From Pleasure to Beauty
If Kant Was at Myhrvold’s Table
Not everyone is on board with the food revolution. The backlash in the media has been strident and dismissive. Steve Poole, author of You Aren’t What You Eat: Fed Up with Gastroculture, has led the charge. Using terms like “emotional derangement” and “food psychosis” to describe our current fascination with food, Poole’s writings on the subject are long on rhetoric and short on argument. He writes, “But to suppose that eating can nourish the spirit looks like a category mistake: just the sort of category mistake that led the early church to define 'gluttony’ as a sin,” before he goes on to endorse the early church’s view that gluttony (defined as an excessive preoccupation with food) is a sin. Why it is a sin we are never told. Instead, we get confident assertions such as “It should be obvious that a steak is not like a symphony, a pie not like a passacaglia, foie gras not like a fugue; that the 'composition’ of a menu is not like the composition of a requiem; that the cook heating things in the kitchen and arranging them on a plate is not the artistic equal of Charlie Parker.’’^1 But of course the whole premise of his diatribe is that this is not obvious to countless people who otherwise seem quite sane.
It would be nice if he would let us in on his reasons for dismissing the interests of what he prefers to call “foodists.” But instead he gives us florid descriptions of menu items in restaurants and evidence that our judgments about food are often influenced by our beliefs about what we’re eating—as if judgments about art, music, and anything else are not influenced by beliefs. In the end we are left with platitudes. “Might it not, after all, be a good idea to worry more about what we put into our minds than what we put into our mouths?” he asks, without explaining how my love for a good daube somehow makes me incapable of distinguishing sense from nonsense.
Despite the cheap rhetoric, it is not hard to discern Poole’s point. He thinks people who take an “excessive” interest in food are light-minded and unserious. Food, according to him, is pleasurable but insignificant, and the kind of pleasure it produces is inconsequential and lacking in depth. After we fill our bellies and gain a few moments of enjoyment, we should move on to more important matters. This dismissive attitude toward sensory pleasure has a respectable pedigree. Among philosophers who have thought about art and aesthetics, the status of food and wine has been tenuous at best. Food and wine receive little discussion in their work compared to painting or music, and when food and wine are discussed, most philosophers are skeptical that they belong in the category of fine art.^21 It is alleged that the pleasures of food are neither deeply felt nor genuinely moving; they are based on fleeting, constantly changing desires that lack stability and permanence and are subject to fads and fashion, a distracting substitute for real satisfactions that come from the appreciation of the fine arts that have stood the test of time like literature or painting. Furthermore, it is argued, the appreciation of food is effortless, passive consumption requiring nothing more than a biological capacity for discernment rather than intellectually focused attention or serious thought. In the end, food is thought to give us only simple pleasures associated with our animal nature and the “low-information” senses of taste and smell and is thus not worthy of serious study. The term “foodie,” with its connotation of something small, cute, and insignificant, seems to embody all these assumptions.
Piled on top of these accusations is the notion encouraged by social theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu that an appreciation of fine food is nothing but a marker and signal of superior social status.^ Yet chefs such as Ferran Adria and Nathan Myhrvold insist that some culinary creations are works of art. As Myhrvold, author of the monumental cooking text Modernist Cuisine writes in his seminal essay “The Art in Gastronomy: A Modernist Perspective,” “Food can engage our senses, our minds, and our emotions just as profoundly as carefully chosen words or brush strokes. Arguably, our relation with food is even more intimate because we consume it directly. So there is no fundamental reason that food cannot be art—it has all the right prerequisites.’’^4
Is this “art envy” just a conceit of celebrity chefs with inflated egos? Or are we witnessing the birth of a new art form delivered by the development of molecular gastronomy and encouraged by armies of “foodies” chasing the perfect bite? I think food (and wine) can be art if conceptualized properly. But the skeptics, doubtful that something as ordinary as food could be art, must first have their say before we can bring the edible arts into focus.^5
In previous chapters, I’ve argued that the pleasure we get from food has some special characteristics that distinguish it from other pleasures. The pleasures of the table play a central role in ordinary life and the “tissue of little things” that infuse life with meaning.
