How Food Can Be Art: A Discussion of Taste (Part 6 of 8)

Contemporary Examples: Cultivating Tastes for Cilantro and Slow Cinema

(Note: this section is a modified version of an earlier blog post titled “Taste: A Lesson from Food Science.” However, the “Challenges” section at the end is new.)

In a recent article in The New York Times, Harold McGee writes about the divisive nature of cilantro. The article begins: “Food partisanship doesn’t usually reach the same heights of animosity as the political variety, except in the case of the anti-cilantro party. The green parts of the plant that gives us coriander seeds seem to inspire a primal revulsion among an outspoken minority of eaters” (McGee). Only a year after this article was published, another debate began online, this one among film critics. Dan Kois had published an article, also in The New York Times, titled (interestingly enough) “Eating Your Cultural Vegetables.” In this piece, Kois discussed his dislike of slow films–the ones that people are supposed to like, according to the prevailing critical standards (Kois). Many of his fellow critics responded. What is interesting in comparing the article about cilantro to the debate regarding slow cinema is that the science that explains why some people are so averse to cilantro also might explain why some people are so averse to certain types of films (or certain types of art in general), and this ties in directly to our discussion of Hume.

First, we need to know why “cilantrophobes” usually associate cilantro negatively with soap or bedbugs. To uncover the answer, McGee examines the chemical properties of the plant: “Flavor chemists have found that cilantro aroma is created by a half-dozen or so substances, and most of these are modified fragments of fat molecules called aldehydes. The same or similar aldehydes are also found in soaps and lotions and the bug family of insects” (McGee). He then asks: “Why is it only the evil, soapy side that shows up for cilantrophobes, and not the charming one?” (McGee).

To answer this question, McGee turns to Jay Gottfried, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University. According to Gottfried: “[…] the great cilantro split probably reflects the primal importance of smell and taste to survival, and the brain’s constant updating of its database of experiences” (McGee). McGee explains: “When we taste a food, the brain searches its memory to find a pattern from past experience that the flavor belongs to. Then it uses that pattern to create a perception of flavor, including an evaluation of its desirability” (McGee). The similarity to Hume’s view that experience is the basis for knowledge and aesthetic taste is obvious. McGee continues: “If the flavor doesn’t fit a familiar food experience, and instead fits into a pattern that involves chemical cleaning agents and dirt, or crawly insects, then the brain highlights the mismatch and the potential threat to our safety. We react strongly and throw the offending ingredient on the floor where it belongs” (McGee).

In other words, if a person has a history of getting his mouth washed out with soap but has not experienced cilantro as an ingredient in his daily cuisine, his brain will surely connect the plant negatively to the soapy taste from his sad database of experiences. The same goes for someone who has had an unfortunate bedbug experience but has never tasted a good cilantro-infused salsa.

This sounds eerily similar to film critic Manohla Dargis’s thesis in her New York Times piece on slow cinema (a response to the Kois piece): “Maybe some moviegoers who reject difficult films don’t […] have the necessary expertise and database patterns to understand (or stick with) these movies” (Dargis). Thus, when a person perceives a new object (e.g., a slow film or cilantro), his brain refers to stored patterns in his database of experiences, and this information will determine how he reacts. In my above example, the stored pattern involves the person getting his mouth washed out with soap. Obviously, his reaction to cilantro will be a negative one. In Dargis’s example, the lack of any stored pattern whatsoever when faced with a new film will produce an equally negative reaction–the person will feel incompetent.

Similarly, when a person familiar with narrative-driven Hollywood films experiences a “slow” art house film for the first time, he cannot so easily apply his stored “narrative” database pattern. As a result, his brain will not make the necessary positive associations that would lead to a pleasurable reaction. According to film critic David Bordwell: “If you don’t have other schemas in your mental kit, your perception is just lost” (Bordwell).

