Chewing on Taste: A Philosophical Reflection

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If you are reading this article, it is quite safe to assume you may be more or less interested in food, and that at some point you may have reflected on how you relate to it, whether you enjoy, fear it, or even abhor it, whether it is a source of gratification or anxiety. Italian philosopher Nicola Perullo's new book, Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetic of Food, tries to provide some elements of reflection to improve - or at least relax - the way we interact with food. In fact, its goal is to "make philosophy with food rather than of food," proposing a "transformational interrogation and not only a descriptive one."
The main topic of the book is not food per se, but rather our experience and what we think of it: that is to say, taste. Although Perullo hints at long-standing debates in the history of philosophy about the topic, his motivation is the present and how we approach food on a daily basis. He points out that "taste becomes a measure for recognizing quality and expressing values: the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad." This approach underlines that taste can be about displaying ones' cultural and social identity as much as judging others' positions. It allows the performance of know-how and expertise or, at the other end of the spectrum, the proud display of one's refusal to engage with gastronomy's high-minded perspective, often suffered as a tool of exclusion and, ultimately, classism.
Food knowledge is not purely theoretical but both embodied ("it originates and develops in and through the body") and negotiated with others in numerous communal settings. From this point of view, "taste should function as an antenna designed to capture meanings and values of different orders, aesthetic, ethical, political, and social." It demands "criteria, values and judgment... shared through socially coded patterns of behavior and a correspondent grammar." Even the aesthetic appreciation of food may require training and education, as wine connoisseurship clearly indicates.
At the same time, Perullo argues, there are other dimensions to the practice of taste. There is an undercurrent aspect that is not so much about competence and analysis, but rather the domain of what the author calls "naked pleasure" (as opposed to the "dressed taste" of knowledge) and individual preference, free from rational fetters. In other occurrences, food can merely provide nourishment: in those cases, we may be more or less indifferent to what we eat and what it tastes likes, attuned rather to our own hunger, the company, or myriad other internal and external factors. This "suspension of taste," the author underlines, is not negative per se. It rather provides a baseline for other experiences.
These different manifestations of taste point to the need to consider it as a flexible, contextual tool that depends on the environment and the situations in which it is employed. Perullo describes it as a "systemically holistic' and a "multimodal ecological device." In layman's terms, it's up to us to understand when it's best to use one or the other dimension of taste. For Perullo, being able to do this is to achieve "gustative wisdom:" we can't always be just looking for unbridled enjoyment, nor constantly acting as supercilious critics, and even less continuously being distracted about what we eat. We are invited to learn to live fully in all three dimensions, making ourselves open to the outside world. After all, what we ingest does become part of us.
By exploring the different aspects of taste, the author tries to distance himself from the kind of foodie culture that emphasizes food in pure hedonistic terms and pushes aside social or political issues connected to it. After all, Perullo has been teaching for years at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Bra, Italy, an institution founded by the international association Slow Food, whose activities strives toward "good, clean, and fair" food for everyone. The book is engaging and packed with stimulating thoughts and tidbits to chew on (pun intended, of course). It does require attention due both to language and content. It has been beautifully translated from the Italian original, which is not an easy achievement. As English and Italian diverge in the way they structure sentences and build arguments, their differences can lay innumerable traps in rendering a philosophical text. Even when the theme is food.