As important as these pleasures may be in everyday life, it might be argued, they are nevertheless not something profound or possessed of deep meaning. It may be that the cognitive dimensions of food and beverage are too thin to provide us with robust aesthetic experiences. Sensory experience is one thing, intellectual stimulation quite another, and perhaps food doesn’t provide us with the kinds of intellectual stimulation and cognitive rewards that music, painting, or literature provide. The philosophical arguments supporting the backlash against the food revolution are serious, and so we must take them into account and show where they go wrong, if in fact they do go wrong.
Despite the lack of interest in food matters among contemporary philosophers, food and wine have not always been marginalized in discussions of aesthetics. In the eighteenth century, taste provided a model for how to understand aesthetic judgments in general— until Kant came along to break up the party. Immanuel Kant, the great eighteenth-century German philosopher, looms like Goliath over modern philosophy, and inquiry in aesthetics is no exception. Kant argued that food and wine could not be genuine aesthetic objects and his considerable influence has carried the day and continues to influence philosophical thinking about the arts. Most of the above mentioned objections stem from adopting a Kantian approach to aesthetics, and so I will go straight to the “horse’s mouth” and explore Kant’s view.
Kant acknowledges the obvious point that judgments regarding “mouth taste” as well as the genuine aesthetic appreciation of paintings, music, and literature are based on an individual’s subjective experience of pleasure. But with “mouth taste” there is no reflection or imagination involved, just an immediate response. The pleasure comes first, and then we judge, based on the amount of pleasure experienced, whether we find the flavors “agreeable” or “disagreeable.” Thus, our judgments about food and wine are based entirely on our subjective, idiosyncratic, personal, sensuous preferences. For Kant, good food is pleasing, but it can never be beautiful—it can never have genuine aesthetic value. By contrast, when we experience paintings or music aesthetically, contemplation ensues whereby our rational and imaginative capacities are engaged. Our pleasure is not an immediate response to the object but comes after the contemplation. We respond not only to whether the object is pleasing but also to how the object engages our cognitive capacities of understanding and imagination. This yields a judgment that is based on more than a mere subjective preference; it is based on a universal form of appreciation in which we judge the object to be beautiful. Because we enjoy food without having to think about the enjoyment, food offers only a limited form of sensuous pleasure without the intellectual engagement that contributes to our enjoyment of the fine arts.
Kant was wrong to argue that “mouth taste” does not provoke contemplation or intellectual engagement. Connoisseurs of wine, cheese, coffee, and beer, as well as the flavorists who analyze our food preferences for the food industry, and countless chefs who study flavor pairing show that food and wine can be thoughtfully savored, and various components of the tasting experience can be analyzed. In fact, the smell of a richly flavored soup is more like an idea than a sensation. The ingredients stimulate hundreds of different types of receptors that line the nose, and the mind binds these sensations into a single aroma, which an experienced taster can analyze into parts. But these aromas are then interpreted using contextual clues that allow us to make a judgment about what we are tasting, leaving us open to the power of suggestion—how a food is labeled, the beliefs we have about an object, and our past experience with it can profoundly influence what we smell and taste. We subjectively get more pleasure from wine and food marked as expensive or a common piece of meat that is labeled with a fancy name. Taste is a complex idea that implicates our cognitive capacities, not a simple, passively experienced sensation.
But these facts by themselves don’t refute Kant’s view. What mattered for Kant was not the mere fact of contemplation, but rather how the contemplation unfolds and what its result is. So we have to look more closely at what Kant had in mind. What does the contemplation of painting or music supply that cannot be accomplished by savoring food? According to Kant, the proper contemplation of painting, music, or literature (1) results in disinterested satisfaction and (2) must involve the “free play” of the imagination and the understanding. Like the pleasure we get from “mouth taste,” we get pleasure from the contemplation of a painting. But genuine aesthetic pleasure is not based on any interest we have in the object—the object’s usefulness, ability to serve our needs, or prospects for earning a profit are not part of the experience. Instead, according to Kant, we revel in the pure appearance of the object because we have no interest in what it can do for us, aside from giving us pleasure. Of course, we can have a financial interest in a painting or an emotional connection to a play written by a friend, but then our experience is no longer genuinely aesthetic. In genuine aesthetic experience our pleasure does not rest on satisfying a desire. Once we are free of the distracting influence of desire, we can contemplate how the object stimulates the interplay of imagination and understanding that gives rise to a disinterested form of pleasure or satisfaction. Food, by contrast, is appreciated because it relieves hunger or entertains guests. Its appreciation is inherently bound up with a practical purpose that requires the satisfaction of a desire and is thus not disinterested.
