A Philosophy of Food
Distributed for Reaktion Books
A Philosophy of Food
When we eat, we eat the world: taking something from outside and making it part of us. But what does it taste of? And can we develop our taste? In Taste, Sarah Worth argues that taste is a sense that needs educating, for the real pleasures of eating only come with an understanding of what one really likes. From taste as an abstract concept to real examples of food, she explores how we can learn about and develop our sense of taste through themes ranging from pleasure, authenticity, and food fraud, to visual images, recipes, and food writing.
"One of the most unusual books and perhaps one of the most relevant to CHC that I have reviewed here. Exploring our relationship to food and taste from a philosophical perspective, author Worth interweaves the history of philosophical concepts and ethics with the history of food, industrialization and recipe development (to name just a few). . . . If you enjoy philosophy and food, you will love this book. If you don’t, you will probably still enjoy it, thanks to Worth’s eloquent writing style and her unique ability to keep you engaged with every word. A must-read."
Digestible Bits and Bites
“This book takes you on a rich and unexpected journey through the sense of taste. Rather than focusing on taste as the sensation we feel in our mouth, this book is instead a generous, detailed account of our tastes and preferences as we understand them, flavored through the author's prose.”
Carlo Petrini, author and founder of the International Slow Food Movement
“In this engaging book, Worth presents a set of reflections on food, cooking, and taste that will interest both philosophers and general readers. Her pleasant, clear style introduces philosophical theories and the history of cooking with equal ease, covering the nature of recipes, questions of authenticity and food preparation, taste pleasures, and the complexities of sense experience—all inviting rumination on the familiar saying, ‘We are what we eat.’”
Carolyn Korsmeyer, professor of philosophy, University of Buffalo, author of "Making Sense of Taste" and "Savoring Disgust "
“Western philosophy has shown remarkably little interest in the ‘lower’ sense of taste, despite its importance in everyday life. Taste seeks to remedy that mistake: it examines present ‘moments’ in our relationships to food by contextualizing them within the history of philosophy. Taste invites us to recognize how profound and important are the matters of taste and tasting, in all their senses.”
Lisa Heldke, professor of philosophy, Gustavus Adolphus College, coauthor of "Philosophers at Table: On Food and Being Human"
Metaphors are so firmly ingrained into our language that we often hardly even know we are using them. In fact, it is hard to describe anything without using metaphorical language. ‘The world is my oyster’ is not about living in an oyster, or even eating oysters, but about having everything one wants. ‘I’m on top of the world’ might mean you have ascended a hill or a mountain, or it might just be the feeling of having done so. ‘You have such good taste’ is a compliment that has nothing to do with how well you taste food, but rather how well you decorate your house, dress yourself, or even which things you like in a shop. Understanding metaphorical expressions is one of the most difficult things about learning a new language, since metaphorical phrases often do not translate well from language to language. They tend to make little sense when translated literally. Metaphorical phrases take on their own meanings.
This is what has happened in the case of taste. Having good taste is the metaphorical description of having gustatory taste. But this particular metaphor is difficult to translate directly, since being able to detect differences in food and drink is not at all the same as having good taste in art, culture or design. It is even more confusing considering that not only has good taste (preferences) taken on its own meaning, but the language often does not even refer back to the original meaning of having to do with gustatory taste. Perhaps, however, it is a clear metaphor if we assume that ‘good taste’ is really about having a particular kind of pleasurable response resulting from a certain kind of understanding or knowledge of what you are tasting or looking at. Understanding what we mean by taste seems a necessary first step.
What exactly does it mean to taste? Ironically, the etymology of the word taste goes back to ‘the senses relating to touch’. This includes probing, testing and examining, and this is where we get the notion that ‘a taste’ is to have just a little bit of something. Although taste cannot happen without touch, it is no longer the first thing we think of when we consider any of the meanings of taste. The literal (gustatory) sense of ‘taste’ refers to the way the tongue perceives the flavours of food and drink. But in the aesthetic sense of ‘taste’ – where we are thought to have good taste or bad taste – the distance of vision is built into the notion. That is, having good aesthetic taste is the ability to reflect on, and understand cognitively, what aspects of a work of art are executed successfully and, by being able to articulate those, to then determine what is good and what is less good, and why. Aesthetic taste suggests that we can contemplate from a distance some work of art or music and make a good judgement. Only the cognitive senses (vision and hearing) allow for that sort of contemplation, whereas taste, touch and smell require direct bodily engagement in order for sensations to arrive.
