People With No Taste Shouldn’t Write about Food or Wine

homer simpson One of my favorite pastimes is exposing Roger Scruton’s senseless twaddle about taste, which he deploys in the service of denying the artistry of food and wine. (See here and here for examples) Scruton is one of the more prominent philosophers writing on topics related to food and wine and one wonders, given such prominence, how he can be so persistently and egregiously mistaken about matters any halfway attentive cook could ascertain.

Here he goes again ( available in this anthology) drawing an invidious comparison with sound:

Now it is undeniable that sounds are objects of aesthetic interest, and this in three ways—first as sounds, as when we listen to the sound of a fountain in a garden, second as tones, when we listen to sound organised as music, and third as poetry or prose, when we listen to sound organised semantically. Only the first of those experiences is replicated by smells. For smells cannot be organised as sounds are organised: put them together and they mingle, losing their character. Nor can they be arranged along a dimension, as sounds are arranged by pitch, so as to exemplify the order of between-ness. They remain free-floating and unrelated, unable to generate expectation, tension, harmony, suspension, or release.

Scruton grants that we might appreciate the taste of a tomato just as we might enjoy the sound of a fountain. But these sensory experiences are simple, sensory reactions that are not responsive to organized patterns of sound or taste, and he is right to suggest these are not works of art.

However, his claim that smells cannot be organized because they lose their character when mingled is just false. Quality wines exhibit a variety of aromas that interact and yield an overall impression while preserving their individual characters. In fact, good winemaking is in part about maintaining definition among flavors while increasing complexity. Similarly, fresh tomatoes gently heated in olive oil, garlic and basil give off wondrous complex aromas but each remains distinctly discernable with no loss of character. (unless you overheat the oil and burn the garlic)

The claim that tastes and aromas cannot be arranged along a dimension analogous to musical pitches is equally mistaken. In wine, sequences of dark fruits—blueberry, black cherry, cassis, blackberry, dark plum, raisin, and fig—are easily identifiable. White wines exhibit sequences along a spectrum—green fruit, citrus, stone fruit, and tropical fruits–that indicate ripeness levels and aromatic intensity.

Scruton insists that, unlike flavors or aromas, musical pitches, although quantitative reflecting relative frequency of vibrations, are nevertheless heard as qualitatively distinct along a spectrum of higher and lower. But acid/sugar balance in wine is also perceived along a spectrum from flabby to tart, tannins are perceived along a spectrum of fine-grained to coarse and so on.

Furthermore, flavor balance in sauces (e.g. between sweet and sour), the synergistic effects of paired umami-derived flavors, the tendency of foods that exhibit similar chemical profiles to complement each other, etc. suggest a variety of dimensions along which organized, qualitative distinctions among flavors (tastes and aromas) can be discerned. Granted, much of this has not been as exhaustively worked out as it has been in music theory—we are only beginning to understand the complexity of food and wine. But the claim that these patterns don’t exist is demonstrably false.

Finally, the evolution on the palate of quality wine generates “expectation, tension, harmony, suspension, or release” and so does a well-constructed tasting menu as one might find at a restaurant such as Alinea or the French Laundry. But you don’t have to spend $500 per head to get development in a menu. A traditional Italian meal has these features. Antipasto is designed to create expectation and anticipation, primo, secondo, and contorno must exhibit balance and harmony in order to be enjoyed, and palate cleansers and apéritifs offer release.

These are not hidden qualities of food and wine but are readily apparent to anyone who seeks them out. Given the proper experience, which Scruton has, you must be willfully obtuse not to recognizethem.

But Scruton is nothing if not obtuse.

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