This also means that art, music, and literature, unlike food, engage our critical faculties. Because our judgments about art can be disinterested and because we all share the faculties of the imagination and understanding, we are justified in expecting others to find the object pleasing as well. We think that others should agree with our subjective judgments, although we may realize that such agreement is unlikely. Thus, our judgments regarding the beauty of art or music, because they do not rest on personal, idiosyncratic desires, are capable of being communicated to others; they aspire to be universal, although Kant insists there is no rule or way of proving via argument that an object is beautiful.
The problem with “mouth taste” is that it is inherently linked to desire and personal preference, and is thus never disinterested. Judgments about art are subject to criticism because they aspire to be universal whereas judgments about food are not. If a person fails to like chocolate, they cannot be criticized for that failure; by contrast, if they fail to like Rembrandt’s paintings, they can be criticized for lack of aesthetic sensitivity.
In summary, for Kant, the first step in moving from pleasure to beauty is to see an object for what it is independently of its function, as if it served no purpose other than as an object of pure, aesthetic contemplation. However, it is puzzling that Kant failed to notice that food or wine could be consumed purely for the aesthetic pleasure they produce. Although food satisfies hunger, it needn’t always be used for that purpose. The fact that something has instrumental value does not logically preclude it from having intrinsic value in the right context. A piece of ancient pottery may have been useful for holding liquid, but its usefulness as a container need not enter into a judgment regarding its aesthetic value. A painting may be used merely as decoration, but that doesn’t preclude the aesthetic appreciation of it. In fact, the argument seems to be applied selectively. Architecture has long been considered a fine art despite its obvious connection to the function of buildings. Until roughly the eighteenth century, people did not sit raptly before a group of musicians contemplating sounds as aesthetic objects only. Music has always played a functional role within ceremonies or as a stimulus for dancing or socializing. Today, arguably, music is primarily used as a mood regulator or as background to provide atmosphere. Yet the fact that music and architecture are useful for some purpose does not prevent them from being enjoyed as aesthetic objects under the appropriate conditions.
Why should food be different? Obviously, we regularly eat because we’re hungry, and hunger may unduly influence our judgments about flavor. So have a snack. Once we are no longer ravenous, there is no reason to think judgments about flavors will be distorted or excessively “interested.” We can then focus on aesthetic properties just as we can enjoy the beauty of a building without worrying about whether it will withstand earthquakes. Of course, there are biological and cultural differences between us that sometimes prevent us from agreeing about matters of taste. But there are cultural and personal differences between art critics that prevent them from finding agreement about paintings. Disagreement among critics does not disqualify painting and music from being works of art, nor should it disqualify food and wine. We do not practice the culture of the table merely in order to relieve our hunger. Kant got this wrong. So food and wine experiences can have intrinsic value—they are valuable in themselves, not because of some additional purpose they serve.
In fact, Kant’s claim that genuine aesthetic appreciation must be free of any taint of desire seems wholly misguided. Many critics of Kant have pointed to difficulties in understanding how taking pleasure in the way an object engages one’s imagination could be disinterested. If something causes pleasure, don’t I have an interest in experiencing it again? Why doesn’t taking pleasure in a beautiful painting produce a desire to experience the object again?
These worries point to a deeper problem that is fatal to Kant’s view that genuine aesthetic experience must be free of desire. The most plausible contemporary account of desire is provided by Timothy Schroeder, who develops a view of desire and pleasure that incorporates what contemporary neuroscience has to say on the subject. In the course of analyzing the nature of desire he defines pleasure as follows: “To be pleased is (at least) to represent a net increase in desire satisfaction relative to expectation.’’^6 For my purposes, Schroeder’s key claim is that the pleasure centers of the brain are intrinsically tied to our motivational states—that is, desires. In other words, there is no such thing as a pleasure that is not dependent on a desire. Pleasure just is a representation of a change in desire satisfaction—pleasure is the mechanism through which we come to know a desire has been satisfied. Thus, according to the best evidence we have, there is no such thing as a disinterested pleasure. Kantian aesthetics rests on a fiction. Thus, Kant’s distinction between taking pleasure in food because it satisfies a desire and taking disinterested pleasure in a painting because desires are not engaged simply will not withstand scrutiny. Any activity we undertake, if it produces pleasure, will require that a desire be satisfied. Thus Kant’s argument that there is a fundamental difference between “mouth taste” and disinterested aesthetic experience collapses.