The good news, according to Gottfried, is that “[…] every new experience causes the brain to update and enlarge its set of patterns, and this can lead to a shift in how we perceive a food” (McGee). In explaining how he himself came to appreciate cilantro, he reports:

[…] I love food, and I ate all kinds of things, and I kept encountering it. My brain must have developed new patterns for cilantro flavor from those experiences, which included pleasure from the other flavors and the sharing with friends and family. That’s how people in cilantro-eating countries experience it every day. (McGee)

In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume writes: “Custom, then, is the great guide to human life” (Hume An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding 178). In other words, as was demonstrated in “Of the Standard of Taste,” we learn only through our recurrent experiences. Thus, only by repeatedly experiencing films that utilize a slow, austere cinematic language will we be able to learn how to appreciate them and, as Dargis writes, “[…] find pleasure in unlocking their meanings” (Dargis).

If a person were to experience a slow, austere film just once in his life, he would not have enough information to create the necessary database pattern in his brain to appreciate such a film on a future encounter. Similarly, according to Gottfried: “[…] if I ate cilantro once and never willingly let it pass my lips again, there wouldn’t have been a chance to reshape that perception” (McGee). From this contemporary example, it is clear that the opinions of Hume and Brillat-Savarin are more applicable to the ways in which food and art are actually experienced than the opinions of Kant and others who try to separate the two experiences using faulty metaphysical presumptions. As Korsmeyer summarizes: “Just as studying different traditions of music sorts unfamiliar janglings into patterns of harmony and rhythm, so acquaintance with other cuisines accustoms one to try, to tolerate, and even to like foods that were once dubious and unfamiliar” (Korsmeyer Making Sense of Taste 90).


Some challenges to the theory outlined above, that taste in food and taste in art are learned and applied in a similar fashion (which allows for the possibility that food can be art), are:

  1. That certain people might be genetically predisposed to be unable to taste certain things (e.g., phenol)
  2. That food allergens, foodborne illnesses, and properties such as toxicity can provide real physical danger to a taster
  3. That food cannot mean anything beyond its nutritive value

Brillat-Savarin addresses the first challenge when he writes:

This circumstance explains how it is that of two guests seated at the same banqueting table, one displays the liveliest pleasure, while the other seems to be eating only under constraint; the reason is that the second guest has a poorly equipped tongue, and that the empire of taste also has its blind and deaf subjects. (Brillat-Savarin 39)

Indeed, the limitations found in certain individuals regarding the sense of taste are no different in regard to the development of a standard of taste within a community (though admittedly of a markedly different quality) than the limitations that can be found in individual senses of sight and hearing.  In other words, that certain people might be deaf or tone deaf does not necessitate the disqualification of music as art; therefore, the fact that certain tastes are not available to every taster should not disqualify food.  Phenol tasters, for example, can develop their own standard of taste in food independent of the standard developed by those who cannot taste phenol.

Of the second challenge, there are definitely potential health hazards and physical dangers in food and the act of ingestion that are probably not present in visual and auditory arts.  Korsmeyer touches on this when she writes:

But tastes of food and drink may be savored for their own presentational qualities regardless of nutritional value (though not regardless of their toxicity, which is a reminder of the greater “bodily” nature of this sense.  One can see appalling things without dying from them.)  The discriminative capacities of tasters may be developed in ways similar to the capacities of eye or ear for the connoisseur of painting or music. (Korsmeyer Making Sense of Taste 107)

Korsmeyer makes it clear that, even though tasters must be conscious of harmful elements such as food allergens, foodborne illnesses, and toxicity, this perceived limitation actually has no bearing on the development of a taster’s “discriminative capacities,” nor on the development of a standard of taste.  Toxic or harmful elements will simply be avoided, just as sounds that humans cannot perceive or that ring too harsh against the eardrum will be avoided in music (though there are exceptions, as we shall see).

Finally, as for the third challenge, Korsmeyer takes up the issue in an essay titled “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting.” In this piece, using the ideas found in Hume, she demonstrates how food can carry meaning beyond its nutritive value. Not only that, she demonstrates how food can even suggest profound ideas, such as death, thus answering the criticism of Jonathan Jones.



The Aesthetic Meanings of Food and How Food Can Suggest Death

Further reading:

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