How Food Can Be Art: A Discussion of Taste (Part 7 of 8)

The Aesthetic Meanings of Food and How Food Can Suggest Death

In “Disputing Taste,” Carolyn Korsmeyer writes:

[…] taste is usually considered a rather simple sense that performs only a basic function: to inform the organism whether or not a substance is safe for ingestion. Other than this, taste is often regarded by both philosophers and scientists as a relatively rudimentary sense with limited cognitive significance. Its necessary but restricted instrumental value and its dim epistemic capacity sustain the low rank allotted this sense. (Korsmeyer “Disputing Taste“)

We have already demonstrated how taste can have an epistemic capacity. Now we must show that it can have meaning beyond its instrumental value–that its epistemic qualities can extend beyond flavor properties to ideas like death.

In “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting,” Korsmeyer illustrates how food can carry meaning that can inform an aesthetic experience: “Foods and their tastes may represent and express significance in a distinctly ‘aesthetic’ fashion, and one can elaborate the meanings that foods embody with all manner of examples from the whimsical to the profound by considering Easter eggs, candy canes, birthday cakes, ceremonial meals, and religious rituals” (Korsmeyer “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting” 148). The meanings that are carried by the items mentioned above (which, of course, are learned through experience of them in their proper contexts) indeed show that food, like architecture, for instance, can carry meaning beyond its instrumental value.

True, one can object that the meanings of the foods listed above are conveyed through multiple senses, primarily sight. Of this fact, Korsmeyer states:

To me this is not an indication of a poverty of symbolic possibility for food but an illustration of the unremarkable fact that the experience of eating involves more than one sense.  We have already invited smell into the company of taste, fully considered, and texture as well, which makes use of the sense of touch.  The crunch and slurp of food involves hearing (there are Japanese dishes for which audible slurping is prescribed), and the preparation of a table is carefully attuned to visual pleasure. (Korsmeyer Making Sense of Taste 127-8)

That being said, there are in fact foods whose meanings are conveyed primarily through taste.  Korsmeyer uses the example of the seder plate, which is part of the Jewish Passover ceremony.  She writes of the meanings of the foods on the plate and how those meanings are conveyed through the senses:

The bitter herbs signify bondage and sorrow in Egypt.  This symbolic value does not depend on visual properties; the herbs metaphorically exemplify sorrow by means of their sharp taste.  The small bowl of salt water denotes (and indeed chemically replicates) the tears shed in captivity, and the parsley, indicating the renewal of spring, is dipped in the salt water and eaten.  The charoses symbolizes with its texture the mortar the Jews used in building temples for the Egyptians, and it is eaten in combination with the bitter herbs (which may be horseradish or a sharp-tasting green herb).  (Korsmeyer Making Sense of Taste 138)

Thus, foods can convey meaning beyond their instrumental value through all of the senses, even the bodily senses of taste, smell, and touch.

However, to return to the subject at hand, if the instrumental value of a food’s taste is “to inform the organism whether or not a substance is safe for ingestion,” is it possible to cultivate a taste for unsafe foods–foods that can potentially suggest death? Korsmeyer argues that it is.

To demonstrate the cultivability of “unsafe” taste, Korsmeyer writes:

Consider objects with tastes that offend the senses at first, very hot spices and peppers, which burn, and alcohol, which sickens. All of these substances one can learn to like through practice and maturity (for the tongue and its receptors develop into adulthood), and once these tastes are cultivated, substances without them appear bland. (Korsmeyer “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting” 155)

Clearly, to return to Kant for a moment, a person’s immediate reaction to a taste sensation is not the final word. Brillat-Savarin was correct. There is stage to tasting that allows one to consider the taste beyond the physical act of sensing it. And if one has made an effort to cultivate an aesthetic taste for foods that by nature repel and offend the taster, then this person can potentially consider the taste as delicious. This clearly conforms to Hume’s view as well and explains how different cultures can have such oppositional tastes in both food and art. The beautiful and the delicious truly are in the eye (or the tongue) of the beholder. This also relates to how the aversive art form of the tragedy might have been cultivated in ancient times.

With tragedies in mind, are there foods beyond the merely unpleasant and offensive that can suggest death in perhaps more profound ways? Indeed, Korsmeyer writes of meals that consist of “[…] another animal whose form is still recognizable, not having been chopped and shaped into hamburger or pâté” (Korsmeyer “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting” 154). This type of meal reminds one immediately “[…] that to sustain one’s life takes another” (Korsmeyer “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting” 154).

Taking this a step further, Korsmeyer writes of dish which consists of “[…] a live fish, still gasping on the plate, surrounded with tasteful symbolic decorations that mimicked the look of the bottom of a sandy ocean” (Korsmeyer “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting” 157).

However, there is one dish in particular that suggests death in a way that should even satisfy Jonathan Jones:

Perhaps the most notorious example in this category is fugu, the puffer fish, so poisonous that in Japan, where it is commonly eaten, only a licensed chef who know what organs to remove and how to get rid of the toxins is permitted to prepare it. Yet reportedly, the most sophisticated diner is also the one prepared to risk the most to savor the taste of fugu, for by request enough of the neurotoxin can be left in the fish that the diners’ lips and tongue are slightly numbed, reminding them of the presence of danger and death. (And sometimes overwhelming them, for this is a dangerous meal and every year people die from eating fugu.) (Korsmeyer “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting” 156)

Undoubtedly, this dish suggests death in ways at least equal to (if not greater than) the most terrible and horrifying artworks exhibiting mortality.




Further reading:


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