However, even if this argument is successful and the appreciation of food does have intrinsic value independent of any purpose it might serve, there is a further question about what kind of intrinsic value the experience of food has. Is a good meal valuable in the way a warming sun or a massage are valuable—as momentary sources of sensory pleasure? Or is the satisfaction we get from food and wine of a more profound sort more closely associated with art appreciation? It may be that the second dimension of Kant’s theory— contemplation based on the “free play of understanding and imagination”—might give us some reason to maintain Kant’s view of the inferiority of mouth taste as an object of genuine aesthetic appreciation. But what is this “play of understanding and imagination,” and does that apply to food and wine?
According to Kant, through experience the mind naturally builds up a collection of schemata—templates for various kinds of objects—that help us recognize a dog as a dog or a table as a table. When we encounter an object, it is the imagination that selects and structures sensory data so that it matches these templates according to what is the best fit. New experiences of dogs and tables can thus be easily assimilated to our conceptual scheme via the understanding and we can then recognize the object as a dog or table. However, we are not born with all the templates we need for understanding reality—we have to create new ones when we encounter new objects. So the imagination also has the ability to sort through sensory experience and invent new templates. When doing so, the imagination cannot simply apply the old templates since they don’t fit the new experience very well. But the imagination can still make use of them if they are sufficiently close to the new experience. This is what Kant means by the “free play” of the imagination and understanding. The imagination is searching for a concept to fit the new experience, but to find a match it has to shape the sensory data to fit existing concepts in the understanding as best it can, while also shaping existing concepts so they match the new sensory data.
An example might help make this clear. Consider the statement “true love isn’t fickle.” To grasp this statement, we take the concept “love” and see it as having the property of steadfastness—genuine love doesn’t come and go easily. But in the hands of Shakespeare, this ordinary statement becomes a thing of beauty:
Love is not love
Which alters as it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.^71
In a sense, the Shakespeare sonnet is simply categorizing love as among those things that don’t change rapidly. But the words trigger a barrage of thoughts and associations—love isn’t just steadfast but steadfast in times of great need; in the face of overwhelming circumstances, it is not merely relatively unchanging but can remain steadfast to the “edge of doom.” This is the imagination at play, pushing back against the too literal work of the understanding. Love is not steadfast in an ordinary way but in particular circumstances can be quite extraordinary.
In this exercise of the imagination, we may succeed or fail. There may not be a concept or schema adequate to the new experience. It may elude our understanding if the object is sufficiently alien to our conceptual framework.
This free play of the imagination and understanding is the key to understanding our aesthetic judgments, according to Kant. In a genuine aesthetic judgment, rather than a mere sensuously enjoyable experience like basking in the sun, or in Kant’s view, sipping wine, the imagination experiments with possible ways of restructuring the object. This is what we do when we try to grasp what Shakespeare means when he describes the stability of love in terms of these elaborate metaphors.
It is this searching activity that we find enjoyable, especially when that restructuring makes sense to us, when the understanding and the imagination finally harmonize despite the fact that the imagination is not being thoroughly directed by the fixed templates that normally govern our concepts. We see that the work has an order and unity to it without clearly deciding on a single judgment of what it is or what it does. There is no concept adequate to the experience—in other contexts steadfastness must be differently described
—but that indeterminacy is itself pleasurable. This is when we judge an object beautiful. It is intriguing, mysterious, not fully understood, yet at the same time balanced, harmonious, and well put together. Shakespeare’s sonnet raises all kinds of questions about love’s steadfastness—of course we all know love can sometimes be as fickle as spring weather. It is this experience of a concept pushed to its limit that we find enjoyable. Thus, an aesthetic judgment is not based on the object, as much as it is based on our reaction to our reflection on the object. In this second dimension of Kant’s view, we move from pleasure to the recognition of beauty by imaginatively grasping the subtle, surprising, ambiguous effects of an object as they expand our understanding of it.
