possibilities. A case that invokes a different attitude regards the relationship in which taste does not agree with the gift, where instead it is the instrument for measuring an exchange, the judge of an economic performance. When we pay a lot for eating and drinking, carefully choosing the food we would like to cook, or select a promising gourmet restaurant, our gustatory compass becomes active. It turns into expertise and it sparks the relative critical high points, directing itself mainly toward (analytically or synthetically) assessing the qualitative elements that motivate its measurement in money. Food in its “intrinsic” value, and its ethical and symbolic values, is translated, via gusto, into the great universal quantifier, viewable in a price tag. This fact, which is so common in our lives, should not suggest that wisdom is a luxury. Even when food seems reduced to a mere commodity, it is possible to develop more complex enhancement strategies related to nonmeasurable qualities, which once again go back to the embodiment of taste as aesthetic relationship.
To belong to the forest and to the coast does not mean failing to recognize and perceive the bad and the ugly: it means understanding them in a wider framework, which also includes the possibility of recovering them (without necessarily justifying it) at a different level. Too rigid preferences and excessively acute leanings risk turning into hang-ups, cages that one is unable to leave and that preclude the possibility of enjoying unpredictable experiences. Above all, however, they do not capture the characteristic, relational, and flexible dynamics of taste, imposing the construction of ex post theoretical models to fictitiously justify the professed preference. A look at professional food criticism shows that this approach is widespread: perfectly legitimate but negotiated, historical, and procedural value expressions are “rationally” theorized—of course, until the next season, when a new paradigm will certainly challenge one or the other. From this point of view, wine is again a perfect example: changes in the aesthetic properties of the vocabulary of wine tasting in the last twenty years—for example, the transition from “structure” to “drinkability,” from “density” to “lightness” as descriptive values—are there for everyone to see (Perullo 2012a). However, wisdom does not exhort the absolute renunciation of one’s own inclinations either; it rather makes one aware of their easing up through the watchful exercise of the corner of one’s eye. These inclinations precisely express special and partial relationships, never complete and final ones, so it is advisable always to practice an alien perspective—in the sense not only of other tastes, of foods and beverages from other cultures, but also of our internal othernesses. Looking out of the corner of our eye will make us reflect on and draw consequences from circumstances such as the fact that years ago I liked completely different food from today; and anyway, I don’t always need great wines—I also drink simple wines just for the pleasure of it and often I feel like having water or wine, but without thinking about it, or even beer, which is perfect when I’m having a good time and anything is fine with me, when I’m with the one(s) I love. (Proust: “But while I was at the Swann’s I would have been unable to say whether or not it was really tea I was drinking. And even if I had known, I would have gone on drinking it.”)