First Mode of Access

Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History) - Nicola Perullo 2016

First Mode of Access


The beginning and root of every good is the pleasure of the stomach. Even wisdom and the refinements are referable to this.


The daily intake of food is an everyday and ordinary activity that can be seen under different perspectives. One perspective is biological: the process of eating is regulated by biological mechanisms of the brain. Eating and drinking are actions that activate brain functions related to emotions and pleasure (Beauchamp and Bartoshuk 1997; Halpern 2005; Holley 2006). Another perspective, related to the first one, is psychological: a human being’s—or maybe any living being’s—first emotional input is food. Through the assumption and consumption of food, the infant develops a fundamental relationship with its mother in the prenatal and the postnatal phase (Mennella, Jagnow, and Beauchamp 2001). This fact, which has always been common knowledge and is confirmed both by behavioral psychology and by cognitive science, would seem sufficient to justify pleasure as the initial argument of an essay on the aesthetics of food. Actually, this is the first problematic aspect. In the humanities, medicine, and nutritional science, taste is treated from different angles, but curiously enough, pleasure is most often not part of the picture. In this chapter, I will follow the indications of common knowledge and of psychology in designing an aesthetics of gustatory perception. The first question to ask is: Can the experience of food convey only pleasure? Can we feel pleasure for something about which we know nothing precise? Certainly, and that is the most common experience with food. Let us imagine the desire for a cold beer in the middle of summer. The treat is a cold beer and not that beer in particular: because it is a beer, a generic one, and because of the thermal perception it exudes. Or the desire for chocolate: a pure craving for sugar, cocoa, and theobromine. And why not acknowledge that, at times, we like wine for its inebriating effects, and not only for its qualitative and sensory characteristics? These are, in fact, ordinary experiences that every child has had (not with beer and wine, of course) even when we know nothing about the source of food and its cultural physiognomy. This also happens when we go abroad and we are offered unusual or exotic food.

The access to food via pleasure would thus seem a solidly plotted course, an easy path, but that is not the case. Over the course of time, religious, cultural, and philosophical traditions have devoted themselves to establishing the subordination of pleasure to ethics and knowledge, in particular with respect to the danger it represents (Shapin 1998). And this is one of the reasons for the social subordination of food and taste; in fact, it seems very difficult to strip food of its hedonic dimension. Nonetheless, a way out of this impasse seems to have opened up in recent decades by considering the taste of food as cultural. This approach has produced the praiseworthy result of attracting great attention to food, by the academic establishment, institutions, politics, and the media, yet it paradoxically comes with a high risk: the denial of pleasure. Today, many food scholars have no interest whatsoever in the pleasure of food. Entire conferences dedicated to the topics of food culture, taste, and cuisine conclude with pathetic, bland, and thoughtless dinner receptions, as if to suggest that yes, it is important to talk about it, but do not expect to practice and experience it with satisfaction and pleasure. Viewing food as culture can in fact be positive evidence or a major misunderstanding that stems from an erroneous contraposition of nature and culture. The joy of food must recover its inaugural role, both in biological and in cultural terms. We have to start by understanding the aesthetic relationship through this first mode of access. We eat before we speak. Food is prior to language. A human being’s first aesthetic input, before language, before the assimilation of cultural codes, is the enjoyment of food. Were it for this alone, taste as pleasure would be a fundamental way of feeling and of perceiving. There is something more: pleasure does not disappear with evolution, neither on an individual level nor from the species as a whole. Sometimes pleasure returns and expresses ways of accessing taste, which we must then deal with.

If all perception—including gustatory perception—is always situated, influenced, and mediated, if, to put it in other words, perception is always ecological, this does not imply that specific and differentiated perceptive experiences are not possible. What I want to explore here is how there are differences from the “inside” perspective of the perceiver, and how an experience is lived and fulfilled. There is a pleasure that we could define as naked, childlike, that is not lived as socially constituted, and that refers to very deep levels of our psychophysical being, levels we struggle to rationally dominate and manage according to adult codes that in many other cases govern our actions.