Kant’s discussion of the free play of imagination and understanding is both interesting and compelling. However, I doubt that this account of aesthetic pleasure explains all genuine aesthetic judgments—it seems too remote from the sensuous experiences we typically associate with the appreciation of art, especially music. It is not obvious that all genuine appreciation of music involves an indeterminate search for understanding. Listening to music is not like solving a puzzle. But Kant’s theory captures some of our aesthetic judgments. The question is whether the appreciation of food and wine ever takes this form. And I think it clearly does. This kind of indeterminate play between our concept of what something is and an intriguing, sensuous experience that we cannot quite place in any traditional category is precisely the aim of modernist cuisine. The moments of uncertainty and surprise and the deconstructive gestures of these dishes aim to provoke the kind of intellectual playfulness that Kant thought was the essence of aesthetic experience. When the flavors are genuinely delicious and we experience the harmony and unity of the flavor profile along with the intellectual pleasures of searching for indeterminate meaning, a judgment that the object is beautiful seems appropriate. Caviar made from sodium alginate and calcium, burning sherbets, and spaghetti made from vegetables produce precisely this kind of response. They challenge the intellect and force our imagination to restructure our conceptual framework, just as Kant suggested. But even traditional cooking, if it is sufficiently creative and innovative, can produce this enjoyable experience of indeterminate searching, as we strive to place a dish in its appropriate tradition.
Wine tasting also depends on the play of understanding and imagination. As the very literate wine importer Terry Theise writes,
I can scarcely recall a great wine that didn’t in some sense amaze me, that didn’t make my palate feel as if it were whipsawed between things that hardly ever travel together. My shorthand term for that experience is paradox; again, this component is in the hands of the angels and doesn’t appear susceptible to human contrivance, but when it is found it conveys a lovely sense of wonder: How can these things coexist in a single wine? And not only coexist, but spur each other on; power with grace, depth with brilliance.^
That is a lovely description of the play of understanding and imagination as Theise struggles to understand how the wine can have contradictory properties. Kant was right to point to this kind of experience as a genuinely aesthetic experience but wrong in his judgment that food or wine could not generate it. One wonders what the old professor, who allegedly never ventured more than ten miles from his home in Konigsberg, had on his plate for dinner. If Kant were at Mhyrvold’s table, he might indeed have fallen in love. After all, he was reputed to have a taste for the grape; perhaps his dismissive attitude tells us something about the quality of eighteenth-century wine.
I have been considering Kant’s view in some detail because it is important to show that mouth taste has the depth to be considered genuinely beautiful in the same way that works of art and music can be beautiful. But while I agree with Kant that beauty has depth, I disagree with the way he seems to push sensory experience aside in favor of an excessively intellectual account of aesthetic experience. For Kant, it is intellectual sensemaking activity that we find pleasurable, not complex sensory experience itself. But Kant’s view is too limited to explain the appeal of painting and music, let alone food and wine, when we focus on the enjoyment of the sensory surface of the work, without engaging in this intellectual game of trying to categorize where it fits. Most art has an irreducible sensory dimension that is essential to our appreciation of it, and this sensory dimension is crucial to art’s ability to engage our reason. The lovely textures of Claude Debussy’s tone poem La Mer engage our attention regardless of whether we follow his directive to consider it a representation of our experience of the sea. The low-level dread that infuses the dynamic, layered meanderings of Radiohead gets under your skin long before their paradoxical love/hate relationship with the technological dreamscape comes into conceptual focus.
This sensuous dimension of art is significant because our appreciation of food surely depends on how it tastes. Food and wine are among the most sensuous of the arts—it’s the sensory enjoyment that provokes wonder and leads to contemplation, and sensory enjoyment remains the focus of that wonder. We might enjoy the way food engages our imagination, but that cognitive enjoyment in no way leaves sensual pleasure behind. Aesthetic judgments can take the form Kant prescribes, and so can our judgments about food. But this cognitive enjoyment is not a sufficient condition for the distinctive kind of aesthetic pleasure characteristic of mouth taste. Food can make us think, but it must taste good if it is to provide us with an aesthetic experience.
