One obstacle to the study of food and wine aesthetics is the complicating role of social class and moral judgment in explaining food preferences. Is eating caviar a special aesthetic experience or do people consume it because it is rare, expensive, and an indicator of social class?
Jack Goody in “The High and the Low: Culinary Culture in Asia and Europe” from Cooking, Cuisine, and Class, argues that taste has always been associated with social hierarchies.
In ancient China, the wealthy ate the flesh of large animals, used food preservation techniques, while imported foods were a requirement at important banquets. None of this was available to the poor. The wealthy frequented tea-houses while the poor socialized at taverns where often only very simple fare was served. Gender distinctions also came into play. In ceremonial meals among the wealthy, the women ate separately from the men although for everyday meals, the genders were mixed as they were for poorer folks.
Although cookbooks were exclusively written for the wealthy, much commentary about food expressed resentment toward upper class cuisine and moral praise for those who abstained from consuming rich foods—the high life and the good life were viewed as opposed by many as a reaction against such hierarchies.
Ancient India had a similar hierarchical approach to food. Food preferences were bound up with the caste system and with the gender system, according to Goody.
Works like the Bhagavadgita, Kamasutra, Smrtis, and Puranas, lay down what is to be eaten, at what time and by whom. Students, widows and ascetics are advised to avoid exciting foodstuffs just as they had to avoid sex. Moreover the caste system itself is partly defined in terms of the type of food a man is allowed to eat. To move upwards meant changing one’s diet, usually by becoming more vegetarian. In addition there was a straightforward distinction in economic terms: ‘The mass of people lived on simple and nourishing food. The rich however enjoyed dainty dishes’ (Prakash 1961:xxiii…)
A similar distinction between a “court cuisine” and a “peasant cuisine” develops in Arab countries as well, who also have traditions in which the rejection of food was viewed as “one of the paths to holiness and grace”.
And European cuisines, Goody argues, also developed hierarchies although the cuisine of the wealthy was not necessarily sophisticated, except for the achievements of Italy and later the French.
The common denominator is that out of this mix of prohibitions and permissions a discourse about refined high cuisine develops alongside a discourse about how the rejection of food is holy and healthy. The practice of abstinence and a political discourse about the sins of luxury seem to be structural features of these distinctions based on social class.
This history, of course, has its modern expressions in our debates about industrial food policy, health, the local food movement, and sustainability.
The question for aesthetics is whether taste preferences are fully explained by social categories. Is what we taste with our mouths nothing more than a product of what we believe about ourselves and our relations with others. Or are flavor preferences independent variables, resistant to moral considerations and convictions about social norms?
There is ample evidence that what we taste is influenced by our beliefs about what we are eating. On the other hand, tastes change rapidly and are seldom neatly contained within the social and moral boundaries we establish. How would moral conviction or class consciousness explain the rapid shifts in taste that characterize contemporary food cultures?
Perhaps “mouth taste” is more important than Goody’s history suggests.