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Making sense of taste. Food and philosophy.

By Carolyntaste Korsmeyer

Cornell University Press

Ithaca and London (1999)

The book presents an interesting analysis of the sense of taste and the ramifications of our perception of it.

Like the rest of the senses, taste is an involuntary act that our bodies perform in order to help us survive. Let me explain.

As civilizations flourished, we’ve learned to deliberately indulge our perceptions, with cultural products such as music, art, perfumes, smooth fabrics and cuisine, they all serve the purpose (broadly speaking) to provide us pleasure.

But taste like the other senses “can be abused, depraved and even perverted”. The author presents taste as the most intimate of all senses, not only the objects or substances have to enter the mouth to be perceived they are (as it happens with food) they have to be destroyed by means of mastication, then ingested. From there, the body will disintegrate, process, absorb, expel.

The first part of the book presents different western philosophical schools and their study and classifications of the senses. Beginning with Plato and Aristotle. They both offered a dichotomy between bodily functions and over enjoyment of the senses as an obstacle for the intellectual and spiritual transcendence. And although Aristotle is less idealistic, he sees the body as a means, almost a tool to sense and experiment the world.

St Thomas AquinasIn mediaeval times, Thomas Aquinas embraced this Aristotelian idea, underlying that human happiness can’t only consist in pleasures of the body.

Descartes like many other philosophers consider sight as the most important of all senses and many others simply dismiss both smell and taste as complementary and irrelevant functions.

And then there’s the Pythagorean opposites: male and female qualities as completely divergent. Men are regarded as perfect and women imperfect, irrational, faulty, governed by their appetites and emotions.

From Aristotle to Pliny the elder higher and lower senses were decisively separated and seen as distinctive trades of each sex.

The Mexican poet and writer Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz wrote: Had Aristotle cooked, he would have written a good deal more!”

The second part of the book explores the aesthetic and nonaesthetic characteristics of the senses.

Since food and drinks are items of nourishment, they have a too ephemeral life. Aesthetic theories don’t attribute them any merit as an art form.

Unlike the other senses, taste is subject to the sensations, experimented by the subject of the social, emotional and physical experience. They have a key role in the way food and drinks are perceived.

VoltaireVoltaire emphasised that the tongue and the palate must be educated in order to have a better judgement “the ideal man of taste is a product of careful cultivation” this is particularly relevant since later on, John Locke separated perception from beauty “what each individual considers as pleasant and beautiful is the product of his or her own ideas”.

And since pleasure is a crucial component of beauty, there’s no universal consensus to define what’s beautiful and pleasurable.

Kant differentiates between pleasure derived from taste and desire provoked by sexual appetite, because the latter will always interrupt aesthetic contemplation.

The author the moves on to talk about scientific and gustatory processes of taste as a result of the interaction between substances and the perception of them by our bodily processes.

We have evolved to like and dislike safe from dangerous foods, what is now an instinctive reaction to accept or reject certain foods and drinks based on their colour, smell and texture is the result of thousands of years of accumulated and transmitted experiences culturally and genetically transmitted.

My favourite section was chapter 4, it focuses on the meaning of taste that describes in full detail the sensuous appreciation of food from the aesthetics point of view.

Although many authors don’t consider food as a cultural product capable of bare a multidimensional meaning on its own, they do consider that the person who prepares it can express him or herself through the culinary creations. But food can only represent things by means of crafting dishes and ingredients to look like something or to emulate a symbol. Such is the case of religious and ceremonial dishes.

Food itself and eating and eating the author says “is a small exercise in mortality” the fragility of food and its ephemerous existence ensures our own.

The last two sections involve visual and literary expressions of food, taste and desire symbols.

I have immensely enjoyed this book, it has been an interesting analysis that beautifully flows from philosophy, to aesthetics, science, art and history!

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