In summary, there is no philosophical basis for claiming that the pleasures of food are unable to engage our rational capacities or that we are precluded from finding intellectual pleasure in food. Its unrelenting sensuous dimension does not make an interest in food superficial or merely functional. But more must be said about how food engages our intellect and how it acquires the depth of meaning that makes it worthy of being considered a fine art.
Sensuality and Art “Live in the moment” has been the advice of sensualists from Epicurus to Camus. Peak experiences, moments of extreme pleasure, or catalyzing emotion, can nourish life, especially when not burdened with a guilty past or an anxious future. Wine lovers and gastrophiles are sensualists, or at least we strive to be when the cares of everyday life are not too pressing. But this advice to live in the moment seldom comes with a set of instructions for how we should do it. It is not easy, and for genuine sensualists “living (only) in the moment” is a bad idea. We are all familiar with the shallow sensualists chasing after any source of stimulation with no thought of the future or the past. For the Jay Gatsbys of the world, it usually ends badly. But in addition to being a road to ruin, shallow sensations won’t produce a peak experience. Finding peak experiences requires commitment over the long term. You first of all must find out what you like. That requires introspection and a confrontation with one’s own demons, weaknesses, and curmudgeonly ogres who like to stamp out the green shoots of pleasure before they bloom. Once you discover what you like, you then have to make it persistently part of your life if it is to be satisfying. That means figuring out why you like it, so you can recognize other things that might produce the same response. Our senses must be trained to notice quality lest we miss opportunities to discover it. Finally, the genuine sensualist must learn how to acquire or create what she likes to insure demand does not outstrip supply. A successful life devoted to sensual pleasure is hard work.
Most important, genuine sensuality involves the desire to explore. Real beauty is always accompanied by the sense that there are hidden depths in the admired object, something lurking just beyond the horizon of “now,” a promise that only the future can keep. This sense of wonder or rapt curiosity is itself a sensual experience that boosts the dopamine deluge and makes the experience extraordinary. Pleasure is a means to further exploration; the experience of beauty produces a desire for more beauty. To genuinely “live in the moment,” to squeeze everything that the moment has to offer, is to be projected into the future on the wings of one’s curiosity.
But this curiosity and sense of wonder knows no temporal or spatial boundaries. Everything has an origin. A flavor is not just a flavor but a flavor pregnant with meaning traceable back to people, places, communities, and traditions. In the moment of a taste experience, we are connected to a world around us, one that existed prior to our own existence in the present. The task of gaining knowledge of origins, a place and time on which the present depends, engages the mind and unites it with the senses in a single experience. Moments, by themselves, regardless of how vivid, are too ephemeral to stitch together meaningful lives. “Living in the moment” requires the work of remembering the past and creating the future.
All works of art, if they are successful, grab our attention because they promise something more. We sense an unrealized potential for further experience, we feel our interest aroused, curiosity piqued, as if we can’t quite get enough of the object. Wonder is a good way of describing that feeling of having our interest aroused. All successful art, whatever else it might accomplish, provokes wonder.^9*
Can food or beverages provoke wonder and do they express wonder? It would seem so;
yet wonder is an emotion, a distinctive feeling state, and philosophers take a dim view of the capacity of food and wine to express emotion. We can be such killjoys sometimes.
Here is Elizabeth Telfer in her book Food for Thought: “A cook can cook as an act of love, as we have seen, or out of the joy of living. But whereas in music the emotion is somehow expressed in the product itself—the music can be sad or joyful, angry or despairing—in
food the emotion is only the motive behind the product.”^ And here is one of the most prominent writers on aesthetics in the twentieth century, Frank Sibley: “Perfumes and flavours, natural or artificial, are necessarily limited: unlike the major arts, they have no expressive connections with emotions, love or hate, grief, joy, terror, suffering, yearning, pity or sorrow—or with plot or character development.”1^1
To understand their objections to the expressiveness of food, we have to understand how works of art in general express emotions. But that is a difficult subject. We obviously have feeling responses to art, but the mechanisms of that response are a source of significant disagreement among philosophers, as is the sense in which art objects express emotions. Narratives, songs with lyrical content, and paintings that have a narrative element often represent scenes that in real life evoke certain emotions—anger, fear, sadness, grief, and so on. However, sad songs typically don’t make us feel sad; figures in paintings exhibit anger without necessarily making the viewer angry. We don’t experience these emotions because the beliefs supporting sadness or anger are absent—we are not directly disappointed or offended by the events depicted in the narrative. Nevertheless, we can empathize with the characters in the narrative and feel a weakened analogue of the emotion. Many abstract paintings depict no narrative at all and so the mechanisms by which they express emotion are less then straightforward. Music, especially instrumental music that lacks lyrical content, is even more puzzling in its ability to express emotion.
