How Food Can Be Art: A Discussion of Taste (Part 4 of 8)

Brillat-Savarin: Complicating the Hierarchy

In The Physiology of Taste, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin responds to Kant’s proposition that taste can only provide an immediate, irrational reaction to an object. Sweeney explains: “For Brillat-Savarin, tasting food is often a complex experience. We frequently engage with a great variety of gustatory elements, often coming upon new and different elements, in the successive stages of our ingesting experience” (Sweeney 124). To be sure, Brillat-Savarin divides the tasting experience into three stages:

The direct sensation is the first impression arising out of the immediate action of the organs of the mouth, while the substance to be tasted is still resting on the front part of the tongue.

The complete sensation is composed of the first impression, and the impression which follows when the food leaves its initial position and passes to the back of the mouth, assailing the whole organ with its taste and perfume.

Lastly, the considered sensation is the judgement passed by the brain on the impressions transmitted to it by the organ. (Brillat-Savarin 42)

Unlike Kant, who would have it that tasting stops after the “direct” or “complete” sensations, Brillat-Savarin posits that there is indeed a reflective stage, what he calls the “considered sensation” and which involves judgment from the intellect.

Sweeney offers the following as an example:

Suppose a New Orleans chef prepares shrimp Creole for us. Its complex aromas assault us. We taste the shrimp in the dark roux that combines onion, garlic, tomato, and peppers. We note the way the spicy heat lingers, how that heat integrates with spices such as thyme, clove, allspice, and perhaps a touch of sassafras. There is a lot to taste and think about in such a dish. (Sweeney 126)

From this, it is clear that a person can distinguish different qualities of a dish, think about them, compare the features to previous dishes he or she has tasted, and evaluate the experience rationally. It is also evident in this example that taste can indeed be a source of knowledge. As Korsmeyer points out: “No matter how wide the scope of vision or acute the discrimination of hearing, you can’t see or hear flavours. So minimally, taste is the conduit for discovery of flavour properties of objects” (Korsmeyer “Disputing Taste“). Nietzsche, also, would agree: “And what magnificent instruments of observation we possess in our senses! […] Today we possess science precisely to the extent to which we have decided to accept the testimony of the senses–to the extent to which we sharpen them further, arm them, and have learned to think them through” (Nietzsche 481). This does much to elevate taste from its lowly position in the sense hierarchy. However, sight and hearing can perhaps be lowered from their lofty height, too.

In his essay, Sweeney writes: “[…] the quirkiness of preference is not a characteristic unique to taste. We like or dislike particular colors, and, for some, bagpipe music is excruciating” (Sweeney 127). The examples are endless. There are people, for instance, who will have an immediate reaction of disgust to a movie if there is an actor or actress in it whom they despise. There is no reflection and no application of rational faculties. In addition, there are people who might respond to a painting of nudes with lust–thus, not “disinterestedly.” So, the distinction that Kant makes between food and art is problematic. We can sometimes respond to food in a rational and reflective way that Kant only thinks possible for objects of sight and hearing; conversely, we sometimes respond to art in immediate, irrational ways that Kant only thinks possible for objects of taste, smell, and touch.



Hume: An Empirical Approach to Taste and Beauty

2 thoughts on “How Food Can Be Art: A Discussion of Taste (Part 4 of 8)

  1. [from the essay “About Ed Ricketts” by John Steinbeck, 1951, in which Steinbeck describes and eulogizes his close friend (especially, in the excerpts given here, his lower senses), a marine biologist and the inspiration for “Doc” in “Cannery Row”]:

    “…With any new food or animal [Ricketts] looked, felt, smelled, and tasted. Once in a tide pool we were discussing the interesting fact that nudibranchs, although beautiful and brightly colored and tasty-looking and soft and unweaponed, are never eaten by other animals which should have found them irresistible. He reached underwater and picked up a lovely orange-colored nudibranch and put it in his mouth. And instantly he made a horrible face and spat and retched, but he had found out why fishes let these living tidbits completely alone.
    On another occasion he tasted a species of free-swimming anemone and got his tongue so badly stung by its nettle cells that he could hardly close his mouth for twenty-four hours. But he would have done the same thing the next day if he had wanted to know.
    … His sense of smell was very highly developed. He smelled all food before he ate it, not only the whole dish but each forkful. He invariably smelled each animal as he took it from the tide pool. He spoke of the smells of different animals, and some moods and even thoughts had characteristic odors to him– undoubtedly conditioned by some experience good or bad. He referred often to the smells of people, how individual each one was, and how it was subject to change. He delighted in his sense of smell in love.
    With his delicate olfactory equipment, one would have thought that he would be disgusted by so-called ugly odors, but this was not true. He could pick over decayed tissue or lean close to the fetid viscera of a cat with no repulsion. I have seen him literally crawl into the carcass of a basking shark to take its liver in the dark of its own body so that no light might touch it. And this is as horrid an odor as I know.”

    • Thank you for sharing, Kent.

      Had space permitted, I would have loved to explore the sense of smell in addition to taste. Not only does smell play an integral role in tasting, in tandem with the tongue (a point which Brillat-Savarin makes in The Physiology of the Taste and which science now confirms), but smell also has its own unique epistemic and aesthetic potential, as this example from Steinbeck demonstrates. For the record, this is the line that I brazenly omitted from the above Nietzsche quote: “The nose, for example, of which no philosopher has yet spoken with reverence and gratitude, is actually the most delicate instrument so far at our disposal: it is able to detect minimal differences of motion which even a spectroscope cannot detect.”

      Interestingly, two documentaries from this past year highlight the powerful abilities of discernment that can be achieved in both taste and smell respectively: El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, which follows Ferran Adria and his team of chefs as they develop new dishes for El Bulli, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams, in which Werner Herzog interviews master perfumer Maurice Maurin.

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