The notion of taste includes a number of seemingly incongruent features. We taste flavours with the tongue; taste involves both smell and touch (and temperature); we can taste-test a small amount; and we have preferences or ‘a taste for’ various things, including the arts, foods or activities. Having aesthetic taste (welldeveloped preferences) ends up as a metaphor for gustatory taste, but it is not at all a clear parallel or mere descriptor for tasting what we eat. When we taste with the tongue, we have a direct sensory perception. When we have taste we have no direct perception, but we are able to make evaluative judgements about things that are in the cultural realm around us, including art, music, fashion, design or style. Gustatory taste is in the mouth; aesthetic taste is in the mind. Unfortunately this means that the metaphor is a tough one to interpret, since having good taste, in food or art, seems as though it should at least reside either in the senses or in the mind. But we talk about having good taste, or the right kinds of preferences, with both food and culture.
Accounting for Taste
The Latin phrase de gustibus non est disputandum, or its more common English translation, ‘there is no disputing about taste’, usually comes up in discussions where people can’t agree and so revert to simple relativism: ‘I like what I like, and you like what you like. End of discussion.’ But what could be more subjective than what people like in food? It seems wrong to me to think that the only two ways of resolving such discussions are either absolutism or relativism. In fact, it does not seem possible that anyone really believes this: people regularly give reasons for thinking their favourite movie is the best, that their favourite restaurant is the best or that some particular painting is worth spending the time and effort to go and see. People spend time discussing the ways in which they are justified in thinking that their preferences are warranted. Roger Scruton argues that matters of taste are what people most like to argue about. For him, ‘Reasons are given, relations established, the ideas of right and wrong, correct and incorrect, are bandied around with no suspicion that they might be inappropriate.’ We do this when we discuss films and their questionable merits, the plots of book or even our favourite sports teams. Yet there has to be some sort of meaningful position in between the extremes of relativism and absolutism, since in these discussions we regularly outline either latent or explicit criteria by which we judge. The absolutist would say that there are better and worse wines, or paintings or stories, and that there are qualities that can be specifically pointed out that make them superior. They might say that there are objectively better things. The relativist would say, I like what I like, and I cannot be wrong about what I like. For instance, I love artichokes and I dislike beetroot. No one can convince me to like beetroot. I understand that other people like beetroot, but learning more about it cannot convince me that it will taste good, and I will not be persuaded by a new way of preparing it.
The first problem with this kind of reasoning is that we are conflating the ideas of something being good and someone liking it. I can recognize that something might be good, or even brilliant, and still not like it. My disliking it does not make it bad; it might just not be my preference, or to my taste. This is a distinction between what is in the object, and my preferences about the object. Second, there are qualities or properties of food or art in them. Red wine, for instance, has the quality red, and that is in the wine. My perception of it does not change the fact that it is red. If I am colour-blind, the wine is still red. There is also something that wine is like, and that is different from what it is like for me. This is the difference between the objective and the subjective relationships we have with wine. When I taste something wonderful, I might suggest that you must try it because there is something in the food that I want you to taste, and not because I think you will have the exact same experience that I had. I hope you will have the same experience I had, but no two palates are exactly alike. Palates are trained by experience, time, culture and genetics and we do not all like food in exactly the same way. Some people like spicy foods; some cannot tolerate them. Some like cilantro (coriander) and for some it tastes like soap (this is a genetic aversion that is linked closely to its smell). So another important distinction is that between properties in food and the experiences that we have individually. This same distinction works just as well with art objects such as paintings (there are properties of the work, and experiences of those properties). It is easier to say that this is less subjective, however, since two people can look at the exact same painting and have two experiences. When we eat, we cannot share the exact same bite.