The conventional view of instrumental music holds that the tensions, releases, and the flow of music resemble the tension, releases, and flow of emotion. This resemblance allows us to interpret the music as embodying an emotion like sadness or love, and feel something like these emotions, although again our feeling state lacks the beliefs and thus the intensity that comes with real-life sadness and love.
Telfer and Sibley are arguing that food, unlike painting or literature, does not depict scenes to which we respond emotionally. Nor does it resemble emotions like sadness or love in the way music does, and thus it lacks the expressiveness of genuine art. No doubt food can trigger emotions in us. But, with the exception of revulsion, it seems to do so via a circuitous route. An apple pie can cause you to remember your mother who baked apple pie for your birthday and that may trigger emotional responses to the memory. But the emotion is not directed at the food; it’s directed at your mother. The food is just triggering the memory. According to the conventional view, without those memories of mom, the apple pie is just a tasty dessert, apparently with no emotional overtones.
This skepticism towards food’s expressiveness, however, does presuppose certain assumptions about memory that may not be warranted. Research into how memory works is still young and incomplete, but there is substantial evidence that our memories are unreliable and in fact are shaped by present events. Referring to autobiographical memories, psychologist Charles Fernyhough argues, “They are mental reconstructions, nifty multimedia collages of how things were, that are shaped by how things are now. Autobiographical memories are stitched together as and when they are needed from information stored in many different neural systems. That makes them curiously susceptible to distortion, and often not nearly as reliable as we would like.”132
We assume that human memory functions like a computer’s memory, precisely encoding information that can be accurately recalled later. But this idea was abandoned long ago by cognitive psychologists. Memory, it seems, is closer to imagination than is commonly believed. Fernyhough continues:
The great pioneer of memory research, Daniel Schacter, has argued that, even when it is failing, memory is doing exactly what it is supposed to do. And that purpose is as much about looking into the future as it is about looking into the past. There is only a limited evolutionary advantage in being able to reminisce about what happened to you, but there is a huge payoff in being able to use that information to work out what is going to happen next. Similar neural systems seem to underpin past-related and future-related thinking. Memory is endlessly creative, and at one level it functions just as imagination does.1331
But if this is the case, sensory experience, including present taste experience, can actively shape memories and our emotional response to memories. Your memory of mom’s apple pie may be influenced as much by the apple pie in front of you and the impact of its particular flavors than by an actual memory from childhood. To the degree the experience triggers an emotional response, it is a response to an imagined version of your mom’s apple pie that relies on present experience. Thus, the emotion may be “about the food” as much as it is “about your mother.” Consider, for example, this dish created by Grant Achatz of Alinea:
Achatz showed off a dish he’ll be offering at the restaurant, a play on roasted marshmallows featuring sweet potatoes cooked in blue corn for a blackish, log-type hue that are then sprinkled with flavored alcoholic tapioca maltodextrin and served to the table flaming. It’s served alongside another dish with housemade marshmallows.
It’s meant to evoke powerful memories of the past, something Achatz emphasized as an important element of the dining experience.*341
Although the dish evokes memories of toasted marshmallows from childhood, part of the emotional response will surely be directed at the stunning presentation and juxtapositions of flavors in the dish itself. The flavors do not merely trigger the memory of an emotional response from the past; they trigger a reexperience of something like the original emotion. The flavors and textures in Achatz’s dish are an imaginative representation of those flavors from the past which we perhaps experienced around a campfire when young, just as, for instance, Picasso’s Weeping Woman is a representation of a face in the throes of war-induced grief that might cause a viewer to experience a weakened form of empathetic grief herself. Achatz’s dish expresses the feelings associated with communion around a campfire just as Picasso’s Weeping Woman expresses grief. Of course, if one lacks the experience of campfires, then Achatz’s dish will just be a plate of sweet potatoes with marshmallows. But if one lacks an understanding of war-induced grief, Picasso’s painting will just be a representation of an oddly shaped face. Thus, Sibley and Telfer are wrong to argue that the flavors and textures of food cannot express emotion and have no connection to narrative elements such as plot or character development. Food has a substantial capacity to express emotion and is intimately connected to a variety of characters and narratives that populate our memories.
I will argue in the next chapter that traditions are narratives and food traditions, including family traditions, are accessible via the flavors that represent those traditions. But it is worth pointing out here that the demand that art must be associated with a narrative or provide a representation of something is mistaken. There are countless successful paintings that do not tell stories or represent anything in the ordinary sense of “represent.” But the main counterexample to the view that art must be representational is music. Music expresses emotion even when there are no lyrics to provide narrative context. It is a bit more complicated than this, but there are essentially two ways in which (nonnarrative) music expresses emotion. As I argued above, music can provide representations of emotion because we experience the tensions, releases, the rising and falling trajectory and intensity of music as analogous to similar patterns in various emotions. In that sense, music can, by analogy, be sad, joyful, angry, or despairing. But these are metaphorical descriptions of the music and the emotions we feel in response are at best weakened versions of those emotions; listening to sad music is often exhilarating and anything but sad. I feel genuine sadness when listening to music only if the music is bad, despairing only if it’s really bad. The flavors and textures of food do not resemble emotions in this sense, although a particular dish, such as the one created by Grant Achatz (described above), can resemble flavors and textures that triggered emotions in the past.
The second way in which music expresses emotion is to directly cause it in the listener.
We can be startled, surprised, calmed, or excited by music. It influences our moods by inducing cheerfulness or melancholy independently of any narrative content. The emotions we feel when listening to music are responses to sensations because they can be felt independently of whatever limited capacity music has to represent anything.^15* I would argue, in fact, that sensuous beauty itself can provoke emotions such as wonder, intrigue, excitement, pensive meditation, joy, serenity, intensity, tenderness, and so on, not because beauty reminds us of these feelings, but because it directly causes them.
As noted above, the evocation of wonder is what unites all successful art. Thus, we return to the question: Can food evoke wonder? Can the flavors and textures themselves evoke intrigue, excitement, joy, or serenity, perhaps even love? Describing his visit to a Spanish “gastro-temple” Matt Goulding writes, “The meal detonated an explosion of diverse emotions—hushed reverence, brooding reflection, fits of wonder and whimsy and piercing nostalgia—as only the very best food can. In terms of a transcendent dining experience, dinner for me at Can Roca lacked nothing.’’^16*
The perception of beauty in wine too evokes wonder, mystery, brooding reflection, and whimsy along with joy, anticipation, confusion, amusement, a sense of loss and impermanence, and so on. New taste sensations, exotic cuisines, and the strange concoctions of modernist cuisine produce wonder at least in culinarians who are open to exploring them as objects of fascination. Particular dishes and menus also provoke wonder about their origins and the traditions from which they emerge.
Part of the feeling of wonder is the sense that something is not fully understood. Objects that evoke wonder are perplexing or mysterious. Some wines are as mysterious and engrossing as a painting or musical work. Just as great works of art grab our attention because they promise something more, in a great wine we sense an unrealized potential for further experience, we feel our interest aroused, curiosity piqued, as if we can never quite get enough of it. Like the meal described above, they induce a sense of wonder. They silence conversation and change the mood of a room from lively, sociable chatter to wistful surrender to the sublime, a contemplative state in which the wine itself seems to probe its own nature, searching for a more discursive means of expression. The presence of contradiction and anomaly are essential to wonder, for wonder presents something that we can’t quite comprehend. We are transfixed by objects that are capable of harboring incompatible qualities as Theise noted above in his response to certain wines. All of the great wines embody contradiction at their core: power and finesse, complexity and simplicity, weight and delicacy, solidity and agility. The finest wines, which are not necessarily the most expensive, are as mysterious and engrossing as a painting or musical work. They beckon as if avowing, “Make me a part of your life and I will promise eternal happiness.”